In BBC The Reading Group, we bring together listeners, students of English, literature teachers and other contributors from the world of books to share their enthusiasm for reading.
A Reading Group member visits The British Library to find out about the poetry and tragic life of Sylvia Plath. We also discuss the advantages of using ‘simplified readers.’
Listen to the BBC The Reading Group Part 7 programme:
ANNOUNCER: You’re listening to The Reading Group from the BBC World Service. In this series we bring together listeners, students of English, literature teachers and other contributors from the world of books to share their enthusiasm for reading. We hope that following this series will encourage your own interest in reading books in English as a foreign language.
Gary: Hello. Today we open the covers of a book that has been written especially for learners of English.
Insert 1 – Extract from Jojo’s Story by A. Moses
The soldiers find two books on the floor. They have a few pages which aren’t burnt. They give the books to me. The fire has eaten the village. There is nothing here now. Only me, and dog, and Whitetail, and two books with black pages.
Gary: Jojo’s Story is an example of what’s sometimes known as a simplified reader.
We’ll be meeting the woman who wrote it.
And we visit The British Library to see a special manuscript of a poem by the American writer Sylvia Plath.
But we begin with the first of a series of talks written especially for this series by teacher and author Martin Parrott. Today, he celebrates the “simplified reader”.
Insert 2 – Martin Parrott on Jojo’s Story by A. Moses
How good is your English? Good or bad, if you like reading, then simplified readers are there to help you. If you are still in the early stages of learning, then simplified readers can be a wonderful alternative to a difficult book. And even if your English is really good, simplified readers can provide a crutch, a way to get over initial problems and to get started.
So what are simplified readers? Simplified readers are books which use common words and straightforward sentences. They avoid making references to aspects of culture which might baffle foreign learners. Some simplified readers are original works, specially written for learners of English. For example, I was recently very moved reading a book called Jo-Jo’s Story by Antoinette Moses and published by Cambridge University Press. This is a novel in 40 pages, told almost entirely in the present tense. Other readers are adaptations of popular modern works or even the classics.
All the major publishers produce simplified readers and they are available at different clearly indicated levels of difficulty from elementary to advanced.
Elementary simplified readers are normally written with a very restricted vocabulary of 400 head-words. When you begin to find these readers too easy you can go on to the higher levels, 800 head-words, 1400 or even 2000 headwords.
As I’ve said, what kind of reader you choose and how you use it will depend on your own level of English.
If you’re still not too confident about reading in English, then why not forget original works until you build up your knowledge of the language. With simplified readers you can enjoy that buzz of success that comes with understanding most or everything you read. And of course, the very act of reading builds up your fluency and expands your vocabulary.
And for really advanced learners, simplified readers can still have a use. Getting started is often the most difficult part of reading a book, even in our first language. Typically, the first page is so full of new information that we struggle to make sense of it. How many times do we have to read it before we feel confident enough to turn the page, before we have an idea of where and when the story is taking place, who the characters are and what is going on?
So, if you want to get to grips with an original text then why not start off with a simplified version just until you feel comfortable with who and when and where and what it’s all about. You can then pick up the original and glide more easily through the difficult first pages, enjoying all the subtlety and sophistication of the language and how the book is constructed.
Gary: Thank you. In his talk, Martin Parrott referred to a simplified reader that moved him recently – a book called Jojo’s Story. Well, the author of that book has joined The Reading Group today.
Antoinette: Hello. I’m Antoinette Moses. I am an author and a play-write and I specialise in writing simplified readers.
Gary: Antoinette, welcome. Jojo is a 10 year old boy who tells his own story, we see the world through his eyes. And in many ways, I have to say, it is a terrible world. When the story begins Jojo is alone in his village with only his favourite chicken, Whitetail, a nearby dog and the ghosts of his family and friends as companions. Everyone else in his village has been killed by enemies across the river.
Insert 3 – Extract from Jojo’s Story by A. Moses
It’s dark again, so it’s evening and there’s only me – why? Why aren’t I dead too? That’s a stupid question Jojo, I say to myself. You know why you aren’t dead. You aren’t dead because you weren’t in the house. You were in the fields when the men came.
Gary: That’s the beginning of a very sad, sad story, Antoinette.
Antoinette: It is sad but I hope people feel it’s also real.
Gary: The story is told through Jojo’s eyes. Tell us a little bit about the character of Jojo.
Antoinette: He’s a very lively 10 year old boy who has had a happy life on his farm and his village before the story begins, and has been caught up in something which is so big he doesn’t understand it to start with, and so he goes on this journey of discovery. He meets Chris, a journalist and photographer, and then he goes to a children’s house where he meets Doctor Nicki, and he meets some UN soldiers and he grows up very quickly and discovers that the world is much bigger than he thinks it is.
Gary: We’re often conditioned these days to expect a happy ending and even 2 pages before the end of this book I thought Jojo’s story was going to end happily. We don’t want to spoil the ending of course but it left me feeling rather sad, feeling ‘why is the world like this?’
