Are you a ‘reading engineer’?


This past weekend I presented on graded reader readability at the JALT Pan-SIG Conference in Nagoya. I proposed a simple analogy, which I believe can be useful for ELT teachers and students alike.

Consider the following image.

My point is that headword counts, as found printed on nearly all graded reader series, offer a practical but incomplete measure of text readability. One can turn up or turn down the reading difficulty based on vocabulary level (and other easily quantifiable language factors, such as sentence length and clausal complexity), just as someone listening to a portable music player can make the volume go up or down.

However—and here’s the issue—we can’t easily control for much else, if all we have is a single dial.

What if teachers and students approached reading more like sound engineers approach music? That is, aware that an increase in one factor can lead to distortion in another, and that all factors need to be adjusted in relation to each other? Controlling for sound quality is never as simple as toggling one dial, just like readability is more than a function of vocabulary level alone. Yet, that is exactly the implication, at least when headword counts are used so prominently as the main differentiating feature between titles in a series.

Now consider this image.ER-EQ7sm

For example, the CYOA series is quite easy when it comes to character and plot; after a few pages, the story becomes very predictable, and these lowered settings allow students to perhaps increase their ‘lexical volume’, so to speak.

On the other hand, titles such as adapted literary classics often require students to reduce their target headword level, if they are to read at the same level of fluency. Titles such as Great Expectations, or Hamlet, or Dracula tend to be challenging because of a distant cultural setting, number of characters (often with unfamiliar multi-syllabic names), and less linear or predictable plots, among other factors.

Other types of books fall somewhere in between. An adapted biography of Bill Gates, for example, may be particularly predictable and interesting to a certain kind of student, whereas others may have the appropriate background knowledge to tackle a slightly higher level fantasy story because they are already a fan of that genre in their native language.

Analogies have a tendency to oversimplify, of course, and there is certainly plenty more to say on this subject. Nevertheless, below are some general definitions of often overlooked factors which I consider important to readability. Note that language factors are skipped over because these are well established and generally understood to impact readability already–and not because I’m implying they are not important!

Several of the factors in my ‘reading equalizer’ overlap and impact on each other, and few of them can be decided with any degree of objectivity. Still, I hope the idea helps to spark more discussion about readability, particularly in the staffroom and in the classroom.

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Win free CYOA graded readers!

Click here to go to Amazon Japan

Choose Your Own Adventure graded readers are now available through Amazon Japan. To mark the occasion, we’ve decided to hold a contest. Simply be the first or second person to review any of the thirty titles, in English or Japanese, and win another CYOA title, for free. Anyone with an Amazon Japan account may enter.

IMPORTANT UPDATE: It seems that some teachers are having trouble getting their students to create accounts. Apparently, to prevent ‘review spam’, one must have an active account to post a review–and to have an active account one needs to have purchased something on that account in the past. Unfortunately there’s no way to get around this restriction, so please bear it in mind. For our purposes, we don’t mind if reviews are posted under a parent’s or a teacher’s account. If you do choose to purchase something to be eligible, note that you do not need to purchase one of our books to participate–it can be any book from

Here are the simple rules (日本語で続きを読む↓)

1. Reviews can be in English or Japanese, but must be posted directly to Amazon Japan. Once the review is posted, let us know (email:, so that we can verify it and send you your prize. Students may post under a teacher’s or a parent’s account.

2. English reviews must be at least 75 words long, and Japanese reviews must be at least 150 characters. Reviews may be as positive or negative as you like–but they must be fair and informative, and show that you have read the book. We reserve the right to disqualify any review from this contest.

3. The same person may review different titles, but must wait 48 hours between posting each review. This is to ensure that everyone gets a fair chance to participate, and that there is enough time to read each book.

4. The contest will run until all 60 qualifying reviews are posted, or until September 1st, 2013, whichever comes first.

5. By participating in this contest, you agree to share your contact information with the publisher, so that they can send you your prize. You also agree to let the publisher use your name and/or school name, and/or your review, for publicity purposes. For example, they may want to quote your review on their website in the future.


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Interview with Lesley Ito

Lesley ItoLesley Ito is a school owner based in Nagoya, a tireless presenter on the conference circuit, and a rising star in the ELT materials development world. Besides writing the supplementary activities for all thirty CYOA titles, she has also served as an academic consultant for Pearson, and written for McGraw-Hill’s We Can! series.

I caught up with Lesley as she was nearing completion of the CYOA supplementaries…

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M-Reader: online quizzes for ER

A couple of weeks back I mentioned Moodle Reader, a great system for managing Extensive Reading programs with minimal intrusiveness. Well, now the same system is also web-based. The new, Moodle-less, iteration is simply called M-reader. It is hosted by the Extensive Reading Foundation and sponsored by all the major publishers. CYOA is there too, of course. As with the Moodle version, M-Reader is managed by Tom Robb, truly one of the patron saints of ER in Japan!

Mini-gamebook writing task

Studetn-written gamebookFor the past couple of semesters, I’ve been giving my elective Reading and Writing 2 students a gamebook writing assignment, which is essentially a structured mini CYOA.

I set it up by first assigning them to read one of the CYOA titles. I like to use a class set of Mystery of the Maya, but any title or mix of different titles will do. Then I give them this Word document template, which is already laid out page-by-page for an 8-page story with four endings.

The class is smallish (15 students) and run workshop-style, so over the next four or five weeks I basically float around, helping students individually. It’s a great task to get them focused on things such as tense consistency, point of view, and dialogue formatting. It’s also a simple enough structure that even the lowest level students manage to complete the assignment.

Here are a couple of student examples from this past semester. Enjoy!

Marcos interviewed at

I had the pleasure of being interviewed by Demian Katz this week. Demian runs the comprehensive gamebook database and community at It’s the place to go for background information on any gamebook series you’re looking for, no matter how obscure. He even found me a couple of ELT-related ones (here and here) which I had never heard of before!

CYOA quizzes now on Moodle Reader

A convenient and low-impact way to check if students have been keeping up with their reading in an ER program is to use Tom Robb’s excellent Moodle Reader Module. It’s free, and has some powerful management tools built in. For example, as a teacher you can restrict students to only read at certain levels, to take no more than X number of quizzes per week, etc.

Teachers must sign up and create classes for their students. If your school already uses Moodle, you can also download the entire MR database to your own server as a plug-in. I’ve heard rumours that a Moodle-less, web-based site is in the works as well. Will keep you posted!

Make Your Own Quizzes

Your students can, that is.

This template can double (triple?) as a worksheet, book report, and quiz. After reading their adventure, the student writes up some quiz questions for the next student who will read that particular title. The teacher can give the Quiz Maker a score based on question completion, and then give the Quiz Taker a score based on how many questions they got correct. In both cases, it can be a good alternative way to check that they’ve read the book. Plus students tend to enjoy making quizzes, believe it or not!

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