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The Right Book can Welcome Every Reluctant Reader into the World of Literature

So they think they don’t like reading? Stephen Rickard has some ideas that will help unlock the power of books for every young person...

  • The Right Book can Welcome Every Reluctant Reader into the World of Literature

How does an author write engaging fiction for reluctant and struggling readers? Is it different in any way from writing for a more mainstream audience?

The answer is ‘absolutely yes’.

At risk of stating the obvious, reluctant readers don’t like reading (they’re reluctant) and struggling readers struggle to read (they might want to read, but they find it hard work).

The result, as we all know from experience, is that such young people end up not reading much, if at all, and so their skills don’t develop. Their self-esteem plummets and their hostility towards books increases.

It’s a vicious circle where they stay ‘stuck’ as non-readers. And at secondary if you can’t read, you can’t access the curriculum.

Breaking that cycle and re-engaging these readers means giving them books that do two things: first, they must be age appropriate, not patronising, and on topics that are genuinely of interest.

For reluctant and struggling readers, reading is probably hard work – every sentence is struggled over as the young person tries to decode the words and at the same time retain the meaning. If they’re going to put all that effort in, the book really needs to offer something back.

Quality content

We have to focus on making sure, too, that the book is genuinely age appropriate: if a 13-year-old has a reading age of eight, the content needs to appeal to a 13-year-old and not an eight-year-old.

There is now an increasing choice of high-low books for reluctant and struggling readers from specialist publishers like Ransom and Barrington Stoke, who have a good understanding of how to appeal to older readers with simple texts.

As an author, there’s a danger of confusing simple texts with simple ideas. A young person may well struggle with reading, but be of above average ability in other respects, including comprehension.

It’s a tough call for a writer to get complex ideas across using very simple sentence structures and limited vocabulary, but it’s important to do so. Pictures, photographs and colourful engaging layouts (that break up long slabs of text) are all good approaches to hook the struggler.

The difference

Writing texts that are at pitched a low level, yet actually say something, is a fine art. There are no rules, really, but some things are obvious, such as keeping the language simple and predictable (as far as possible), tending to follow oral, rather than literary, forms.

Sentences are often shorter, with fewer subordinate clauses (although good authors won’t make all sentences snappy; this can lead to a very staccato read which doesn’t flow and actually makes the book harder to access!)

Long descriptions of sunsets, or extensive, reflective passages where very little happens, might be beautiful prose for a mainstream reader, but others will find it hard work to wade through so much text for little reward. You have to keep it tight and fast-moving.

The most successful authors for these readers will put the story across in the smallest number of words possible.

The good news is that, working together, a good author and a good publisher can produce low-level books for reluctant and struggling readers that really do engage them.

As an author, it’s heartening to hear stories from teachers and literacy specialists about students who have moved from never picking up a book to devouring a whole series.

And the real reward comes from knowing that those books have the potential to make a life changing difference for young people.

Stephen Rickard is an author and publisher at Ransom Publishing. His book Motivating Reluctant and Struggling Readers is out early in 2019.

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