Reaching Reluctant Readers

Books have always been my best friends. As a child when I wanted to learn something new, I picked up a book. When I wanted to escape my boring life, I would read my way through a new adventure. But for a child learning English as a second language or a struggling reader not reading at grade level, books are often a bewildering obstacle rather than a friend to be enjoyed. Writers willing to learn the particular needs of this market can help turn reluctant readers into willing readers.
These specialized books are usually called Hi/Los, which means they offer a high interest level at a low reader level. At some publishers they are referred to as reluctant reader books (not to be confused with Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Adult Readers list put out by ALA.). They have plenty of pictures and not very many words on the page but they look and feel like a book appropriate for the age of the reader.
Anne Arena, President of Academic Therapy Publications clarifies the definitions. “Hi/Lo is shorthand for the term ‘High Interest/Low reading level’ subject material that is of high interest to older readers, combined with low-readability vocabulary. The term reluctant reader generally describes the student who for one reason or another is reading below grade level. The terms sometimes get thrown about as the same thing, and while they describe different aspects of the issues they are not identical terms.”
“Reluctant readers are at a wide range of reading levels,” adds Jill Braithwaite, Product Development Manager for Capstone Press. “Many have greater success with books, especially nonfiction, with lower reading levels and a less intimidating text load.”
High interest is the key to making these books work.
Braithwaite explains. “What most reluctant readers do have in common is that they see themselves as non-readers. They’re usually afraid of trying to read. For educators and parents, the goal is to provide materials that make learning reading secondary to doing something fun. For example, reading a book about a favorite professional wrestler is, for the child, about soaking up more information about something in which he’s very interested.”
Brett Hodus, CEO / Co-Founder Scobre Press elaborates “Truly high interest is a very loose term that publishers tend to throw around without having any rubric to assess what actually is high interest. Our definition of high interest at Scobre is simple: a book that is written with the sole intent of engaging students with material they can easily relate to and get excited about. Furthermore, for a subject to truly be high interest, we believe the subject must be related to an interest/activity/person, etc…that a young person would CHOOSE to watch a television show about, click on websites relating to, or play a video game relating to. That is our litmus test. If they would CHOOSE to participate in an activity relating to the content of the book, it is high interest.”
Yet that high interest needs to be balanced with a vocabulary that invites victory for the reader.
“The vocabulary used to write these books must be very low, (sometimes as low as first grade readability),” stresses Arena. “This is crucial to help ensure that the reluctant reader can have some success while reading independently. However, the subject matter should be appropriate for older kids; even if the story is written at first or second grade readability, it should not be like a first or second grade story with ducks and bunnies. The High Noon chapter books, for instance, (published by ATP) include mystery novels, historical fiction, and sports stories–all topics appropriate for older readers.”
One of the great things about writing for the reluctant reader is that the field of topics is usually wide open.
“I have worked on reluctant reader subjects for boys that have included such high-interest topics as military hardware (fighter planes, tanks, missile and rockets, aircraft carriers, etc.), military services, (U.S. Army, U.S. Air Force, U.S. Marine Corps, etc.) sports biographies, and cars,” says Jeffrey Zuehlke, Editor for Lerner Publications.
Book design is always important but it plays a special part when catering to the Hi/Lo reader. According Thies, “Design is critical in hi/lo books. It’s so important to make the book look more sophisticated than the reading level would indicate. In other words, a book written at a 2nd-grade level for a student in 8th grade can’t look like a 2nd-grade book. The font size, book size, cover illustration, etc all must be sophisticated enough to resemble books written on grade level for 8th graders.”
Arena adds, “Type size, spacing, and margins are all carefully determined to ensure that students who may have trouble visually focusing can follow the text more easily. The High Noon books are presented in a chapter book format, which reassures the older reader that he/she is not reading a “baby” book. There are a few illustrations, but we keep these to a minimum, once again to emphasize that this is a book for older readers.”
While authors aren’t usually involved in the design process, there are a few things a writer can do to make the job of illustrating the book a little easier.
“The tone of a manuscript can help drive a book’s design,” says Braithwaite. “Authors should not “talk down to” their audience; rather, they must look for creative ways to make inherently fascinating information accessible.”
David Torsiello, editor for Enslow Publishers agrees. “A reluctant reader book/ series should be designed to hold the reader’s interest. A writer can play to this depending on the specific design they’re working in (i.e., allude to specific images or other graphics that may be part of the design).
In addition, adds Sheila Rivera Curriculum Product Developer at Lerner Publications, “The author can help by using subheads to break up material into manageable sections.”
