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More than meets the eyes;Books;Interview;Dorothy Porter

Dorothy Porter has strong views on how books can best help readers with special needs. She talks to Elaine Williams

As children with special needs grow older, difficulties in finding age-appropriate books for them increase. The books are out there, but recognising what's suitable and getting hold of them can be tricky.

Dorothy Porter, group librarian for Leicestershire libraries and information service, is only too aware of the problems involved. Not only does her 23-year-old daughter Alison have severe learning difficulties, but she has been compiling resource guides of books and related media for children and adults with learning difficulties for years.

In her last post at St Barnabas Library, Leicester, she compiled the biggest special needs collection in the East Midlands and in 1995 produced Read Easy Two, her second resource guide of age-appropriate material - books, software, videos, boxed games, and so one - for young people with learning difficulties, published by the Book Trust. She is in demand nationwide as a consultant on finding materials and as a storyteller to children with special needs. She can read Braille and also sign in Makaton and British Sign Language.

The real difficulty for carers or teachers of young people with learning difficulties or hearing or vision impairment, says Mrs Porter, is that there are so many criteria to consider in choosing effective books.

"Most children use a combination of ears, eyes and hands to read. Nobody reads just with the eyes, so one has to be discriminating. The material must be chronologically age-appropriate, not reading age-appropriate and it must capitalise on the young person's ability, not their disability. Above all, the fact that Britain is a multi-racial, multi-cultural, multi-lingual society, must be reflected in the choice.

"A book should have read-ability, with less text and larger text on a page. The way authors write as well as what they write is important, so that one or two clauses in a sentence is probably enough.

"Books should also have a high interest level - that is, characters should be striking or appealing, with recognisable names, but too many characters can be confusing. Action should be fairly instant, so long introductions are not suitable. Too many events thrown together in one paragraph is also confusing. There should be a clear structure with a beginning, a middle and an end."

Children with severe dyslexia, she says, are capable of reading little more than 20 words a minute, and easily lose track of the meaning of text. They also have problems with understanding metaphorical language, so text has to be clear and simple and immediate.

Books about subjects young people are already familiar with can be helpful, and it is best to bear in mind that many have difficulty grasping historical points.

Books should have an uncluttered appearance with plenty of white space on pages, short chapters and good margin width. There should also be generous line spacing, but if lines are too far apart readers may have difficulty relating one to another. Sentences should not run over from one page to the next.

Even the quality of paper plays a part - it should be glare-free and thick enough to avoid "shadowing" when print from the following page shows through.

Illustrations should be clearly separate from the text but refer directly to it. Mrs Porter says: "People with reading disability use pictures as a clue to the text. They need all the pictorial help they can get, but illustrations should be clear and uncluttered."

Tactile books can help visually impaired readers, but the pages must have "everyday feels" to them. She explains: "A bristly feel for brushes or a sticky feel to describe honey, things that are part of everyday experience, are particularly good.

"No matter how difficult a young person finds the act of reading, they must be made to feel in control."

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