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extensive reading
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Currently viewing the tag: "extensive reading"

I read over 1200 pages for the tadoku contest this last month! Not bad for the mama of an 18-month old, especially considering I just started a new job. It’s thanks to the hundreds of hours my husband and I put in establishing the concept of “bedtime” and “naptime” by rocking the baby to sleep. At 18 months, he goes to bed at 7 and wakes up at 7, and he usually has a nap in the morning and a nap, or at least a quiet play time, in the afternoon. This gives me time to read, do housework, work or do nothing much at all. (It may be hard for those of you who haven’t gone through feeding a baby every two-three hours for months to understand how mind-blowingly awesome this is.)

I started translating for Cookpad at the beginning of this month! Cookpad is the largest Japanese recipe site, and they just started an English version. In practice, I proofread and edit other people’s translated recipes more than I translate myself, both because I think that I do a good job with that, and because I’m a slow translator. (Well, it’s not so much that; it’s more that I get caught up on maybe one or two things that confuse me or get distracted by something interesting in the recipe. Since I’m paid by the recipe, these side trips are costly.) So that, of course, has affected my tadoku time, but it’s also made me excited about improving my Japanese.

The tadoku summary:
1) I read the new articles on NHK’s News Web Easy every weekday morning while I had breakfast. I had started doing this shortly before tadoku started up, actually. I’m at the point where they’re well within my fluent reading level, and they’ve been awesome for reinforcing vocabulary I only encounter a little bit in books. I’d like to branch out, but the other news sites for kids I’ve seen seem more like regular news with furigana added, and I’m not quite there yet.

2) I watched a lot of drama. I use an app called J-Drama Master to download Japanese drama to my iPad, and then I watch it while I’m at the gym. Not all of the offerings have subtitles, but plenty of them do. I’m pretty lousy at understanding spoken Japanese without subtitles, but during Tadoku time I can pretend it’s reading practice! I ended up watching a lot of different shows, but I’m particularly taken with ごちそうさん.
3) I took a tentative step into the world of manga. I’m actually kind of intimidated by manga, because there’s so many to choose from that I don’t know which I’d actually like (I’m pretty picky), the ones I do want to read are still too hard, I have a hard time figuring out who’s talking sometimes, I can’t deal with the teeny tiny handwritten notes and all the sound effects, and I often feel like I’m missing something, like when sentences are left unfinished, people are being vague and so on. Ciao, a manga magazine for young girls, has the first chapter of its stories available on its webpage, so I did a sort of… manga boot camp? My findings are that the ultimate Ciao manga setup involves dogs, a heroine with a cute name, handsome boys, super-elite schools and transfer students. Mix those five things together and you’ve got a hit! Anyways, I read 29 of the first chapters available on the Ciao homepage. I can’t say I liked any particular one of them enough to actually go buy the collected books, but I enjoyed the feel of reading a phonebook manga, if that makes any sense. It’s annoying reading them on the computer, though, the characters are too small and I can’t read the furigana half the time.

4) I read a bunch of books. I actually have a big backlog of books from when I was studying and ordering books, before I got pregnant, so I read through a fair amount of those. I’m amazed at how some books that were pretty hard for me when I started tadoku have become much easier to read. I haven’t been the most diligent learner — now that’s an understatement, considering I completely abandoned Japanese studying when I got pregnant — and I sure haven’t done much to study besides read.

5) I played one game, a GBA game called “Sparkling Nurse Story” ピカピカナース物語 which was kind of like a simulation game, where you take care of patients, do mini-games and make choices in how you interact with people. I got the worst ending because I wasn’t able to raise one stat, and when I went online to look for a walkthrough or something, the first hit was a blog post basically saying “It’s impossible to raise that stat!” After some digging, I found a post saying that you have to force the minigames to appear more often by getting the patients almost well, then leaving and coming back another day. I didn’t have the patience to try again, but hey, maybe someone else will play this sometime!

Before the next round of tadoku in January, I want to get my Japanese books sorted out. Once upon a time, I had all of our books in some semblance of order, and it was great, but then we moved, then we moved, then we moved, then we moved cross-country, then we moved to our current house and now I’ve got Japanese books upstairs, in the living room, in the bedroom, in my study… My goal is to get them all together, read the ones that have become easy for me and then, by tadoku time, challenge myself with some books I’ve wanted to read for a while. See you all then, tadokists :)

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This baby ate my brain.
Liana holding Milo in front of the Christmas tree.
Yeah, this one. If you have any maternal or paternal instincts I imagine you’re thinking “No wonder she went off the rails! That looks like a high-maintenance little cutie pie.” And if you don’t, perhaps you’re thinking “Yep, that sure is another new human all right. So, about that tadoku?”

About that tadoku.

I found out I was pregnant on a weekend trip to Seattle. I had taken a couple of my favorite Zorori books with me and I still haven’t finished them. It was my first pregnancy and not only did it take a lot out of me it required a lot of reading in English as I educated myself on what form of fruit the fetus might be compared to each week, exactly what pain management options were available during childbirth and how I would be keeping the resulting infant alive afterwards. I’ve been lucky, as my pregnancy, birth experience and time with the baby have all been smooth and altogether the happiest time of my life. It’s only since the end of December, though, that I’ve been regularly getting a full night’s sleep.

Somehow that sleep is the difference between a Liana who has vague ideas of doing things someday, perhaps when I’m in the nursing home, and a Liana who might actually get some reading done. I feel like myself again for the first time since I started this adventure! It’s not that I have had no free time, it’s more that, you know how you get in a flow state where it’s like everything is coming together and you’re concentrating and learning and having fun? Being on call with this little guy constantly creates the opposite state of mind.

When I started extensive reading, my goal was to read a million words, and I estimate I got to 370,000 or so. I felt like I was somewhere between a second and fourth grade reading level, and I’d started tackling a few more difficult books. I don’t feel like I can pick up where I was immediately, so I was thinking I’d try a warmup with some picture books from Ehon Navi. When I first wrote about them there were maybe 350 books available, and now there’s 813! There are probably libraries in Japan that don’t have 813 picture books. It’s an astonishing resource, and I’d like to use it to warm up and make it a little more accessible to beginning readers at the same time. Before, I wasn’t able to read them because of their system requirements, but now it seems that Firefox on the Mac will let me. (There is also a file floating around with screenshots of some of the books. Out of respect for the awesomeness of the website it only seems fair to me to read them online if I can, but if anyone else is having problems…)

I’m feeling ambitious now that I’m caught up on sleep, and there’s so many other things I want to do, but for now I’m going to try reading and writing about some of these Ehon Navi books. Long-term, I’d like to change the whole format of my site, I don’t think it’s very easy to sort out information with the way it is now. But in the short term I’ll settle for reading a couple of picture books!

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Graded readers are books written for adults or children learning a second language. Each series is split into a number of levels and the vocabulary and sentence structures used at each level are standardized, so that readers can find a level at which it’s comfortable to read. Although their language is simpler than that used in authentic material, the subjects are designed to hold the interest of older learners. There are thousands of them written for people learning English as a second or foreign language, such as the Cambridge English Readers and Penguin Readers, and many Japanese people doing extensive reading in English start out with them. At the moment, however, there’s only one series of graded readers for learners of Japanese that I’m aware of: the よむよむ文庫 レベル別日本語多読ライブラリー (Reading Collection: Graded Japanese Extensive Reading Library) series, created by the 日本多読研究会 (Japanese Graded Readers Research Group).

If you look at the information for each level, you’ll get an idea of who these might appeal to most:

Each volume includes a CD which has recordings of all of the stories it contains; those recordings are very well done, and great for listening to as you read along, using for shadowing or putting on your mp3 player and listening to them while you do dishes. There’s no English whatsoever in any of the stories, nor are there any sort of comprehension questions, activities or glossaries. Each reader includes the golden rules of tadoku — that is, starting from an easy level, not looking up words while reading, skipping over parts you don’t understand and getting another book if you’re not enjoying the one you’re reading. If this was your first introduction to extensive reading and you skipped straight to the stories, you might not even realize that those guidelines existed. (Pictures might have been helpful here.)

There are various places to buy these – Kinokuniya, YesAsia, off of the American Amazon or the Japanese one and so on, but so far, for someone outside Japan, at the moment they are consistently cheapest at White Rabbit Press. At the time I write this, they are $28.88 each, and shipping is based on the weight, your location and the delivery method you choose; you can’t estimate shipping until you check out, but for a volume shipped to me here in Washington State, standard shipping (2-4 weeks) is about $7-$9, expedited shipping (1 week) is $12-$14 and express mail service (3-5 days) is $26-$29. There are too many variables to know exactly how much you might pay for each one, but I am going to make my calculations based from the idea that each volume costs about $37 from White Rabbit Press with the cheapest shipping.

