Cultural context in graded readers

I Talk You Talk Press was founded by two English language teachers. We wanted our students to read more, so we recommended graded readers. We then decided to write our own. The first people we turned to for advice on what to write was our students. After all, they represented the market for our books. One of the questions we asked was about cultural context. Would you like to read a book set in your country with characters with the same background as you? Or would you prefer to read books set in other countries, with characters from diverse backgrounds? We found both to be equally popular. The students who wanted to read books set in their own culture thought that the familiarity would make the books easier to read. Knowing the cultural background of the characters and the setting of the story eased the pressure of reading in a foreign language. Some said they felt like they were able to “live through the character”. It was a kind of “give me me!” approach to reading.

The students who wanted to read books with diverse characters and settings thought that learning new cultures and new ideas would be helpful to their English study. Through the stories, they could naturally acquire cultural and background knowledge. If they were going to read a book in English, they wanted the characters to represent that difference. One student said that she wanted to “know what American women wore, ate, and thought about life and love”, and she expected a graded reader to teach her that.

When we plan our graded readers, we try to strike a balance between these two opinions. We are based in Japan, and this is our main market. So, we write books which feature Japanese protagonists and are set in Japan, and also books which feature a diverse range of characters and are set in other countries (and not only predominantly English-speaking countries.)

Reading graded readers should be like reading in your native language. When we select books, we sometimes read those set in our own cultures, and we sometimes choose those with different settings. We believe that same choice should be available to students.

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