Considerations in choosing authentic novels for learning English
Reading a book in the original language can be highly motivating, engaging and stimulating for students. However, it can also be a frustrating and de-motivating experience because of the language difficulty. This article looks at the issues to do with selecting authentic novels to read, and how, at Book Club School, we go about this.
We are big fans of adapted texts which are shorter, have simpler grammar and vocabulary and less cultural knowledge is assumed for the reader to understand and enjoy the text. At Advanced levels, however, we recognise that learners often wish to read the text in the original. There are many reasons for this:
- "real language" - it is motivating to know that you are reading something written to entertain and engage
- "challenge" - as these texts are not simplfied they will have rich and varied language which is often unknown to the reader. They represent a challenge to conquer
- "interest" - being written to entertain, they are designed to be interesting
- "topicality or up-to-date-ness" - recently written books may include modern uses of syntax and vocabulary which are up to date
- "potential to gain cultural information" - they provide a window into the world that the book is describing
However, there are significant disadvantages of reading the original text. Firstly, is the issue of language difficulty. The vocabulary and sentence syntax used may be far more difficult than that which the reader has experienced before and may include many more unknown words. These unknown words may be "low-frequency" words - words that are not often used and so not very useful to be learnt by the reader. This problem is likely to be multiplied if the book was written a long time ago and uses more old-fashioned or archaic structures and vocabulary.
An additional issue is the level of cultural knowledge that it is helpful to have prior to reading the book. Without this shared knowledge the actions of the characters become more difficult to understand and interpret. If the reader cannot interpret the intentions of the writer and its characters, then it is difficult to engage with the text and develop a relationship with it.
The length of a book is also a factor. Some books are a lot longer than others. A non-native English reader is likely to take longer to read a book in English. A very long book becomes even more of a challenge to complete! Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre for example is nearly 185,000 words and so takes over 12 hours to read at an average of 250 words per minute. It is likely that, due to the lexical and syntactic loading, this book will actually be read at a much slower speed than this - it would not surprise me if it actually takes at least double this length of time.
As a result, at Book Club School we choose to study authentic texts with care! We choose books that are not too long, and ones that are written in a more direct style that are less difficult to understand. Modern authors are sometimes prioritised over older ones as a result. However, one of the advantages of reading chapters together and discussing them on a weekly basis with a teacher is that background knowledge and cultural understanding can be provided to help readers understand and so engage with the text more easily. A teacher can provide suitable additional support so that advanced level English readers can gain the enjoyment of a text themselves.
"Teacher perceptions of the advantages and disavantages of using short authentic texts with intermediate level adult learners in the ELT classroom" Hardy-Gould, JA (2006) Dissertation MA in ELT, Sussex University Library
"Teaching and Learning in the Language Classroom" Hedge,T (2000), Oxford OUP