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:
- 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. There are two volumes of these, with six stories each. Click here for my review of this level.
- 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. Click here for my review of this level.
- 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. Click here for my review of this level.
- 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. Click here for my review of this level.
- Level 4, 中級 (Intermediate level): These go up to a 1300-word vocabulary, with the most complex grammar structures out of all the readers, and there’s 5,000-10,000 characters per reader (2,000 – 3,500 words). They’re suitable for people studying for the old JLPT levels 3 and 2 (probably equivalent to new levels 3 and 2). There are two volumes of these, with five stories each. Click here for my review of this level.
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)
- 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)
- 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)
- 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)
- 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 ４ (Reading Collection: Graded Japanese Extensive Reading Library Level 4)
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.)
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?
- Extensive reading is known as 多読, or tadoku in Japanese. To try it, start with very easy books (ones with no more than two or three unknown words per page), and follow these principles:
1. Don’t look up words in the dictionary while reading.
2. Skip over parts you don’t understand.
3. If you aren’t enjoying one book, toss it aside and get another.
Find something to read!
Hundreds of free books and stories online
Local bookstores and libraries
Buying new and used books online
For more information, read "What Is Extensive Reading?" and "Classification System."
To learn more about Kunihide Sakai, who developed the three principles of tadoku and has worked to popularize it in Japan for years, read this interview with him.
Finally, for more than you ever wanted to know about why I believe extensive reading is worth your time, read my tadoku manifesto.
Superfluous StatsBooks read: 303
Word count (since starting the blog): 380,500
- About Myself
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- Extensive Reading Resources
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