Three notes before I go on:

  • White Rabbit Press has some sort of affiliate system, but I’m not part of it. If there’s a cheaper way to buy these, I’ll happily recommend it instead.
  • You can buy them used from Amazon at times, but at the moment not all of them are available used, and at the moment even the used ones are more expensive than they are at White Rabbit Express. Still, you may as well check there before you buy elsewhere. (You also might be able to get them used from other learners: I have Lan’dorien to thank for most of mine!)
  • If anyone finds a cheaper way to buy them, or if any other places to buy them periodically have sales which would make them cheaper, by all means let me know!

So the question is: if you have a spare $37, is it better to buy one of these or to try to find a couple of authentic books at the same level?

The main advantage that graded readers have over authentic material is that they’re able to introduce the idea of extensive reading and the skills, gains in confidence and pleasure that come with it even to beginners. If you treated these readers like vocabulary lists you’d be missing the point, because their purpose is to help you learn two things: how to read quickly and automatically, and how to understand unknown words from context using the information that you already have. These are skills that are probably easier to learn with graded readers than they are with more unpredictable authentic material. Because they’re presented in a controlled way, there shouldn’t be many words or parts you don’t understand, making it easier to read quickly and to learn how to isolate and make guesses about unknown material.

They also get you used to the feeling of reading at your fluent reading level and give you the experience of being able to successfully finish and completely comprehend stories in Japanese. They also take out some of the guesswork in picking out appropriate books; even among picture books, some are quite easy, most are in a sort of general range and some of them are surprisingly difficult. If you’re a beginning reader you may not be able to tell the difference immediately, meaning that you may have a frustrating experience with a deceptively easy-looking book through no fault of your own. If you can read one level 1 graded reader, on the other hand, you should theoretically be able to read all of them. For learners who are less confident in their Japanese skills, or can’t stand not being able to understand what they’re reading, these may also be particularly helpful.

By design, they don’t last too long: after all, you’re supposed to read them at a level that feels easy for you, and if you’re not able to read them reasonably quickly, it’s a sign you’re trying to read at too high of a level. So even though the stories don’t cost too much individually, it may seem like a high expense for something that feels so fleeting, and they are only a sliver of what you would need if you wanted to pursue extensive reading as a primary learning strategy. For that reason, I think that they would be great as supplements to Japanese courses of any level or as an addition to a library’s collection, because that would make them available to more people and lessen the individual student’s financial burden. As a matter of fact, I would think that if they’re not being marketed directly to Japanese teachers they should be.

For individual students, whether or not they’re worth the expense probably depends on where you are in your studies. The short answer is that I think they could be useful for beginning to intermediate learners, as advertised, but they would be best for true beginners and people who are at the point where they could take levels 5-3 of the the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (by the new system – 4 and 3 by the old system).

If I was starting Japanese from the beginning, I would buy at least the level 0, 1 and 2 volumes, because it would be great to get some of the benefits of extensive reading that early on. At the lower levels, these graded readers are far superior to authentic material, because equivalent authentic material doesn’t exist: specialized childish vocabulary and writing styles make real Japanese children’s books less useful for beginners than they might seem, so you would have to study longer to actually read them at all fluently and not get all that much out of them, whereas these graded readers you can fully understand very early on. God knows I’ve spent more money on much less useful books, and spread out over a couple years of studying, the cost wouldn’t be so bad.

If you’ve studied for a while and would like to try tadoku, the level 2-3 volumes (possibly level 1 or level 4 depending on your ability) might be a good, low-stress place to start, but if you’re already able to read books that are level 2 by the system I use (that is, picture books), and you have a good supply of those books available to you – then maybe, maybe not. I think they generally would be useful, but you do have to consider the expense. (And, when making this calculation, keep in mind that there are a lot of things to read for free online.) Again, I think that the main value of these graded readers is that they help make you confident about reading and teach you the skills needed to read quickly. In that sense they’ll be more fun and generally provide a better experience than a lot of other things you could read, as authentic books can be pretty erratic in terms of difficulty and how interesting their content is.

If you’re studying for JLPT level 2 or have at least a first grade reading level (that is, around level 3 by the system I use) and have access to appropriate authentic material, I’d have to say that the higher-level readers might be fun and useful but wouldn’t be as valuable to you as the lower-level readers would be to beginning students; I think at this point you’d generally be better off with real books. The disadvantage is that the real material you would be using would be at a lower level with less kanji and less adult subject material, but an advanced reader might blow through even the level 4 readers and then find that authentic books that looked the same at the first glance are actually still above their fluent reading level, because those books use so much more vocabulary. Again, though, if you don’t have the skills needed for understanding words through context by this point, the graded readers might be a better way to practice those than authentic material. I think I’m about at a point where I would be lucky to pass JLPT 2, and at the time I bought these I already had practice reading and understanding things through context; although I’m glad I was able to read them, I would not have bought these for myself. (I bought them because I’m going to try to start an extensive reading group and because I wanted to review them for my blog, and I bought as many as I did because I got them used.)

Review of よむよむ文庫 レベル別日本語多読ライブラリー レベル 0 (Reading Collection: Graded Japanese Extensive Reading Library Level 0)
Volume 1: 90 pages, 535 words (est.)
Volume 2: 89 pages, 630 words (est.)

Click here for my introduction to the よむよむ文庫 series and information about graded readers.

Level 0, 入門 (Introduction): These require a vocabulary of 350 words and knowledge of the most basic structures such as the present and past tenses and asking questions. They are at most 400 characters long; around 100 words by my system. They’re designed for true beginners.

The first volume has six stories, each of which are fifteen pages long, for a total of around 535 words by my system, or an average of 90 words each. The second volume also has six volumes, which are all fifteen pages long except for one which is fourteen pages, and has a total of 630 words, or an average of 105 words in each story. So, again, assuming you buy one volume for $37, each story is a little over $6. (That’s assuming you get them from White Rabbit Press; see my introduction for more.) All of the volumes come with a CD, so you can listen along to all of the stories.

As books designed for non-native speakers, these graded readers automatically fall outside of the classification system I use for authentic material, but in spirit these Level 0 stories are closest to level 1 books, which are the most basic books available. However, for an adult learner, they’re much better than authentic basic books because they’re designed to be useful. That is, I find that well-written level 2 books can be pretty fun, with good fairytales and illustrations and so on, but level 1 books are usually so babyish that they’re a trial even for someone like me, and I’ve only read a couple that felt like they could be worth the time of an adult student. Furthermore, they’re not particularly any better for a beginning student because even though they look easy, they tie together a lot of Japanese language knowledge that Japanese kids have been exposed to from birth, but people just starting to learn the language probably don’t know yet. For example, they draw on a specialized vocabulary: lots of childish words, sound words and words that are basic, but not at all the kinds of words that beginning adult students learn. They also use grammatical structures well above what a beginning learner probably knows, dropped particles and overly conversational styles, and less formal patterns for structures a learner might already know in another guise. For example, a beginning learner might know how to ask for things with お願いします and ください, but not ちょうだい, which is the one you’re more likely to see in a kid’s book. A beginner could still perhaps puzzle out the meanings, but for tadoku, the ideal is to be able to read fluently and understand most if not all of what you’re reading quickly, without translating back into your native language. Also, there’s no kanji (which, admittedly, is a problem with authentic material that continues until you’re at about a 3rd or 4th grade reading level), even words that are usually written in katakana are often written in hiragana (which is just plain annoying) and of course the content of a book written for a 2-year old is not precisely the kind of stuff most adults would pick up for fun.

On the other hand, these most basic graded readers use a tiny amount of words and just a few grammar structures, so theoretically it wouldn’t be too long before a complete beginner was able to read these. Most importantly, their content is much more bearable for adult readers: some of the stories feel quite sophisticated despite the controlled vocabulary, and you could re-read them a couple of times without getting bored. I thought they would feel like extensions of a textbook but they didn’t feel dry to me, even as short as they are, and they conveyed some useful cultural information in a fun, accessible way. Also, they use kanji right off the bat, even ones like 靴 (shoe). That’s technically a JLPT 2 kanji, but it’s one you see in real life and there’s no downside to connecting it to くつ right from the beginning. (I don’t think there’s a need for a katakana gloss even at this level, though. Correct me if I’m wrong, but don’t most Japanese learners learn katakana right from the start?)

These readers capture the good parts of level 1 books, which would be the difficulty level, use of repetition to help the reader understand or retain information and ample pictures, but they do it in a way that works for adult readers. In my experience so far, there really is no equivalent authentic material out there, so graded readers at this level would be best for true beginners interested in adding tadoku to their studies.

You can see and hear one page from seven different stories at this level online, so you can tell before ordering if they’d be at an appropriate level for you. There is also a full sample of a Level 1 story available on the Japanese Graded Readers Research Group’s website: 船 (The Boat). So if you try it and it seems too overwhelming or difficult, then go with level 0. There are two volumes of level 0 graded readers: Level 0, Volume 1 and Level 0, Volume 2. (I’m not associated with White Rabbit Press; they just have the cheapest price for these graded readers at the moment.)

