Classroom practice - Help struggling readers to start a new chapter

Finding engaging, low-ability books for older learners can be tricky, but with our handy guide you'll soon be on the right page

Paul Blum

Students with a reading age below their actual age face an uphill struggle accessing the curriculum however old they are, but things are particularly bad for 11-year-olds. Not only do students in many parts of the world make the transition from primary to secondary education at this time - accentuating the disparity between age and reading ability all the more - but there is also a worrying lack of texts aimed at helping this age group to catch up.

The books that appear in secondary school libraries are almost always targeted at reading ages above 11. And you can't just source books meant for younger children instead: reading a book that is demonstrably aimed at a younger age group is often demotivating and embarrassing for students.

So what can teachers do? As a special educational needs coordinator (Senco) myself, I was at a loss, so I ended up writing books of my own. Doing so has really honed my instincts about what works and what doesn't, and has enabled me to seek out books on the market that fit the bill - they are out there when you know what you are looking for.

So what are the essential ingredients for a genuinely high-interest low- reading-age book? What should teachers and Sencos be looking for in selecting texts for these students?

Direct speech

The best way to keep the reading age of a book low is to tell as much of the story as possible through dialogue, with lots of direct speech and very little reported action. These books have very little description of place and the plot moves along through interaction between characters instead of long passages of explanation.

Short sentences

Look for fiction with short sentences. This is easier to read and helps students to keep the narrative development of the story clear in their minds.

Recurring themes

When catering for reading ages of 8 or below, look for "signature themes" that revolve around certain characters and situations to create familiarity. In Shadows, the lowest reading age series I have written, the reader is constantly reassured by the reiteration of a key scenario: the detective Matt Merton relaxing at the end of his working day with cafe owner Sam. This motif gets repeated in a slightly different way in each book. Students thrive on the repetition and reinforcement, and it helps them to pick up the rhythm and fluency that is so vital to the reading process.

Exciting subject matter

Make sure that the book is on a subject that students can tune into. Read it yourself first: if you find it boring, they are likely to as well. It is of particular importance to find books that appeal to boys - it is likely that the vast majority of your low-age readers will be boys.

Simple grammar

Make sure that the grammatical structures used in the book don't make it too hard to read or understand. The main problems are usually with connectives, pronouns, use of passive voice and long sentences with subordinate clauses or too much description.

Supporting strategies

Seek out books that have high-quality additional resources to go with them on CD, online or in photocopiable booklet form.

Hand in hand with finding good texts, of course, is using good practical teaching strategies for effective group reading. It is important to prepare your session by making an accurate assessment of each student's strengths and weaknesses. You should know about your students' prior knowledge, interests and enthusiasms: these should always be your starting point.

Then, as you read with the group, take every opportunity to boost the confidence of the students. Making them feel positive about themselves is key for a successful reading intervention.

Extra activities around the text are important. A simple phonics programme on its own is not enough. With secondary students you need to use interventions that involve mapping sounds to letters along with other reinforcement activities, such as speaking or writing about the text and building up a store of vocabulary.

Also crucial is taking care not to rush. Teenage readers with low reading ages will probably have low self-esteem. You have to adopt a step-by-step approach so that students who feel unsure about what is going on can move forwards without slipping and falling. In this way confidence builds and damaging setbacks are minimised.

The key thing to remember, underpinning all this, is that having fun while reading is at the heart of the process. If the students enjoy the reading sessions, they will be more engaged and the intervention will ultimately be more effective.

Paul Blum is a special educational needs coordinator at Park View School in North London and author of the short fiction series Shadows, Vampires Inc. (both published by Rising Stars) and Fight Club (Axis Education)

What else?

Uncover the reasons for reading difficulties with this in-depth article.

How a literacy project in Scotland is turning the page for those who have fallen behind.

Chapter and verse: teachers on the TES Connect forum discuss the best books for reluctant readers.

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Paul Blum

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