Having worked with kids who have reading disabilities, I think a lot about the issues involved in writing for reluctant readers. But first, who are they, and how do they end up that way?
–They often come from homes that have few or no books
–They may have a learning disability that makes reading difficult
–When they are young, they may not experience adults reading to them at home
–They may have negative associations with reading through humiliating experiences at school
–They can be any age, from preschoolers up through adulthood
We writerly types tend to be passionate readers–and if we aren’t, we have no business writing!–so we may not have started out as reluctant readers, though I do know of writers and passionate readers who did and managed to overcome their early difficulties with great success.
So how can writers help those with reading difficulties?
1. Include lots of white space. Nothing is more intimidating to a person with reading difficulties than looking at a page of text and seeing huge blocks of dense text. It’s visually overwhelming and gives no space for the eyes and brain to rest. If you’d like to write a book that appeals to children or adults who struggle with reading, be sure to include lots of short lines of dialogue, short paragraphs, and short, straightforward sentences whenever possible.
2. Keep vocabulary simple. It’s okay to throw in the occasional big word, but strive for simple, straightforward language. Whether written for children or adults, a story can be as beautiful and complex as you’d like it to be without using many unfamiliar words. If you stick with words that are familiar to most people, you allow those who’ve had limited exposure to vocabulary (because of fewer reading experiences) to enter your story world with ease.
3. Stick with straightforward, linear narrative. For reluctant readers, reading itself is often an act that takes so much effort, there is little energy left for following complicated story lines. Dealing with the unexpected in a story’s narrative structure is often enough to make a frustrated reader stop reading. One protagonist telling the story, with a linear progression of events, is the easiest story structure to follow.
4. Consider the age of your audience. Dr. Seuss was the master of writing accessible and brilliant stories for young readers, but what about older kids and adults who struggle to read? Third grade is a turning point in elementary school, when kids are expected to start reading to learn, rather than learning to read (which is what they do in K-2). This is where the great need for more books for struggling readers really kicks in. We need more accessible chapter books (for struggling readers ages 8-10), more easy-to-read middle grade books (for ages 9-12), and more teen fiction written for kids with limited vocabulary and reading skills. As a teacher, I really struggled to find books I could recommend and read with my struggling readers. Even those identified by textbook companies as good for reluctant readers are often too complex.
In the world of adult readers, genres like romance and mystery often provide an access point for readers with limited skills. My romance novels are written with a predictable structure, fairly simple language, and lots of white space. So if you do write in a genre, consider how your books can accommodate all readers. We don’t have any control over print size, but we do have control over how long our paragraphs are (I try to keep mine short), and how much dialogue we include (preferably, a lot). We can also keep the pacing fairly fast and the story questions driving the plot interesting enough that readers want to keep reading.
And when struggling readers keep reading, they gain the experience and skill they need to move into the category of confident and lifelong readers.