As I first encountered these as an intermediate learner after doing extensive reading for a few months, I don’t have any personal experience as to what it would be like to use them as a beginner or without experience with extensive reading, although I can make an educated guess based on my own experiences with learning the language and extensive reading and on watching other people read some of them. So if you’ve used them, please leave a comment! I’d love to hear about your experience – did you think they were useful? worth the money? fun? about the right difficulty level?

Review of よむよむ文庫 レベル別日本語多読ライブラリー レベル 1 (Reading Collection: Graded Japanese Extensive Reading Library Level 1)
Total: 109 pages, 1,680 words (est.)

Click here for my introduction to the よむよむ文庫 series and information about graded readers.

Level 1, 初級前半 (First half of the beginner level): These draw on the same vocabulary list and grammar forms as level 0 readers, but are up to three times longer; they go from 400-1,500 characters per story (around 100 words to 550 words). They’re suitable for people studying for the old JLPT level 4 (new level 5). There are three volumes of these, with five stories each.

In this series, the only difference between a Level 1 reader and a Level 0 reader is the length: they draw on the same vocabulary pool and grammar structures, but while Level 0 readers have around 400 characters per story, Level 1 readers have between 400 and 1500 characters. So while the stories themselves are just a few pages longer (between 21-23 pages), all in all there’s almost three times as much content in a Level 1 volume as there is in a Level 0 volume, and as always, there’s a CD that comes with each volume.

There’s five stories (meaning they’d be about $7.40 each, assuming you get them from White Rabbit Press; see my introduction for more), and each story gets progressively longer: the first one, 女の子 (The Girl), has about 130 words, and the last one, 笑い話 (Funny Stories), has about 550 words. (It’s split into smaller stories, so even though it’s the longest, it shouldn’t be too intimidating.) The Level 0 graded readers felt like authentic Level 1 books, albeit ones for adults, but these Level 1 graded readers start to feel like extremely easy picture books, which are level 2 by the system I use. (Apologies for confusion caused by the crossover between the system I use and these graded readers.) The thing about authentic picture books, though, is that there’s a wide range of difficulty: some level 2 books are what I consider low-level picture books, like the Usako-chan books, which these Level 1 graded readers are just beginning to approach. Most picture books are at a moderate level, and then some are harder than you would expect them to be just from the format, because they consistently use harder words, or perhaps because the target audience isn’t really children. So for a beginner even picture books can be frustrating if you don’t choose them well, and that may be hard to do if you’re just starting to read them and don’t really have the reading skill to be able to evaluate them, or you don’t have a lot of books to select from; this graded reader collection bypasses that problem.

I generally enjoyed these on their own merits; there were stories like ハチの話 (Hachi’s Story), 浦島太郎 (Urashima Tarō) and 笑い話 (Funny Stories) that weren’t just easy to read and amusing, but also draw on stories that are common knowledge in Japan. As with the Level 0 graded readers, I feel that authentic books at a comparable level of difficulty and sophistication don’t really exist.

Again, there are pages from four of the books online, so you can see if this would be the right level for you, and again there’s a CD that comes with each volume. There is also a full sample of a Level 1 story available on the Japanese Graded Readers Research Group’s website: 船 (The Boat). There are three volumes of level 1 graded readers: Level 1, Volume 1, Level 1, Volume 2 and Level 1, Volume 3. (I’m not associated with White Rabbit Press; they just have the cheapest price for these graded readers at the moment.)

As I first encountered these as an intermediate learner after doing extensive reading for a few months, I don’t have any personal experience as to what it would be like to use them as a beginner or without experience with extensive reading, although I can make an educated guess based on my own experiences with learning the language and extensive reading and on watching other people read some of them. So if you’ve used them, please leave a comment! I’d love to hear about your experience – did you think they were useful? worth the money? fun? about the right difficulty level?

Review of よむよむ文庫 レベル別日本語多読ライブラリー レベル 2 (Reading Collection: Graded Japanese Extensive Reading Library Level 2)
Total: 111 pages, 3,190 words (est.)

Click here for my introduction to the よむよむ文庫 series and information about graded readers.

Level 2, 初級後半 (Second half of the beginner level): The amount of words used jumps to 500, more grammar structures are introduced and the number of characters per reader goes from 1,500-2,500 (450-800 words). They’re suitable for people studying for the old JLPT levels 4 and 3 (new levels 5 and 4). There are three volumes of these, with five stories each.

Due to the wider variety of grammatical structures, these Level 2 graded readers start to feel more like authentic picture books, albeit very easy ones with more advanced stories than you might find in picture books of comparable difficulty. There’s five stories in all, and again, although they’re the same length in terms of pages, their word count gets progressively longer, from 絵姿奥さん (The Wife’s Picture), which is 450 words, to 一休さん (Ikkyū-san) which is 800 words. The full set has about the same number of pages as Level 1, Volume 1, but about twice the number of words. There are five 22 or 23 page stories in this volume, so, as with level 1, each story works out to about $7.40. (That’s assuming you get them from White Rabbit Press; see my introduction for more.)

These, especially the last two stories, felt more like actual books that Japanese kids might read, but they’re simplified in a way that didn’t feel condescending and still made good use of illustrations to aid comprehension. For example, in 絵姿奥さん, there’s a line about how the man hangs his wife’s picture on a branch, and although there’s already an illustration of something else on the page, they add a little picture of the action. There’s enough context there that a reader who didn’t know 枝 could guess that it means “branch,” but if that guess is then put together with the picture, then the connection between 枝 and “branch” is solidified. They also make use of words that were introduced and repeated in previous volumes. In one of the level 0 books, お茶碗 (rice bowl or teacup) is introduced by illustrations of the characters literally shoving an お茶碗 in the readers’ face five times, so I couldn’t help but smile whenever I saw it appear in a later book.

As with the others, there are one-page samples from four of the stories online, as well as a CD that comes with each volume. There is also a full sample of a Level 1 story available on the Japanese Graded Readers Research Group’s website: 船 (The Boat). So if you read that and it seems extremely easy, go with level 2. There are three volumes of level 2 graded readers available: Level 2, Volume 1, Level 2, Volume 2 and Level 2, Volume 3. (I’m not associated with White Rabbit Press; they just have the cheapest price for these graded readers at the moment.)

As I first encountered these as an intermediate learner after doing extensive reading for a few months, I don’t have any personal experience as to what it would be like to use them as a beginner or without experience with extensive reading, although I can make an educated guess based on my own experiences with learning the language and extensive reading and on watching other people read some of them. So if you’ve used them, please leave a comment! I’d love to hear about your experience – did you think they were useful? worth the money? fun? about the right difficulty level?

Review of よむよむ文庫 レベル別日本語多読ライブラリー レベル 3 (Reading Collection: Graded Japanese Extensive Reading Library Level 3)
Total: 149 pages, 7,200 words (est.)

Click here for my introduction to the よむよむ文庫 series and information about graded readers.

Level 3, 初中級 (Lower intermediate level): For these, an 800-word vocabulary is required, even more grammar structures come into play and the number of characters per reader goes from 2,500-5,000 (1,200-2,000 words). They’re suitable for people studying for the old JLPT level 3 (probably equivalent to new levels 4 and 3). There are three volumes of these, with five stories each.

There are five stories in this volume (so again, each one works out to about $7.40,assuming you get them from White Rabbit Press; see my introduction for more) with 29-31 pages each, and they go from about 1,200 words to about 2,000 words each for a total of about 7,200 words, meaning that this volume has more than twice the content as Level 2, Volume 1. Although the stories are still simplified, heavily supported by pictures and make a point of defining words that readers might not know, they start to feel like real material around this point; there’s no question that the short stories are abridged, but the version of かぐやひめ (Kaguya-hime) at this level is not so very different from an authentic, low level 3 version of the same story that I own. The real one has many compound verbs (that is, words like だきかかえる (to carry something in one’s arms), a combination of だく(to hold in one’s arms or to embrace) and かかえる(to hold or carry under one’s arm)), as well as slightly more varied vocabulary, natural dialogue and complex sentences, but otherwise it feels about the same.

My guess is that if you had been developing your confidence, reading speed and ability to figure words out from context with the material at this level, possibly supported by the previous levels, you should be able to start reading authentic picture books at this point without too much trouble. It would probably feel like a huge comedown in terms of complexity and content, but that would be balanced by the thrill of reading real Japanese books, and ideally the experience you’d gained through the graded readers would help you progress to more difficult, interesting material more quickly than if you had started with whatever random picture books you had at hand.

One thing I particularly like about this set is that there are a couple of abridged stories by famous Japanese authors: 注文の多い料理店 (The Restaurant of Many Orders) by Kenji Miyazawa and two short stories by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, 鼻 (The Nose) and 蜘蛛の糸 (The Spider’s Thread). I bet there’s a lot of overlap between people interested in the Japanese language and people interested in the literature, but it can be frustrating to study and study, then realize that you won’t actually be reading that literature for a long time — or that you can do it if you’re willing to look up every third word and spend an hour trying to understand the meaning of a single sentence. So even though these stories are abridged, I think that being able to read them at this level is motivating. (It does remind me of the Gatsby graded reader debate, but that’s a post for another day.)