“The cover of a book is the most critical element of the book for reluctant readers,” says Hodus. “The psychology of a reluctant reader is such that when they see a book, they automatically associate it with their own failure, their own humiliation, their own shortcomings. Reading, often times, represents what they hate about school — reading is not fun, because they are not good at it. If the cover looks exciting, but not intimidating, they will be more likely to open the book. We have to change their attitude by creating cover art that jumps off the page at them. Cover art that resembles the things they CHOOSE to do in their lives, so that reading eventually becomes something they CHOOSE to do. Cover art that is ‘cool.’ The best thing the author can do to help this process is to create exciting action sequences throughout the book that can be highlighted visually on the cover of the book.”
Editors offer some tips for the writer new to this market segment. “Keep in mind,” recommends Torsiello, “that you’re striving for accuracy, if not completeness. Sometimes authors go off on tangents that (eventually) introduce material that might be over the heads of a reluctant reader audience (such as overly technical science and such).”
“Not all reluctant readers have reading difficulty,” reminds Rivera, “but simply are not interested in reading. The goal is to pull readers in with a cool topic and great design.”
Hodus agrees. “A struggling reader is a skeptical reader. He/she is assuming they will not enjoy your book right when they first open it. Your job as an author is to make your first five pages EXPLODE!”
Because this is a specialized market there are some word lists that assist the writer in using the appropriate vocabulary, although Torsiello advises that, “these things should be kept in mind, but not to the point where one loses sight of the target audience.”
“These tools can be very helpful,” says Zuehlke, “especially for writers who are learning the skill of writing at reading level. It should be noted that none of these systems is fool proof, and they do not have all the answers. I’ve always found the best way to become familiar and skilled at writing at reading level is to read, read, read lots of books at different reading levels.”
“Do your research and develop a solid understanding of what the publisher you’re working with requires,” adds Braithwaite. “If you’re aiming to work for a certain publisher, show them in a query letter and writing sample that you understand their requirements.”
As always, writers are encouraged to seek out each publisher personal submission guidelines.
Arena says, “We often get submissions that are correctly low in reading level but have a “babyish” subject. We also get stories that are not presented in chapter format. These don’t fit into our independent reading line.”
At Enslow, Torsiello commonly sees manuscripts with a “reading level and vocabulary being too high for a reluctant-reader audience to be realistically expected to grasp.”
Keep your plots, simple says Hodus. “A simple plot told in an exciting way with some exciting characters is all that is necessary. Struggling readers want to succeed. They want to get it. If they don’t get it, at any point in the book, they will quit on it. If they quit on the book, the author has failed. A great Hi/Lo book for a struggling reader is action packed with great characters and a fairly simple plot.”
A frustrating problem that Thies sees is that, “Writers often try to sell on-level books as Hi/Lo. The characters in a Hi/Lo book should be at least as old as the upper-end of the interest level the book is written for. No self-respecting 8th-grade hi/lo reader wants to read a book with a 3rd-grade protagonist. Writers who know that will often take their 3rd-grade characters and just change the ages. So then we have a manuscript with an 8th-grade character talking and acting like a 3rd grader. If a book is written for an elementary school audience reading on grade level, it doesn’t work to try to pass it off as hi/lo.”
In conclusion, the goal of writers for children is to get children to read and to do so by giving them great books that hold their interest.
“Although Hi/Lo books are targeted for reluctant readers, we believe that Hi/Lo books are NOT simply for reluctant readers,” explains Hodus. “Hi/Lo books are completely necessary for struggling readers. They are necessary in order to help them become proficient. Hi/Lo inspires their best effort. We believe that if we create books written about the things they already enjoy doing, we can get them to enjoy reading, and eventually become a successful reader.
However, for a reader who is NOT reluctant/struggling, Hi/Lo can STILL be an excellent way to get them to read. You can’t read too much, or be too proficient a reader! Hi/Lo books are created to get the attention of young readers. They will inevitably garner attention from both struggling and proficient readers.
Bottom line: The more books we can get ALL kids to read, the better off we will be in a number of ways. Kids who like to read are better readers, better test takers, better students, more likely candidates to attend college, and more likely candidates to be successful adults. Our job as a Hi/Lo publisher is to hook as many kids on reading as possible.”
—Susan Taylor Brown
NOTE: This article first appeared in the Children’s Writer Newsletter. Editors may have moved to a different publishing house and editorial needs may have changed. Please do your own research before submitting.