Japanese Graded Readers

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One of the best ways to level up your Japanese is by reading — as much as possible! In the best case scenario, you should try to choose something interesting to you that you can read smoothly, without having to take breaks or look things up. This is a process known as extensive reading. Even so, this can be easier said than done. Learners might be used to the style and length of texts from their textbooks but feel completely overwhelmed by longer books. Or perhaps a learner has decided to pick up their first book in Japanese, only to be discouraged when they realize that it’s beyond their current ability level. Finding books that are simple enough to understand, but interesting enough to compel you to read can be difficult for Japanese learners, especially those in the beginner stage.

Not only is this an enjoyable, confidence-building activity, but it’ll make your Japanese a lot better too!

Thankfully, this is where graded readers come in! Graded readers are book series that feature a variety of stories sorted into different levels of difficulty, or “grades.” For Japanese, this usually is determined by the vocabulary and grammar used, often corresponding to the 5 levels of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT), but different publishers and organizations have different levels and definitions. Graded readers offer everyone, even Japanese beginners, fun stories to read. Not only is this an enjoyable, confidence-building activity, but it’ll make your Japanese a lot better too!

So, ready to dive in? Great! In this article, I will talk more about what graded readers are and how to get the most out of them. My co-author Emily and I have also taken a look at some of the options available so we can recommend the best graded readers for you, regardless of whether you prefer to use digital books or physical ones, free libraries or paid collections, or even an app.

What is a Graded Reader?

As mentioned earlier, graded readers are collections of different stories designed for language learners, sorted into categories based on difficulty. Usually, these books start at the beginner level and increase in difficulty. Additionally, just because these books are designed for beginner readers doesn’t mean they’re books for kids. In fact, since many of the companies that produce graded readers promote extensive reading, they aim to publish a range of different stories that appeal to learners regardless of age and interests. Some graded readers are simplified versions of well-known stories too. Ideally, there’s something that piques your interest in every collection.

Many of the companies that produce graded readers aim to publish a range of different stories that appeal to learners regardless of age and interests.

While graded readers have become more popular for language learners in many languages, they’re still relatively new in Japanese, so unfortunately there are fewer options available than you can find in English or Spanish, for example. That said, there are a couple of great options we think will fit the bill for any Japanese student looking to learn to read and improve their overall language ability.

Another point I want to make is that graded readers are simply a stepping stone on your Japanese learning journey, not the destination. What I mean by that is that I think graded readers are for a Japanese learner at a specific stage in their Japanese learning progress — before starting to dive into native materials. I think they should help you bridge the gap between being a learner who has yet to start reading in Japanese, and someone who reads native materials as part of their studying.

Extensive Reading: How to Get the Most out of Graded Readers

I’ve mentioned it a few times before, but let’s talk a bit more about what extensive reading is, as doing so will give us an idea of how best to use graded readers for studying. Extensive reading is a language-learning strategy where learners practice by reading longer, simpler texts, as smoothly as possible without stopping to look up unfamiliar vocabulary or grammar.

NPO Tadoku Supporters, a pioneering organization for extensive reading for Japanese learners, has some recommendations on their website for extensive reading. They suggest:

  1. Reading easy books that you don’t need to try and translate (i.e., it’s best to not push yourself with materials that are too difficult for your current level).
  2. Don’t use a dictionary or look up words you don’t know. Instead, it’s best to try and figure out the meaning from context or the pictures that go with the story, if there are any. Otherwise:
  3. Skip over words, phrases, and passages that are too difficult. It’s better to skip things to keep your momentum up rather than getting stuck on one little part.
  4. Finally, don’t be afraid to stop reading a book that’s too difficult or uninteresting and find something you like better.

Your aim should not be to translate a book into English as you read, but rather to comprehend the story as it is in Japanese.

Keeping all this in mind can help you understand what makes a graded reader set good. It should have a wide range of books, across a number of different skill levels, so that you can find something that’s not only suitable for your abilities, but pertains to your interests as well. And remember, your aim should not be to translate a book into English as you read, but rather to comprehend the story as it is in Japanese. This might be a little difficult to grasp for absolute beginners, but as you learn more of the language you’ll encounter concepts that you can understand or express better in Japanese than in English, and you’ll find your thoughts moving straight from the Japanese text to understanding, without having to make a detour into English.

Finally, while I think it can be great to push yourself to complete something you’re interested in, and really gratifying once you finish it, if you want to follow these guidelines then reading shouldn’t be an extremely taxing activity for you. Instead, it’s best to read things that are suited to your level, that allow you to relax and read comfortably without feeling the urge to look up every other word.

Our Recommendations

In this article, I wanted to focus on books that were meant for language learners rather than native speakers, had a series of different grades or difficulty levels available, and were written entirely in Japanese. That means the list of recommendations won’t include materials that offer English translations. While having the English translation can certainly help comprehension, it reinforces translation rather than natural comprehension.

With aallllll that out of the way, let’s get to reading!

TADOKU Supporters (Free Books) / にほんごたどく (無料の読み物)

During my hunt for graded readers, I found two great free libraries of graded readers online. In my opinion, these two libraries should really be all you need. The first is a collection of free materials available on the Tadoku Supporters’ website.

tadoku supporters

NPO Tadoku Supporters is a non-profit organization (that’s the “NPO” part) that has not only helped establish the use of graded readers and extensive reading in Japanese, but has also become a major player in this space, advising other similar organizations and creating graded readers for a variety of publishers. In fact, many of the most popular graded reader sets, like the ones from Ask Publishing and Taishukan, as well as the White Rabbit Press App, consist of stories from NPO Tadoku Supporters. Of course, they produce books under their own name as well, a large library of which is available for free on their website.

NPO Tadoku Supporters also hosts events, courses, and lessons such as an online reading group, and you can attend some of them for free. NPO Tadoku Supporters has their own criteria for grading books, from Level 0, called “starter,” up to Level 5, called “Upper-Intermediate or Above.” The levels range from the absolute beginners up to books designed for JLPT N2 and N1 learners. You can see more about their criteria on their website here.

Among the free library on their website, they have books in all 5 levels, though the most for Level 0 and Level 3, and only a single book for Level 5. All the books in their library are graded readers with e-books available, and feature furigana except for the couple of books that are in kana only. Each book is presented with a user rating and icons that let you know what level the book is, whether or not there’s an audio reading of the book available, and more.

Each book also has its own page, where you can see a description of the book, what genres it’s tagged as, and some short reviews that fellow Japanese learners have left. If you decide to give it a try, you can begin reading right away through their embedded reader. Recorded audio appears in its own player right below the books that have recordings, along with links to download the PDF and MP3 files.

The library is really varied and includes novels, books about historical events, and picture books about aspects of Japanese culture — like Japanese cuisine or the animal statues found at temples and shrines.

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Ian’s Review