This is also where 一生懸命 (to do something with all your effort) starts to show up, which shows that the creators really did their homework: it’s the single most common 四字熟語 (four-character idiom) in authentic books at this level, so I was glad to see it reinforced not just once or twice, but as part of every story.

As before, there are one-page samples from four of the stories online, as well as a CD that comes with each volume. There are three level 3 volumes available: Level 3, Volume 1, Level 3, Volume 2 and Level 3, Volume 3. (I’m not associated with White Rabbit Press; they just have the cheapest price for these graded readers at the moment.)

As I first encountered these as an intermediate learner after doing extensive reading for a few months, I don’t have any personal experience as to what it would be like to use them as a beginner or without experience with extensive reading, although I can make an educated guess based on my own experiences with learning the language and extensive reading and on watching other people read some of them. So if you’ve used them, please leave a comment! I’d love to hear about your experience – did you think they were useful? worth the money? fun? about the right difficulty level?

I learned the basic principles of extensive reading (tadoku) from some of my Japanese friends who had been following this method for several years, but it wasn’t until after I started this blog that I learned more about this particular method’s history and became acquainted with Kunihide Sakai, who developed and popularized this form of tadoku. He was kind enough to answer several questions that I had for him about extensive reading in Japan and other subjects. If anyone has any more questions or any opinions, please feel free to post a comment so we can keep the discussion going! You can also contact him directly through Twitter.

About the history of tadoku in Japan

What initially sparked your interest in extensive reading?

‘Sparked’ is a bit off the mark, really, because the realization was gradual rather than instantaneous. The biggest moment seems to have been around thirty years ago when an American colleague at a university where I taught English came to the common room one day with a black eye. She told me by way of explanation that ‘bump into the door’ is a euphemism suggesting domestic violence but that she really ran into the door. I gave up my research on English literature at that moment. I decided studying literature in a foreign language would be pointless unless I know the language well enough so I would know that ‘Bump into the door’ could suggest domestic violence. I decided also then I should read a lot before I’d be able to do anything worthwhile regarding a foreign language, let alone ‘to teach it’!

I could tell you more experiences like this one, but my answer is long already.

You said in the other interview that you had been trying to make extensive reading work for 25 years, but it wasn’t until you came up with your three golden rules that it really took off. How did you come up with those rules, and what had you been trying before?

Eleven years ago, I was in England for one year with my family. I watched my kids acquire English at an alarming rate from scratch. (I had not taught them English myself before my family arrived in England.) I thought maybe the same thing could happen if my university students mimicked the way kids acquire a foreign language. It did seem like a crazy idea at the time, but I had been fed up with failures of all kinds
of teaching methods that I was willing to give something drastic a try.

I started experimenting with eight 18-year old students at Denki-Tsushin University and, lo and behold, two of them started to read ‘grownup’ books after 30 weeks of what I since recognize as ‘tadoku’. I experimented a little more with a few more students and by and by the observation became the base of the three golden rules. They didn’t seem crazy at the time any more.

In Japan, is the word “tadoku” always associated with the kind of reading you advocate? (That is, fluent reading for fun without dictionaries, starting from a low level.) Or is the term used for other types of reading as well?

Not really. The term 多読 has been around for, say, a hundred years at least. Its revival is certainly largely due to what I started to advocate ten years ago, but there have spawned many interesting interpretations of what 多読 means. Many people now only know the term 多読 and don’t know the three principles I proposed. I think it’s quite natural that when something starts to spread widely it undergoes some kind of change or another.

Are there different schools of thought about extensive reading in Japan? That is, even if people agree on the basics of tadoku, are there disagreements on the details, or about the best way to teach or study English through tadoku? If so, what are some of the more notable differences?

Yes, differences abound. Even the basics of tadoku are forgotten in some cases. In one high school in Tokyo, for example, I hear students were given homework whereby they translate ten graded readers a year (like Oxford Bookworms Library books) into Japanese.

Also there are differences of opinions even where basics are supposed to be agreed on, like ‘Should we teach basic grammar first?’, ‘ Should flash cards be used?’, ‘Should we test comprehension?’.

What groups are there in Japan that work to promote tadoku? In what ways were you involved with them, and are you still involved with them now?

There are now a number of groups that have a website to promote tadoku in English. Most prominent would be the SSS group, the oldest and most widely referred to since its launch in autumn of 2001.

I was one of its founding members and tadoku owes the site a lot at its earliest stages. I’m not involved with the SSS group now because they have now reverted to traditional ways of learning English. They now advocate some degree of use of dictionary as well as teaching of grammar and use of tests. Other groups may have different principles but they are not very clear about where they stand. They seem to be simply providing information on books to read or online format to record tadoku progress.

Can you write a quick summary of each of the books about tadoku and language learning that you’ve written or been a major contributor to? How were they received?

「どうして英語が使えない? 学校英語につける薬」(ちくま学芸文庫, 1993)
Lays the foundation for tadoku, I was hoping, by explaining how flash cards are detrimental to language learning. I also ‘denounce’ in this book the course books certified by the Ministry of Education as presenting ‘unnatural’ English. Total number of copies printed would be around 30,000? I’m not really sure. Sorry.

「快読100万語! ペーパーバックへの道」(ちくま学芸文庫、2002)
This is the first book that presented the three golden rules together with reading suggestions to pave the way from picture books to books for adults. Total number of copies printed would be 40,000?

「教室で読む英語100万語」(Co-authored with Kanda Minami, 大修館書店、2005)

All about introducing tadoku to classroom, with 19 examples of classroom practice from kids English classrooms to high schools to university. Total number of sale, 4000?

「さよなら英文法 多読が育てる英語力」(ちくま学芸文庫、2008)
「どうして?」was in a way a criticism of English-Japanese dictionaries.「さよなら」takes a hard look on grammar as taught in schools according to the Ministry of Education guideline. Sad to say the worst seller of my books… less than 3000 copies sold? Intellectually exciting and truly eye-opening?

Liana, let me recommend you 「快読100万語」if you want to read my book. It’s the most readable, I hear. Don’t bother the latter half of the book if you are not into grammar, though. I hear it’s hard-going.

Are there any other books about tadoku that are particularly popular?

Yes there are a number of books that seem to be popular. Off the top of my head, 「今日から読みます英語100万語」is the second book to appear on the market after 「快読100万語」and it is still popular because there are a lot of brief reviews of books that are suitable for English tadoku. You can see how tadoku is liberating to the people on the street.

Do you think tadoku will ever become a major part of mainstream English education in Japan?

I doubt it. It is so counter-intuitive (that an adult can learn a foreign language in the same way as kids do), it seems unlikely that schools and universities will embrace it, especially in Japan where rote-memory and test scores mean so much.

Some people likened tadoku to Chinese medicine in that the effect is not so visibly clear except it builds your basic life functions in the long run, so to speak. (it seems to me the effect is much quicker than Chinese medicine.)

Is there still an extensive reading class at the University of Electro-Communications now that you’ve retired, or will it revert to a more traditional English class?

Er…m… (Sigh) I still teach two tadoku classes at UEC as part-timer. But no Japanese teachers are interested in tadoku so there will be no more tadoku class once I quit next March.

To be frank with you, Liana, Japanese teachers of English are the hardest to see the merits of tadoku. But let me grumble later if you want to know why. The topic is so depressing.

(Note: I asked why, and he posted this comment on another page on July 29, 2011, which I’m adding here.)

1) Why Japanese teachers of English are the hardest to convince about the merits of tadoku.

This is a big topic which would need a few thousand words if discussed in full, so let me just enumerate some of the problems teachers have with tadoku.

* Teachers of English are the hardest nuts to crack because they have semi-instinctive resistance to tadoku, which is against everything they have believed in all along: use of a dictionary, translation into Japanese, vocab building through sheer memorization, focus on grammar, evaluation by tests and exams, among other things.
* They think they are proficient in English thanks to the conventional methods described above, and they expect their students to follow their own steps. We all know the kind of disaster that results, don’t we?
* Most teachers blame students for not achieving the proficiency they think they themselves have reached. Very few think that it’s not the students but the conventional methods that are at fault.
* So, tadoku is only accepted by teachers who have tried everything in their arsenal and have seen no visible improvement in their students.

Are there any similar classes at other universities or schools that you’re aware of?

Yes, there a quite a few schools and universities where tadoku is available to students. I guess the number is somewhere between 50 and 100 in all of Japan. You see, there ARE some oddballs among teachers of English in Japan.

I find it very satisfying to work with such teachers and my diary since April is full of visits to schools to help with their tadoku classes.

What kinds of materials are available to Japanese speakers who are interested in doing tadoku in English?

A well-stocked school will have about 10,000 books and picture books for its tadoku classes. They are mostly material for native-speaking kids from K to 12 but some are graded readers that are written in controlled English with contents for high school to adult audience.

