Basic skills, gripping stories

5th May 2006 at 01:00
Books for teenagers with a low reading age can be very uninspiring, but Paul Blum has some suggestions

What do you give 14-year-old boys to read when they have the reading age of a nine-year-old? This is an issue that frustrates both teachers and students.

Like any group of readers, these teenagers want books that will grip them. They often have a greater need for this than other groups of readers because their reading skills are relatively weak, making reading a real high-concentration chore.

For the past seven years, I have been the budget holder responsible for buying literacy material for reluctant teenage readers in three schools.

Much of what I have bought has promised a lot and ended up disappointing.

On more than one occasion I have made the mistake of buying lots of booklets without reading them first.

Experience has taught me that the golden rule when selecting texts for low-aged readers is to read them yourself before you order. Most have fewer than 2,500 words and it's likely that if you find them boring the majority of pupils will agree with you.

There are general problems with fiction readers for our target pupils. They often claim to be "high-interest low-aged readers" but the reality is often that they are dead from the neck downwards. Many patronise the readers, giving them subject matter which is beneath their level of sophistication.

The authors fail to create the most basic ingredients of an effective story, such as defining characters and creating dramatic conflicts between them. So "Tim" or "Sue" are just names on a page, simply ciphers for a series of actions. They don't use enough simple dialogue to develop characters and storylines in the style of a good teenage TV soap.

Instead, there is a concentration on reported action, which raises the reading age level of the texts and lowers the immediacy of the story. There is often too much description alongside the reported action, which slows the narrative down and makes it more confusing to low-aged readers.

The reading ages usually end up higher than claimed in the promotion literature and most books are also woefully short. Despite some excellent eye-catching covers, there are often only a few black-and-white illustrations to help the reader interpret the story.

So what should you buy for your special needs reading withdrawal groups or bottom set in English? There is an abundance of non-fiction texts, followed by the "chillers" and "horror" stories. The other reliable types of fiction texts are simplified versions of classic stories. There are several excellent versions of Shakespeare's Macbeth and Dickens's Great Expectations. Their strength lies in the fact that they had good characterisation and story lines to begin with.

My experience with difficult, restless groups of low-aged readers is that non-fiction has the best field on offer, with some great titles for both boys and girls. The books tend to be longer and often have excellent colour plates. The best won't go out of fashion but some will need replenishing on a regular basis, as books about pop stars and football teams date very quickly.

I would pick out, in particular, the following publishers which offer useful material for weak teenage readers: Folens

This publisher has added an intelligent addition to the market with On The Edge, a soap opera series at three different reading levels that follows the adventures of characters who live in a city by the sea that feels like Brighton. Some of the storylines show real promise by creating characters who seem able to think and feel for themselves. Not the usual cardboard cut-outs.

Barrington Stokes

This is a company that prides itself in specialising in the reluctant teenage reader market. It has brought out a whole series of little novels called gr8reads for lower reading ages with some titles that try to catch a grittier feel of street life and are a proper length to read.

Nelson Thornes

The Spirals series has been going for 25 years, offering solid "chiller thriller" titles with some good storylines. These are some of the best readers available as they are a reasonable length and many of them develop character and dramatic tension. As a small group reader you'll get a reasonable amount of reading time for your money out of most Spirals.

Hodder Murray

This publisher appears to be the market leader in terms of the huge investment it puts into titles. Many of its books have been published in association with the Basic Skills Agency, which has obviously enhanced their credibility with teachers. The Live Wire Investigates series has some very interesting general knowledge titles with something for everybody, from Being a DJ to Starting a Band and Bolly Wood to The Bermuda Triangle.

There are some fascinating titles in the Live Wire Real Lives section, although this is an area where titles could date. Martin Luther King is probably always a safe bet, but is footballer Michael Owen? There is also a series of plays, classics, and chillers.


Heinemann has always been one of the big publishers in the reluctant reader field, although the company has been running down many of its titles and letting them stay out of print. They have a High Impact series of plays, fiction and non-fiction.

As usual, the non-fiction stands out with some interesting titles.

Once Bitten: the Story of Shark Attacks and Football Crazy, with offbeat tales that would suit fantasy footballers. Special Effects in Film and Unsolved Mysteries are expensive but have some excellent illustrations.

Oxford University Press

Oxford produces material for younger pupils. But their relatively recent Tracker series has some good non-fiction titles, particularly those written in "quiz form", such as the booklet Body Art and Building. They could be used with teenagers because their very short texts lead to a natural discussion around the reading. The best feature is their excellent copious colour illustration, which helps to create a stimulating visual environment for reading.

Paul Blum's checklist for low-aged teenage reading books:

* Read it yourself, if you find it entertaining, there's a good chance the pupils will.

* A story with a good length will give readers something solid to get stuck into.

* Books with a lot of dialogue and direct speech usually set up a crisper narrative than lots of description of place or the actions taken by characters. A good play with enough parts for a small group read goes a long way.

* If you are stuck for materials, write them yourself. Some of the best reading for a pupil with a low reading age is a story they have told you themselves, which you have written down and typed up for them.

Paul Blum is a special needs teacher at Islington Green School and author of Improving Low Reading Ages in the Secondary School (RoutledgeFalmer)

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