Reading & Literacy

For Challenged Readers, Custom-Tailored Texts

By Christina A. Samuels — April 22, 2014 6 min read
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School librarian K.C. Boyd has long been a cheerleader for “street lit"—gritty urban dramas with themes such as gang life or homelessness—as a way to engage the students she works with in a Chicago high school.

Her job, she says, is to get students reading comfortably, then to lead them to more complex works. As part of that goal, she has turned to what is known in library circles as “high interest, low readability” books, such as a series of books by author P.J. Gray, written at a 2nd grade level and featuring teen protagonists and their struggles.

“It has been a big success for me as a librarian,” said Ms. Boyd, who works at 560-student Wendell Phillips Academy High School in the Chicago South Side neighborhood of Bronzeville. “I have finally been able to identify materials I can present to my students. I can meet my students where they’re at, and they’ve progressed up to reading other materials.”

Saddleback Educational Publishing, the Costa Mesa, Calif.-based company that publishes the book series, has just started offering books for readers at even lower levels of fluency. Its “Teen Emergent Reader Library,” launched this year, offers books written at a kindergarten level for adolescents.

Engaging Students

Reading experts say such books have been particularly useful for students with reading disabilities and those who are still mastering English, who might otherwise avoid leisure reading altogether. “It’s great across the board,” Ms. Boyd said.

Striking a Balance

Publishing companies have for years created “high interest, low readability” books intended to engage adolescents who struggle with literacy.


The book above, published by Saddleback Educational Publishing of Costa Mesa, Calif., is intended for a teen audience but is written at a level appropriate for beginning readers. In contrast, the creators of the Common Core State Standards in English/language arts say The Great Gatsby is an example of a book that has the complexity, range, and depth appropriate for high school students.


But such books have prompted educators to ask how they fit into the Common Core State Standards, which place a premium on students’ mastering complex literary and informational texts. These are works, for example, that may feature a historical tale about the Underground Railroad or a biography of pop singer Rihanna, but be written with vocabulary and sentence lengths appropriate for a student just starting elementary school.

The challenge is to work out a balance of engaging older readers while leading them to books that will stretch their skills, said Troy Fresch, the assistant principal of 2,200-student Tustin High School in the Los Angeles area, another school that uses these “high-low” books.

“When [students] can discuss a book and they have comprehended it, it really just boosts their self-esteem,” Mr. Fresch said. “And it allows them to get full credit for their assignments.”

Barbara Stripling, the president of the American Library Association, based in Chicago, said that “picking books that appeal to an older audience and use lower-level vocabulary is a really sound concept for teen readers. They don’t want to be reading about dogs and cats, they want to be reading about Beyoncé.”

Ms. Stripling, a professor of practice in library science at Syracuse University, has also worked with school librarians in New York City to implement common-core professional development for the district’s school librarians.

“A lot of kids, they learn to read by reading, not so much by the instruction in the classroom,” Ms. Stripling said. “The more we can provide in the library that can appeal to their interests, the more we are contributing to reading instruction.”

Questions of Complexity

But do the books offer enough to move students to more complex works? They’re only useful if they are coupled with appropriate instruction in grade-level literacy, said Michael L. Kamil, a professor of education at Stanford University and the chairman of a federally created panel that examined interventions for struggling adolescent readers.

The problem, Mr. Kamil said, is that students are not just expected to read fiction. They have to grapple with reading in mathematics, science, history, and other subjects, and books for emergent readers don’t have the vocabulary students need to understand information written in those subjects. The common core expects that 70 percent of the texts a student reads will be informational.

“It’s almost a thought that everything on a topic is good, and that’s just not true,” Mr. Kamil said. “It’s got to be something that moves students beyond their own knowledge to a more sophisticated level of knowledge.”

And with struggling teen readers, it’s important to move quickly, simply because instructors don’t have very much time, Mr. Kamil said. “This isn’t Band-Aid care, it’s trauma care,” he said. Students reading at a very low grade level in high school “are not going to make that up in any kind of normal or easy way. The older the student is, the more critical it is that we get in there and do something that’s actually targeted to the difficulty they’re having.”

Specific Strategies

The panel that Mr. Kamil led produced a practice guide for teachers in 2008, “Improving Adolescent Literacy: Effective Classroom and Intervention Practices.” Its suggestions included offering explicit vocabulary instruction, directing instruction in reading-comprehension strategies, and extending opportunities for discussing a text. Catherine E. Snow, a literacy expert and professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education who served on the validation committee for the common standards, said that such books provide useful practice for students.

“Kids do get better at reading from reading, and they don’t read much if the texts are way too hard,” Ms. Snow said. “Of course, such texts do not by themselves solve the problem of bringing kids up to grade level. That takes well-planned instruction,” including figuring why the students aren’t reading well, and offering scaffolds that allow them to work with harder books, she said.

But teachers need to be careful about how hard students must be made to struggle. One concern Ms. Snow mentioned is the common core’s focus on “close reading,” a teaching approach that requires students to derive meaning from text by careful examination of language. Close reading is being turned into a thought that students need to work hard to comprehend a text, she said.

“The new lesson plans and the new curriculum guidelines often run the risk of overemphasizing the need for kids to struggle and underemphasize the need for adaptation,” Ms. Snow said.


Sophisticated knowledge does not always have to come with long words and complex sentence structure, teachers say. Many books that are considered literary classics are thought so not because of their highly complex language, but because of their deeper themes, said Teri S. Lesesne, a professor at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas, and a former middle school teacher.

For example, Soldier’s Heart, a book by Gary Paulsen about the devastating effects of the Civil War on a young Union soldier, is appropriate for middle school students but uses language at a 2nd grade level of mastery, Ms. Lesesne said. Night, Elie Wiesel’s autobiographical account of the horrors of a Nazi death camp, is written at a 5th grade level, she said.

Books by Saddleback and other publishers that deal in “high-low” content, such as Custer, Wash.-based Orca Soundings and the Townsend Press in Berlin, N.J., are good books to start with, Ms. Lesesne said.

“I think they’re incredible tools. Our job is to say OK, we’re ready for the next step. The next step might be a Gary Paulsen novel, or a graphic novel. That’s my job, to kind of move them along,” she said.

Tim McHugh, the vice president of sales and marketing for Saddleback, said the 32-year-old company started out offering books geared toward middle school students who were three or four grade levels behind in their reading. But teachers said that reading level was still too high for some students. The company’s newest offerings are the first offered for teens at such a low reading level, he said.

“We’ve got to get that kid to read their first book,” Mr. McHugh said.

A version of this article appeared in the April 23, 2014 edition of Education Week as For Challenged Readers, Custom-Tailored Texts


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