Is interest in tadoku continuing to grow, or do you feel like it’s waning somewhat?

At the moment, it is still growing, growing strong even, it seems. Signs are in a lot of places if you know where to look. (That is, the trend is not that obvious.)

I have a feeling that in five years’ time the tide will change either for the better or for worse: I suspect it will be basic soundness of tadoku principles against the staying power of traditional thinking.

I understand that the 日本多読研究会 (Japanese Graded Readers Research Group), the group that produced the only Japanese graded readers currently available, was organized (I think?) by your wife. How did she come to be interested in extensive reading for Japanese learners?

I asked my wife who is roasting 秋刀魚 now. She says first she was not happy with the traditional 読解 teaching method, second she was impressed by the success of tadoku in my English classes.

What else does that group do?

The group teaches Japanese language classes in Tokyo, holds seminars for teachers of Japanese as a foreign language, and has workshops for writing, rewriting and editing of Japanese Graded Readers.

About the tadoku community

You host discussions over Skype a few times a week: can you explain a little bit about what those chats are like and who can join in?

Those chats started about nine months ago and finally the number of sessions per week started to grow. They have been successful, I think, because they bring together tadoku lovers around Japan for friendly and relaxed chatting in English. I have found Japanese people being very unwilling to make mistakes so, to lower the threshold, I ask them to use Japanese whenever they get stuck in English. This might seem bad for learners with 根性 or determination and guts, it has proven successful so far, getting more and more shy people to talk in English.

I am hoping to invite more Japanese learners like yourself to one of these sessions so please be alert to notices in Liana’s blog and my blog at I invite anyone who is learning Japanese to contact me and join the おしゃべり会。

People who are into tadoku in Japan do offline meetups as well; what are those like?

They have been extremely successful and I believe they contributed to the success of tadoku in general in a big way. You see, it seems to me that three elements that meant a lot to the success so far are The three golden principles, the great amount of easy tadoku material and the tadoku community.

The number of tadoku lovers is so small and they are usually separated far from each other, they needed the Internet to make sure they are not alone. And off-line meetups may have enhanced the sense of this minority community.

What sort of experience do people learning Japanese have with tadoku?

I’ll have to ask my wife for this question but she has already gone to her computer, I’ll ask her later but I believe it’s roughly the same as English tadoku lovers. Tadoku let them enjoy Japanese rather than toil at it, thereby taking them very far along the way — farther than learners have had any inkling of sometimes.

Do you ever hear from people doing tadoku in languages besides English and Japanese?

Yes, I do, but they are all of them Japanese and had done tadoku in English before they started tadoku in other languages, like German, Chinese, French and Spanish for example. They all complain about the scarcity of easy tadoku material. In some languages, manga in the target language seem to be useful and easy to get hold of.

About tadoku and the learning process

Why do you consider it so important to stop using a dictionary?

I know this goes against the grain of serious and deermined learners of any foreign language. But I have observed literary thousands of English learners in Japan and the experience has shown me that at the end of the day the less you use your dictionary the quicker you get the gist of that language and get more efficient.

Do you think that learning a language primarily through tadoku is effective?

Err, yes. Please note that I base this affirmation on my observation so far. Actually by the same token, it seems to me now that the operative word here is ‘primarily’, if you want to enjoy the process of acquisition itself. If you want to go the hard way or if you enjoy tackling the dictionary or translating, stay clear of tadoku.

Have some learners particularly benefited from spending time on structured vocabulary and/or grammar studies along with extensive reading?

I doubt it. I’m not saying this categorically, though. I’m trying to find out the impact of conscious vocabulary building and/or grammar learning, but the jury is still out at the moment. My guess is that vocabulary building and grammar learning may have adverse effect on ‘(simulated) natural acquisition’ of a foreign language.

One of the most common criticisms I see of tadoku is that it’s good for reinforcing previously learned vocabulary, but it isn’t as efficient a way of learning vocabulary as other methods are. How do you address that concern?

They must be talking about ‘proper books’ rather than picture books at the first stages of tadoku. Pictures help enormously, you see. I have seen people with next to no knowledge of English getting quite proficient in recognizing and understanding hundreds if not thousands of new words.

I could go on writing about dozens of examples in this respect but it will take another three days at least writing non-stop. So more examples made available on request:).

Are there students who were turned off by what they felt to be childish or overly basic materials? Were they able to succeed with tadoku anyways, and if so, how?

Luckily my students at Denki-Tshushin U. are almost all of them fed up with the English course books with difficult topics and more difficult English. That helps a lot when I show them hundreds of picture books that they are asked to enjoy. They think my courses are veritable ‘Mickey courses’ as you say?, and before they know it, they get hooked by tadoku through Curious George books and Frog and Toad books for example.

It is my thinking that really serious authors of picture books tend to take their job quite seriously and do their best to entertain or to be informative to children and themselves. Forget childish pride in being a grown-up!, I say.

What are some other common criticisms of tadoku in Japan, and how do you address them?

There are so many, Liana, it beats me how I should start enumerating… And they also depress me. So some other time, all right?

One thing though. Have your heard of Bernal’s Ladder? If you haven’t, please read an article in my blog:

You will see, I hope, tadoku is slowly overcoming the countless criticisms and misunderstandings.

Do people studying on their own through tadoku usually start with graded readers, or do many people prefer to start with authentic materials?

I do not know the percentage but there are both. In the early years definitely more people started with controlled ‘graded readers’, but authentic materials like Oxford Reading Tree series are now easier to get hold of since public libraries have begun to stock them. I am pushing toward more libraries having authentic tadoku materials.

Was there any sense of competition among your students, or among people doing tadoku on their own?

Not that I am aware of in my classes at U.E.C. Though they tend to hide such urge to compete. My guess is that very few have a sense of competition.

In secondary schools, where class members are more ‘childish’, I have seen competition going, but it’s not all that bad as an initial driving force toward bulk reading. Problem starts when you keep on reading for competition too long. After all, tadoku is pleasure reading in a foreign language. Sense of competition gets in the way of sheer enjoyment, don’t you think?

What genres of graded readers did your students most like?

Let’s say, 70% fiction and 30% non-fiction? Both in picture books and proper print books. Fantasy is favourite of many students, detective stories are another popular genre, and very easy science books with photos are very favoured by many.

Did you ever help develop any English graded readers?

I was asked to be editor-in-chief of the easiest-level graded readers by Oxford University Press once, but the idea didn’t strike me as good and nothing came of it. I greatly regret my obtuseness.

About you

What do you prefer to be called in Japanese and why? (Any particular preference in English?)

Just call me Sakai or Sakai-san. I have just retired and I’m savouring the sense of freedom, you see.

What was your personal history with learning English?

Let me first make clear that I did NOT learn English through tadoku, which is my ‘invention’, if you like, at age fifty-five or so. I wish someone had come up with it before I started learning English.

I started learning English at age thirteen as any other Japanese in those days. (No English classes for kids in elementary school.) I was into grammar in a big way in high school. Then I began to collect dictionaries in undergraduate and graduate school days. The highest I paid for a dictionary was 100,000 Yen for the second edition of Webster’s International. Can you believe it? I sell it to anyone willing to pay good price for it.

Then I bumped into the episode of ‘domestic violence’ and washed my hands of dictionaries. I am still in love of grammar though. I’d like to make clear to myself what the structure is in any language, something like universal grammar? I don’t know but I enjoy making hypotheses about it.

Have you spent a lot of time studying abroad or living in English-speaking countries?

I don’t think it was ‘a lot of time’ but I lived in England on two occasions for one year each and another three months lecturing on English-to-Japanese translation.

Now that you’ve retired, where are you focusing your efforts in terms of promoting tadoku?

Three areas: Schools, the website, and one-on-one supporting of tadoku lovers in small and private classes.

How are you using Twitter these days?

I hadn’t expected much of twitter, as a matter of fact, but I had hopes for it as a way to write a lot in the target language, and it is working fine with some Japanese learners of English. I hope more people will realize the potentiality of twitter as opportunity for expressing themselves in their target language. The threshold is so low with twitter, and you can expect some kind of reaction from your 多読仲間.

Were there any English books that you particularly wanted to read when you were starting to learn English?

That was when I was thirteen years old, Liana. And I had no idea what English or American literature was like. No, I didn’t have an 憧れの本. I wish there had been a book like Harry Potter, though.

Do you have a favorite English book now?

Yes, many. Let us talk about them later.

Can you recommend any Japanese books that you particularly liked as a kid and/or ones that you think might be especially interesting to those of us doing extensive reading in Japanese?

Ah! That’s a brilliant idea, Liana. I’ll ask my friends in to come up with a Japanese book they enjoyed.

As for my own choice, I still think Eleanor Farjeon’s The Little Bookroom could be an excellent choice for tadoku lovers in Japanese, because it’s written in beautiful and readable Japanese and its stories are all of them fairly short. No kids’ stuff, I guarantee.

