Preparing a Reading Scheme

By Peter Viney

We had been sitting there for weeks, surrounded by hundreds of pieces of paper and piles of books. We had a clear concept when we started on the grading scheme for Streamline Graded Readers, and half the job, structural control, was done for us - the scheme is graded to the structural progression of Streamline English. The biggest problem was vocabulary. We had all the reference books and frequency counts that we could lay our hands on - A General Service List of English Words, Cambridge English Lexicon, The Leuven English Teaching Vocabulary List, The Threshold Level, English Grammatical Structure, and just about every other graded reading scheme from L.A. Hill's lists for OUP to the Ladybird list for children. Most importantly, we had the vocabulary indexes for Streamline itself. We had about ten ELT dictionaries, three Thesauruses (is that the plural of Thesaurus? I don't know), and a list of international words we had compiled while we were writing Departures and Connections.

It was then that we began to realise that there was no such thing as an objective frequency count of English that could be relied on. The deeper we looked into vocabulary lists, the more holes we found. However, we were lost in admiration for the effort that had gone into them. We both had severe eyestrain from staring at the computer screen. The rattle of the printer as it typed out draft after draft at high speed was driving us mad. The fun part of working on graded readers is doing the stories, not the word list after all.

We wanted to create a word list that combined frequency with narrative usefulness, a word list that was clearly related to the structure list, and a word list that would work in the 1980's and 1990's. Everybody who had compiled a word list or a frequency count seemed to have done some rather strange things. We discovered that The Cambridge English Lexicon (4500 words divided into six levels) had not included across, in spite of, week or video. It had grocer at level 1, baker at level 2, but supermarket was held back to Level 5. It was hard to see why bite or board had been included in level 1. We couldn't work out why menu should be level 4, and soup level 2.

The word list for Longman Structural Readers included chalk, root, field, grass and supper at level 1. Inexplicably, pine (a kind of tree) was included at level 3, supermarket wasn't in at all, computer was level 5, cassette and video were missing, police came way down in level 4, and television was rejected from level 1. (It joined leaf in level 2.)

We turned to L.A. Hill. What were words like lion, mouse and donkey doing in a 1000 word count ? Why did A General Service List consider that seldom was more frequent than rarely which was more frequent than hardly ever ? Everybody we asked rated them in the reverse order. Why did the 2000 word defining vocabulary for the Longman dictionaries contain words like donkey and Hinduism in the first edition (1978) , but not in the 1987 New Edition ?

The reasons are fairly obvious. A lot of the lists had gone out of date (hence the low rating of words like computer, video, television). Others had focussed on books for young children (hence all the animals), another consideration must have been words suitable for defining other words (hence root. Define potato - it's a roundish root). Most of the surveys were based on fairly formal written English. There must have been a feeling that classroom language was important (or already known), so that words like teacher, blackboard, board, chalk were put into the first level. We did it rather differently. We realised that our intuition as teachers and writers was probably as useful as a frequency count published nearly 40 years ago. Our experience as teachers made us list items like is and are seperately, not under be. We couldn't conceive of any exciting stories about chalk, blackboards and rulers (at least without entering a surreal dimension.) At the early levels, we saw no need for two ways of expressing the same thing, so level 1 has close, but not shut in the word list. When we refined the lists, words which had narrative usefulness took precedence over words which might be communicatively useful, but which were unlikely to appear in stories.

We evolved five lists. Level 1 (400 words) relates to the structures in Departures units 1-40, Level 2 (750 words) to Departures 41-80, level 3 (1000 words) to Connections 1-40, level 4 (1250 words) to Connections 41-80, and Level 5 (1500 words) to Destinations 1-80 .

The authors of the books in the scheme can use 30 extra words in any story. This is vital, as all stories will need some specific vocabulary items. The extra words are listed at the back of each reader. Authors are free to use additional words which are considered to be international - words like taxi, sandwich, jet. They also have lists of numbers, days and dates, titles, countries and nationalities, weights and measures and abbreviations for each level.

Our interest in graded reading schemes dates back to the late 1970's, when we organized a library system for our own students. We concentrated on getting students to read for pleasure. Each of the readers in Streamline Graded Readers contains a set of exercises. These are optional. One of the most interesting results of our library was that the less we checked on reading, the more books the students borrowed. Eventually, we found that if a secretary issued books instead of the teacher, the students borrowed more books again. Some of our students on intensive courses were reading five or six graded readers a week. It would be nice to produce graphs and charts showing the effect on their English, but we didn't need to. We knew as practising classroom teachers that reading - and reading strictly for pleasure - had an effect on the student's performance in all the skills. The greatest compliment the system had was when students told us they were beginning to read more in their own language as well.

Of course any reading scheme stands or falls on the quality of the stories. After all, no author had to use chalk or blackboard in a reader for another scheme just because they were in the word list. We are delighted with the range and quality of the stories submitted to OUP for Streamline Graded Readers. We actually enjoyed reading them.

Peter Viney

Streamline Graded Readers has been replaced by Storylines

A courtroom drama for classroom use by Peter Viney and Karen Viney, Striker, is published by Penguin Readers (


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