Ant: When you think of the number of children who are caught up in wars throughout the world, to try and make it a happy ending, almost like a Hollywood ending would be false and I think it was very brave of my publishers to allow me to have a truthful ending, and when you are writing fiction, truth is what you always go after.
Gary: Jojo’s Story is part of the Cambridge English Readers series, and I thought perhaps we could spend some time looking at the features of your story that are intended to make it suitable for learners of English.
Ant: We have a word list which Cambridge produces, but that isn’t in the front of my head when I am writing. I abide by it, but I’m thinking, how can I make this a really powerful story?
Insert 4 – Extract from Jojo’s Story by A. Moses
The very small children are happy here, because they don’t understand what is happening in our country. All the other children are unhappy. I know that because they shout and cry in the night. No-one sleeps quietly here. Doctor Nicki is the doctor here. She speaks our language very well, and is very nice.
She wears a white t-shirt with letters on it. ‘What are the letters for?’ I ask her.
‘The letters are for Medicins Sans Frontieres – doctors without borders’ she answers. ‘I want to go to the country without borders!’ I tell her.
Gary: What sort of help is there for readers to get to know the characters in the book and perhaps unfamiliar words in the story?
Ant: We have the cast of characters, and then any new word in the story that is a bit difficult or above the level is explained and also shown in the illustrations, and the illustrations are very important.
Gary: What do you think are some of the benefits for learners of English in reading simplified original fiction like this?
Ant: There are the obvious benefits in that they increase their vocabulary, and their reading skills, but much more than that, when you start reading stories you often go above your own level because once you’re hooked on the story then you want more and you want to read more.
Gary: This is the BBC World Service, and you’re listening to The Reading Group.
Now for students of English, the American writer Sylvia Plath is perhaps best known for her autobiographical novel The Bell Jar, a moving and shocking story of growing up. But Sylvia Plath’s poems made her famous, and they are greatly admired for their brave and clever writing about emotional pain and suffering. At various points in her life, Sylvia Plath battled with deep depression but committed suicide in 1963 at the age of 30. After her death, her last poems were collected together and published in a collection called Ariel. Ariel was the name of her favourite horse and it’s also the title of one of her best and most challenging poems. Reading Group reporter Annemarit van de Made went to The British Library in London, where curators Sally Brown and Chris Fletcher talked to her about a manuscript copy of the poem.
Insert 5 – Sylvia Plath / British Library package Annemarit (Reporter):
Sally Brown: We have here inside a cover made of red typewriter carbon paper a manuscript of a very famous poem by Sylvia Plath. It’s written out very neatly. It’s a first copy made specially for her friend Al Alvarez, and in fact it says Ariel and in brackets For Al. It has not got any changes at all, it’s a complete first copy, it’s written in her characteristic hand, which is rather a school-girly hand, it’s not a mature hand, it’s very careful, and it’s signed at the bottom with her full name Sylvia Plath and then a very characteristic drawing of a pink flower.
Annemarit: It’s striking that the appearance of this poem looks very friendly and nice although the contents of the poem is actually the opposite.
Sally Brown: It certainly is extraordinary to see such a famous poem in the guise of a keepsake almost, when you compare its appearance with its content, which is extremely shocking and extraordinary.
Annemarit: Can you tell me when this poem was written?
Sally Brown: This was written not long before her death, she committed suicide early in 1963 and these poems were written towards the end of the previous year when she was separated from her husband Ted Hughes and living alone. She had terrible bouts of flu and high fever and she suddenly found that she was able to sit down, despite the fevers, and these poems, (now known as the Ariel poems, which were the poems published after her death, but the last ones she wrote) poured out of her in the most extraordinary way.
Chris Fletcher: It’s interesting, of all the poems perhaps in that collection, Ariel, although it’s full of dark language and sinister undertones, is in a strange way, a triumphant poem as well, and it’s significant that perhaps she chose this to write out in this very neat way and present to Al Elvarez who clearly meant so much to her.
Sally Brown: She describes herself here as suicidal, but then she ends in the very last few lines she says she is ‘suicidal, at one with the drive into the red eye, the cauldron of mourning.’ So there’s a sense of her rising out of her suicide and being born anew and becoming something else in a triumphant way rather than a despairing way.
Annemarit: Do you think all the pain and suffering that she wrote about reflects her life, or the last part of her life?
Sally Brown: She suffered from mental illness from her teens and she had bouts of quite severe mental illness and obviously this coloured her writing, she had a manic depressive tendency and at the end the depression overwhelmed her, the darkness overwhelmed her.
Chris Fletcher: Among 20th century poets she must be one of the most autobiographical, confessional writers.
Sally Brown: Yes, her poems are in fact always essentially about herself.
Gary: Annemarit van de Made was at The British Library, learning more about Sylvia Plath’s poetry. Join us again next time, when we turn our attention to reading books in translation.
ANNOUNCER: And that brings us to the end of today’s programme. If you’d like to share your reading experiences, you can join our BBC Learning English group on Facebook. We’ll have topics on the Discussion board linked to the subjects covered in The Reading Group programmes. So, until next time, happy reading!
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