What do you think about the tadoku contest? (

Sorry. I didn’t have time to look at the site. So give me a rain check for now. (Does the term ‘contest’ play a big role there?)

Is there a story behind the penguin avatar?

Not really. One of my students at the UEC came to me one day about a year ago and showed me several animal versions of me. I liked the penguin version best and it turned out a lot of other people like it too. So it’s going to stay with me for a long time to come, I suppose.

I’ve been thinking about a post on Ryan Layman’s blog about how he recommends avoiding children’s books. It’s apparent I take precisely the opposite approach, but that post made me spend some time thinking about why I think extensive reading starting with extremely basic books is worth my time and that of other learners, as previously my reasons didn’t go much deeper than “This is what works for people I know, it’s currently working for me and I enjoy it!” I am all for doing whatever complements your personal learning style to gain fluency, and I’m by no means interested in insisting that all Japanese learners do exactly what I’m doing. I do think, however, that there are advantages to this method that greatly outweigh the disadvantages of being initially limited to materials meant for children and not reinforcing kanji through reading, and I would suggest that other learners consider adding it to whatever they already enjoy doing.

The most basic reason I’ve started with children’s books is that I’m mimicking what I’ve seen work for my Japanese friends who introduced me to extensive reading. In October 2009, I started using lang-8, which is a site where people write diaries in their target language and native speakers of that language correct their writing for them. I met a couple of people through lang-8 who were into extensive reading (多読 — tadoku in Japanese), and the first thing I noticed was that their English writing was admirably fluent. Keep in mind that my job is reading and evaluating essays written in English by non-native speakers for eight hours at a time, so I’m sensitive to differences in writing ability. They wrote at a high level, but in a different way from people who had lived abroad for a significant period of time, and also in a different way from people who had obviously also spent a great deal of time studying and using English, but hadn’t used the same method. I soon learned that they enjoyed reading in English and had started with extremely simple children’s books, but now were able to pick up books as advanced as the Sherlock Holmes stories and Confessions of a Shopaholic and read them rapidly and accurately.

It was from them that I learned the three principles of extensive reading that they followed:
1. Don’t look up words in the dictionary.
2. Skip over parts you don’t understand.
3. If you aren’t enjoying one book, toss it aside and get another.
These principles were created by Kunihide Sakai, a retired English professor who champions extensive reading, and loosely translated from his site

I started learning Japanese because I studied Japanese literature in college and I’m a fan of Japanese video games, so my most cherished goal in terms of my language studies is to be able to read Japanese at an adult level for fun. In other words, what they had was what I wanted, and if they got there by reading nothing but kids’ books for a year, then by golly I was not too proud to read nothing but kids’ books for a year. I have always loved reading in English, so for me the idea of improving through lots and lots of reading makes intuitive sense and plays to my strengths. I’m willing to follow the path that’s already been laid out because it happens to mesh with my personality and I have evidence it works for someone who’s dedicated.

To recap my approach, I follow the three principles listed above*, I keep track of the number of words I’ve read, and I started reading with extremely simple children’s books. When I say “extremely simple” here, I don’t mean “Harry Potter” or “short stories by Haruki Murakami.” I mean “Miffy In The Tent” and “Kumako-chan’s Polka Dot Handkerchief”: books that were well below what I could actually comprehend. (Heck, according to this interview with Professor Sakai, he started students off with books where the only text was in the title. That’s pretty hardcore.)

I consider fluent reading to be reading without translation and with a high degree of understanding at a speed comparable to my English reading speed. Books within one’s fluent reading level should have between zero and four unknown words per page; more unknown words than that, and it starts to impede understanding. I personally prefer books that are just a shade or two below my fluent reading level, but books that are at my fluent reading level are all right, too; however, I avoid books above my fluent reading level. I don’t use a dictionary while reading, and it took me a while to gain the confidence I needed to do this, but after I stopped, I started seeing more benefits from my reading and enjoying it more. On occasion I will look up something after I have finished a book, but I would rather go on to the next book instead.

*There’s one exception to this: if I’m bored with a book, but it’s within my level and I’m not actually having trouble with the content, I keep reading it so I can add it to the list in hopes that the knowledge may be useful to someone else. If I wasn’t doing this sort of blog, I would happily chuck such books off to the side.

My reading skill has improved noticeably since I started extensive reading, particularly in the months after I finally broke the habit of using a dictionary and started reading more and more, so at least in my case I can say that this method is paying off. When I started dabbling in extensive reading last spring, I started off at about level 2, when I started my blog about three months ago, I had been devoting more time to reading for a couple of months and I was about at level 3 or 4, and now I consider level 5 books within my fluent reading level and Japanese I read online seems to jump into my eyes differently than it did before.

I do think it’s crucial to stay with text within your fluent reading level and not to use a dictionary while reading, because I have experience with doing just the opposite and it did not give me these kinds of results. For example, I spent hours and hours playing Japanese RPGs long before I heard of extensive reading; I was highly motivated to understand them, and there’s no doubt that they exposed me to a great deal of text. I think that, more than anything else, was what helped me understand Japanese as a flexible, living language and not a collection of set phrases and grammar rules, and I did improve my reading and my recognition of kanji while playing them: I feel, however, that in terms of overall reading skill extensive reading has been of more value to me. That is, spending a great deal of time and effort on understanding a video game that was well above my level but of great personal interest improved my ability to play that particular video game, but only helped me slightly with the next one. Extensive reading has helped me improve my basic reading skill, which makes everything a little easier, including video games.

I also tried regular reading long before I heard of extensive reading. I picked up books that looked interesting, books that looked like they should be simple and books I had already read in English, and then I spent who knows how long poring over them, looking up vocabulary words and making hopeful little flashcard sets. I rarely got more than a chapter in. I thought the problem was with me, and I just needed to practice more and stop giving up so easily, but now I can see that I was just setting my sights too high without having the broad base of vocabulary and reading experience necessary for such material.

I also spent a great deal of time using lang-8 before I even tried extensive reading, both writing diaries and responding to comments and messages in Japanese: this definitely helped my reading skill, as this kind of text was very different from video game Japanese. Before I started, piecing together the meaning of a long and complicated message in Japanese easily took me all day; after four or five months, that dropped to a few hours. However, it was still essentially decoding. I was able to comprehend the text, that is, but it wasn’t at all within my fluent reading level.

These three experiences, combined with the results I’ve seen from low-level extensive reading, make me believe that it isn’t just exposure to large amounts of interesting, but high-level text that makes the difference. I learned a lot about reading from video games, the books I tried to read and lang-8, but I think that it was reading a huge amount of text well within my fluent reading level that had the greatest effect on my basic reading skill; I perceive that it’s changed something about the way I process Japanese that doing a great deal of decoding, being exposed to lots of high-level text and even near-daily writing didn’t. Obviously I’ve been spending much of my free time on extensive reading lately, but I’ve spent much more energy on trying to read videogames, high-level books and lang-8 comments, so I don’t think the effort I’ve expended on extensive reading is the deciding factor. I think it’s just the case that successful, comfortable reading leads to improvement in one’s reading skill more than anything else does.

I should note, as well, that my own personality and what I’m trying to do with this blog affect the way I approach reading. I personally get uncomfortable if I know I’m not understanding something, so I have a tendency to read below my fluent reading level as long as I have enough material to do so. The jargon I would use, if I was writing about myself as part of a study, is “nonexistent low ambiguity tolerance.” Others might prefer to push themselves, and that’s an equally valid approach: part of the benefit of starting with extremely simple books is that you learn what fluent reading feels like to you, so as you improve, as long as you’re honest with yourself about where the boundary between “challenging but within fluent reading level” and “too hard” lies, you’re fine. After all, rule 3 (stop reading a book you don’t enjoy) applies not only to books that are too hard, but also to books that are distractingly easy.

Also, I hope to introduce extensive reading to other Japanese learners in the area, so I feel like I have to know more about the level 1 and 2 books I have access to so that I can help even beginning learners get into extensive reading as well. If it wasn’t for that, I’d be well done with level 1 and 2 books, except for ones that are particularly fun like the ばけばけ町 books.

So I want to emphasize that starting extensive reading is not the same as sentencing yourself to easy books forever. That said, even though doing extensive reading doesn’t necessarily mean you would have to stick with low-level children’s books as long as I have, here’s why I believe they have value.

In my opinion, there are four things you can get from reading anything:

1) The sense of satisfaction you get from understanding and finishing the text

This feeling is something you might not think a well-adjusted adult would get out of reading an easy book, but when that book is in another language, it changes the entire context. Before you can read a book in Japanese, even an easy one, you have to tie together a great deal of knowledge. You have to be able to link a syllable’s pronunciation to the writing system, know how to separate words and particles, be able to quickly recall vocabulary, use grammar knowledge to understand the intended meaning, cope with non-standard uses of the language and be able to skip over or figure out unknown words from context. Not only that, but you have to learn to do all these things automatically, so you can pay attention to the story, messages and background information. Reading a book within your fluent reading level is the culmination of a great deal of effort; looking down on it as something even children can do is missing the point.

