Hi/Lo Books: Writing for Reluctant Readers
by Eugie Foster
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As writers, we're already sold on the premise that reading is fundamentally enriching as well as essential. However, reading is a skill that eludes a growing number of children, reluctant readers who have never been engrossed in a book, or who think of reading as a chore, work to do rather than something to enjoy. More school systems, teachers, and parents are realizing that they need to reach children who are not reading at their grade level as early as possible, when they're still receptive to positive reading influences.
Demographically, reluctant readers are three times more likely to be boys than girls1. They also tend to have a narrower reading focus, subject matter-wise. When examining the problem of reluctant readers, researchers and teachers have determined that what makes a good reader is, simply, more time spent reading. That is, a child's reading fluency increases as they have more opportunities to practice, especially when their practice meets with a high level of success2,3.
In response to the growing need for reading material to assist reluctant readers, a sub-genre has emerged: Hi/Lo books--high interest, low reading level (also "low vocabulary" or "low ability"). Aimed at children in the intermediate grades, middle through high school, these books are short, running from 400 to 1,200 words, with many illustrations. They are packaged to look like traditional chapter books so that struggling readers are not further stigmatized--especially important since struggling readers are probably already suffering self-esteem problems due to their reading difficulties.
Works for reluctant readers share many of the qualities that works for fluent readers do. They have strong characterization, featuring realistic protagonists that readers truly care about, with exciting storylines about interest topics. The best Hi/Lo books will appeal to both fluent readers as well as reluctant readers; the fluent readers will simply be able to get through them quicker.
However, Hi/Lo books must also provide supports that can assist the reading abilities of a struggling reader:
- Characters, in addition to being compelling and three-dimensional, must also be immediately distinct from each other, all without relying on copious description or slower-paced character development. Writers don't have the luxury of long, description-laden passages in Hi/Lo books or they risk losing their audience. A simple technique writers can use is to ensure that the names are visually dissimilar from each other.
- Longer words and sentences and less commonly used vocabulary words increase reading difficulty level4,5. Harder vocabulary items should be introduced within contexts that make their meaning clear. Writers also need to make sure these vocabulary words are repeated in order to reinforce their acquisition.
- Sentence structure should be short, simple, and clear. Authors should break longer sentences into multiple sentences, and use tight, concrete writing. Style needs to be consistent throughout, without the typical increases and decreases of reading complexity found in more traditional texts.
- Plot and storyline presentation must be straightforward, without point of view switches or non-linear chronologic progressions. Flashbacks, plot twists, and red herrings should be avoided in order to better progress the reader swiftly through the story. Tight, fast pacing is essential.
- Subject matter for Hi/Lo books must be geared to children's, but particularly boys' interests and should be something readers have an easy time becoming emotionally invested in. Readers must to be able to connect their own experiences to the text in order for it to resonate with them. Writers who wish to write material for reluctant readers need to be up-to-date on what kids at that age are interested in. Nonfiction is especially appealing to boys because it's both easy to find titles that focus on a specific interest and the reader doesn't need to read the entire text in order to obtain benefit. Some popular topics include funny situations, sports, disasters, teen conflict, family/friend problems, and street kids/gangs (rebellious boy saves the day). Genres include science fiction, mystery/spy, and adventure.
Some publishers of Hi/Lo books:
- Capstone Press
- Publishes material for grade 2-4 level reading ability students with content that appeals to grade 5 students and higher.
- High Noon books
- Focuses on titles written at a grade 1-4 readability level.
- Orca Book Publishers
- Primarily publishes Hi/Lo fiction geared at interesting boys in middle school through high school.
- Remedia Publications
- Publishes texts used in the classroom with an emphasis on basic skills acquisition and repetition.
- Whitecap Kids (Canada)
- Publishes fiction and scientifically accurate nonfiction presented in an appealing and easy-to-read format for young readers.
More reading on reaching reluctant readers:
- Kennedy, E. (n.d.). Resources for Reluctant Readers. About.com.
- Rog, L. & Kropp, P. (2001). Hooking Struggling Readers:
Using Books They Can and Want to Read. Reading Rockets.
- Kropp, P. (n.d.). The Boy Problem in Reading. High Interest Publishing: HIP Books.
- Allington, R. (2001). What really matters for struggling readers: Designing research-based programs. New York: Longman.
- National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. (2002). Report of the National Reading Panel. Put Reading First: The Research Building Blocks of Reading Instruction.
- Zakaluk, B and S. Samuels (eds). (1988) Readability: Its Past, Present and Future. Newark, DE: International Reading Association.
- Hiebert, E. (1999). Selecting texts for beginning reading instruction. CIERA Report #1-001. CIERA: The Center for the Improvement of Early Reading Achievement Ann Arbor MI: University of Michigan School of Education.
Copyright © 2006 Eugie Foster
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.
Eugie Foster is a short-fiction writer specializing in genre and children's literature. She has sold more than a dozen stories to the Cricket Magazine Group, including Spider, Cricket and Cicada, as well as to an assortment of other children's magazines including Dragonfly Spirit and Story Station. She holds an M.A. in developmental psychology, has co-authored a textbook on child development, and is a frequent speaker at Dragon*Con's Young Adult Literature Track. She is a member of the SFWA and managing editor of Tangent (http://www.tangentonline.com). Foster maintains a list of children's SF/F magazine markets at her website, http://www.eugiefoster.com.
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