2) The actual information presented in the text

For a fiction book, this is the story, and for a non-fiction book, it’s the information about whatever the subject is, sometimes presented as a story. At any difficulty level, there are books with excellent stories or nicely presented information. Not all of them, it’s true, as Sturgeon’s Law holds in this field as surely as it does in any other. Enough, though, to make it impossible to dismiss every single one of them; enough to make it worth your time to find books that amuse you while helping you reach your reading goals.

Particularly at the higher levels – say, high level three and over – it becomes easier to find books with engaging stories. (Picture books that stand out, I find, mostly do so because of their pictures, although some are genuinely witty and pleasurable to read.) For me personally, dealing with the easier books was not a problem because I like fairy tales, stories about children and nonsensical fantasy, but even for someone with a lower tolerance for such things, I think much of what I’ve read could be interesting. I joke about reading lots of stories about happy bears baking cakes, but that’s really just a small part of what I’ve read; more memorable are the stories where I got a peek into a family’s joys and arguments or the ones about a child’s struggles with school and daily life. Also, because of this project, I’ve read about subjects as varied as daily life in the Edo period, how monkeys hang out in onsens in the winter and how Sun Tzu got a group of concubines to act like soldiers.

So when I say that it can be worth an adult’s time to read kids’ books for their content, I don’t mean that you’re somehow a better and more pure person if you can enjoy fairytales. I think that good books for children can add value to an adult perspective on life or contain useful information. “Children’s book” doesn’t automatically mean “fluffy, mindless dreck written to torment children and bore adults.”

3) Some form of improvement in your language skill

That is, reading aids in reinforcing vocabulary and structures you already know and becoming able to understand them automatically, learning new words and collocations, identifying who’s talking about what and so on. It also includes the development of high-level skills such as being able to recognize differences in writing styles, forming a sense of what constitutes good writing and bad writing and being able to complete sentences that are left unfinished. Every book within your fluent reading level that is able to sustain your interest long enough to finish it will help you develop these skills.

Reading is sometimes a more frustrating way of learning vocabulary than flashcards are, but I’ve found that puzzling out an isolated word from context makes it more thoroughly mine. If I make a vocabulary list of 100 unknown words from one book the odds are high I will only remember a small number of them, but if I read 100 books that draw on that pool of unknown words, every time the words are repeated in a different context they become a little more accessible to me and I have a better chance of figuring out what they mean and retaining them. Plus, an interesting book provides an opportunity to create an emotional connection with a word in context, making it much more likely I’ll remember it.

Low-level books also create a great environment for learning words: as you read you’re automatically and repeatedly exposed to the words used for things like descriptions of characters and places, connections between thoughts, details of the actions and movements characters make and so on. Finally, don’t underestimate what a tremendous advantage pictures are! I hardly realized this until I started reading picture books, but the pictures aren’t just there to amuse the reader: they’re there to help readers make a connection between the information they already know and the information in the story. I find that if I don’t know one pivotal word, I often don’t remember the words that support it, but once I get that pivotal word, the others just fall into place; a picture is a shortcut to realizing what that word might be.

4) Background information about the cultural context of the story

Every book is sharing messages and information with you that aren’t immediately obvious. Even the most basic kids’ book says things like “Authors, publishers, librarians, teachers and parents think that this material is appropriate, both in terms of language and content, for children” and “Children are expected to like this material and the way it is presented.” Underlying messages may be obvious in things like fables and heavy-handed kids’ books (“Bullying is bad,” perhaps, or “It’s good to be friends”) and much less of a presence in other works, where the message may be as vague as “This subject deserves attention” or “This is the sort of thing I hope will make me money.” On a higher level, each book will have linguistic information such as “Refined women talk in this particular way” or “This is how someone might reply to a question when they don’t want to answer it” as well as background cultural information such as “This is how a couple might fight,” “Children love curry rice,” “Here is how to make friends,” “It’s acceptable for a married couple to live separately because of work obligations,” and so on.

All these things are fascinating to me, and so much of it you can’t necessarily get anywhere else: even if you live in Japan, for example, you aren’t likely to have a window into the daily dynamics of a first-grade classroom unless you happen to work in a school. This may be part of why I don’t feel bored or condescended to by even a simple book: as an adult raised in another culture, I feel rather like an alien researcher at times.

I’ll be quite honest: out of, say, a hundred books that I’ve read, I would only buy about five of them. There are about ten more that I’m content letting the library store for me, if I want to re-read them at some point. The remaining eighty-five? I can honestly say I enjoyed most of them, and every single one of them helped improve my reading skill and provided me with some sort of background information, but they weren’t terribly memorable and I’m never going to read them again. To put it another way, those books were fodder. My only requirement was that they be interesting enough to keep me reading until the end, because I wasn’t reading them for their own sake: I was reading them to add what I can to the broad base of vocabulary, cultural knowledge and so on that I will need to read higher-level texts. So you could say that in terms of extensive reading I value a book for three things: its story or information, its background information and messages, and its potential to add to my language skill. I can’t think of a single book I’ve read that has failed me on all three counts.

Not everyone will want to spend their time reading a book only for the benefit of being exposed to its sentence structures and background information, which is part of why I’m writing about these books as I go, in hopes that other readers can go straight for ones that sound interesting. There are enough Japanese children’s books that it should be possible to read hundreds that not only build your skill and background knowledge but are all interesting or informative in their own right, and spend little or no time with happy talking animals if that is what you prefer. Unfortunately, as far as I know, English speakers learning Japanese don’t have the extensive reading resources that Japanese speakers learning English do, so the biggest problem with extensive reading is neither starting at a low level nor the lack of kanji, but instead identifying and gathering the required materials. This is something I will be writing about a good deal in the future. (And by now, I imagine you believe me when I say I can write a good deal about something.)

If it is genuinely so boring to read a couple thousand words of kids’ books that it hampers your overall progress, by all means don’t do it. But I think for many people, the issue isn’t whether or not it’s boring, because we as language learners are used to repetitive tasks and delayed gratification; the problem is the ego getting in the way. If you think less of yourself, or think others will think less of you, for spending time on books you wouldn’t even look at were they in English, if you get annoyed at picking up a kids’ book and finding words you don’t know, or if you don’t see the point of reading easy things and think that it would be more worthwhile to spend your time on something harder, even if it’s outside of your fluent reading level, that all will affect how you approach extensive reading. Picking up an easy book can feel like admitting, to yourself and to the whole world, that after all of your hard work on kanji and particles and advanced vocabulary, this is still the level that’s comfortable for you. I sympathize. I mean, I’m writing this blog, so I really have admitted to the whole world “I love the Miffy books!” Add that to the feeling that you might have to bore yourself with several expensive books worth of baby bunnies, and I can see why someone wouldn’t want to try it: God knows grammar is boring, too, but at least it doesn’t make you feel ridiculous. The easy books stage is, however, just temporary, and it’s in service to the larger goal of reading whatever you want.

I do agree that the lack of kanji in easier books is backwards and annoying to adult learners who have been learning kanji nearly from the beginning of their studies, and books written in all or mostly hiragana are harder than books at the same level with a generous amount of kanji. Hiragana prevents you from making those connections between words that kanji is so useful for; there has been more than one time where I’ve been reading a book and thought “I can guess the meaning of this unknown word just fine from context, but if it was written in kanji, I’d have a much better chance of remembering it next time I see it.” It also aids quick, automatic vocabulary recognition, which is a big part of reading, because it’s slightly faster to read kanji that you know than the corresponding hiragana. Also, when I’m reading a long string of hiragana with no spaces, the more unknown words it contains, the more likely it is that I’m barely paying attention by the end of the sentence, because it becomes frustrating to try to understand which word ends where. Kanji almost serves the purpose that spaces do in English, because even if you’ve never seen the kanji before in your life it at least tells you “This probably starts a new word.”

The lack of kanji just isn’t a dealbreaker for me, though, because I don’t read to improve my kanji: I read to improve my reading. Reading ability is not solely based on how much kanji you know: it’s the simultaneous application of several skills, of which kanji knowledge is just one. Not to downplay the importance of kanji, because it really is the largest barrier to full literacy in Japanese, but you also have to be able to understand complex sentences without having to stop and think about them, sort out and make use of unknown information, read long strings of hiragana, read words without depending on the kanji (as sometimes authors choose to not use kanji for stylistic reasons, or play around with differences between the expected reading and the given one), predict upcoming content, supplement the text with the cultural information you already know and summon your entire stock of vocabulary. In any case, as my reading level increases kanji starts making its way into the picture, and I predict that most of my goal words will be supplied by level 5 and 6 books, so I don’t think that I’ll be missing out on kanji practice over the long term. Ideally, kanji and reading should reinforce each other, and I personally love kanji, but if I’ve got to choose between them for now I choose to spend my time reading. There are other ways to study kanji, but the only way to improve your reading skill is to read, and in my experience reading above your fluent reading level is not as effective as reading within it.

This is slightly off-topic, but a big reason I’m writing about why I believe extensive reading is a worthwhile technique is that I cannot be the only slow language learner out there! A lot of the writing done by native English speakers about extensive reading in Japanese presumes a high level of fluency, and a lot of people who want to try reading in Japanese start with Haruki Murakami or Harry Potter or their favorite manga. If you can honestly say you read those things quickly — comparable to your English reading speed, and without translation — and you only run into two or three unknown words per page which you can figure out from context or skip over without sacrificing understanding, then that’s fantastic. But I think that this can give the impression that extensive reading is only for people who could pass JLPT 1, or that reading comes naturally to a lucky few but if you can’t understand high-level books right off the bat, the problem is with you and you should continue studying textbooks until you can read these sorts of texts. I think it’s just the other way around: even beginning students should be able to get something out of extensive reading, and if they learn basic skills such as learning to deal with unknown words and quickly reading hiragana near the beginning of their studies, I would guess that such skills combined with whatever else they do to study should help them become proficient readers.

So there you have it: an overview of why I practice extensive reading, the reasons I think that starting with children’s books isn’t a drawback and my thoughts about reading and kanji. I hope that this has been of some interest to you and, even if it doesn’t sound like your thing, that it made you think about your own tactics and approach to reading. And yes, I hope you try extensive reading and try it in this particular way, and that you love it, write excited blog posts about it and spread the word about tadoku!

If you’d like to know more about extensive reading, I suggest you start with these pages:

  • “What Is Extensive Reading?” by the Japanese Graded Readers Research Group, which created and published the only extensive readers currently available for Japanese learners.
  • The Extensive Reading Pages, which is mostly geared towards English teachers but has plenty of general information.
  • Interview with Kunihide Sakai, which describes how he actually conducted his classes.
  • The SSS Extensive Reading Method, which goes into more detail about learning English in Japan through extensive reading; on this page, you can see some of the materials English learners have access to, such as books that catalog appropriate reading material and word counts.
  • is, as I mentioned before, Professor Sakai’s website; it’s in Japanese, but if that doesn’t faze you the message board is a great place to meet other extensive reading enthusiasts, sometimes known as “tadokists.”

Summary of Extensive Reading and Language Learning: A Diary Study of a Beginning Learner of Japanese, by Ching Yin Leung
Reading in a Foreign Language
Volume 14, No. 1, April, 2002

This paper is a diary study; the author Ching Yin Leung (referred to in the paper as Wendy), a beginning student of Japanese, analyzes her own journal in which she described her extensive reading experiences and challenges over the course of four months. The author incorporated extensive reading into a self-study program; she spent an hour studying and reading each day, took down notes about the day’s study, then used those notes to write one or two diary entries a week. For the last 11 weeks, she worked with a tutor for half an hour or an hour per week. By the end of the self-study program, she had read 1,260 pages of comics, textbooks and storybooks. Her goal was to answer four research questions:

  • Does extensive reading lead to vocabulary acquisition?
  • Does extensive reading promote reading comprehension?
  • Does extensive reading promote positive attitudes toward reading?
  • What challenges does a beginning foreign language learner face in the extensive reading process and how did the learner deal with these challenges?

Vocabulary acquisition
In weeks 16 and 20 Leung took two separate vocabulary tests to measure her improvement over the month, and the results showed that her vocabulary knowledge improved by 23.5%; she was better able to identify and use words correctly on the second test, and there were fewer words that she didn’t know at all. The improvement was attributed to both the large amount of input provided by extensive reading and the improved understanding of the grammar she had acquired by self-study.

The data from her journal entries and tutoring sessions showed that her extensive reading increased her exposure to words she’d already learned and helped her apply her previous knowledge; for example, she found it easier not to confuse 行く (iku, to go) and 来る (kuru, to come) when she saw them in context multiple times. She also learned things that weren’t in her textbooks, came to be able to understand words from context with the help of pictures and discerned alternate meanings for words she already knew, such as きれい (beautiful / clean) and おそい (slow / late). Even with her extensive reading, she forgot the meanings of some words she had already learned, probably because they weren’t reinforced enough. (This backs up Paul Nation’s characterization of vocabulary learned through extensive reading as “fragile”; it seems that extended reading has the most impact if there is enough material to provide repeated exposure over the long term.)

Reading comprehension
Leung’s journal entries show that her reading comprehension increased over the course of her study: at first decoding hiragana frustrated her, but by the end she was understanding simple stories. Her understanding was built on her textbook studies and tutoring sessions, but it was extensive reading that gave her a chance to practice that material.

Attitudes toward reading
She was excited at first, but the difficulty of finding appropriate reading material made her feel confused and disappointed. Because her first language was Chinese, she was initially frustrated that she could use her L1 skills to get a sense of the content of Japanese texts written for adults in a mix of hiragana and kanji, but couldn’t read simple children’s stories written all in hiragana. Once she was able to find plenty of material at her level, she felt more comfortable, and her confidence grew as her reading skill improved; however, trying to read children’s books that she couldn’t understand negatively impacted her attitude, because it was a jarring reminder of how much she had yet to learn. She found that re-reading was valuable to her, and finding books that she wanted to read or understand better was motivating. She also got in the habit of trying to read Japanese that she encountered in the real world.

Identifying and dealing with challenges
It was difficult to find appropriate materials; books that were too hard discouraged her, and she had to look for new material constantly. Finding time for studying, and self-study itself, was challenging; for the second half of her studies she worked with a tutor, which helped to motivate her. Her L1 affected how she learned Japanese: for example, she was frustrated that she couldn’t map meanings onto hiragana as she could with hanzi/kanji, and she thought that the hiragana “ka” looked like “ga” in Chinese, so she tended to mispronounce “ka” as “ga.” However, as she continued her studies her tolerance of the differences between the two languages grew.

According to Leung, reading can play an important role in helping students acquire vocabulary, become more enthusiastic about their language studies and gain confidence, even when those students are true beginners. Although her self-study and tutoring sessions were important, extensive reading reinforced the things she learned and made her feel like she was successfully reading “in the real world.” The key to a successful extensive reading program is access to plenty of materials that are both interesting and at an appropriate level.


  • Leung studied for an hour a day, but I would have liked to have known how much time she spent reading and how much time she spent formally studying. Also, since I personally keep track of progress by word count, I would be curious as to about how many words she read.
  • I find it interesting that she specifically cited re-reading as something that increased her understanding; nothing that I’ve read about extensive reading (so far, or that I remember) recommends or mentions re-reading as a potential tactic, but in my own experience it’s very helpful. After all, the second time around I already know what’s going to happen so I can often understand parts that didn’t make sense before, and I often look up particularly critical words that I couldn’t understand from context after I’ve finished a book, so I can read with the benefit of knowing them (which often clarifies other words that only partially made sense to me before). Still, I don’t usually re-read a book unless I’ve particularly enjoyed it, because I want to move on to the next new thing. Maybe I should get in the habit of re-reading?
  • I found that this quotation from The language learning benefits of extensive reading by Paul Nation really resonated with me: “Vocabulary learning from extensive reading is very fragile. If the small amount of learning of a word is not soon reinforced by another meeting, then that learning will be lost.” I wonder what the best way to facilitate that meeting is: graded readers with deliberately repeated word usage? Looking up unknown key words later? Or simply more and more reading?
  • Leung’s experiences really mirror the complaints I’ve heard from others who have tried to use extensive reading as part of their Japanese studies: without a healthy supply of appropriate materials, the idea just falls apart. Finding that supply is probably not easy for any true beginner, and probably about impossible for one who doesn’t have library materials, Japanese friends or a Japanese teacher who is conducting an extended reading program.
  • It is easy to see how extensive reading would benefit an intermediate or advanced student of Japanese who already has a reasonably large vocabulary to draw on, but when I started reading this paper, I doubted whether it would be useful for a true beginner (who had, I thought, quite enough to be worrying about without adding authentic books to the mix). I’m pleased to know that it’s much more promising than I expected!
  • I wonder how Leung’s previous experience with learning English affected her experience with learning a third language, and if a beginning language learner without that experience would be able to get the same benefits from extensive reading. For example, did it help her be open to the possibility that one word could mean different things, or that words she thought she knew could be split into two parts (such as when she realized that “kodori” didn’t mean “bird,” but “little bird”)?
  • It seemed from her descriptions of the storybooks she preferred that she was mostly reading level 2 books, even though she was more or less a true beginner at the beginning of her studies, and so I wonder how fluently she was able to read.  We know the number of pages and books she had read by the end, but I would be curious as to the average number of unknown words per page she encountered over the course of her studies. In terms of learning a language more efficiently, would it be better for an adult learner with little or no prior experience with the language to exclusively read the more understandable level 1 books or to try to read the more interesting and rich level 2 books, assuming she or he had equal access to a large number of both?