Saturday, June 2, 2012

Hooking Reluctant Readers

No Child Left Behind states that by the year 2013, all children will be proficient in reading.  No one would deny the worthiness of this target goal, but what about all those reluctant readers? 

I remember the reluctant readers in my third grade class.  They were three boys whom the teacher dubbed the Reading Rockets.  Whether the teacher named them out of a sense of irony or simply thought they were most likely to erupt, I couldn't say.  Regardless, they were three boys who didn’t like to read and the whole class knew it.  As such, each boy acquired his own coping mechanism when asked to read aloud.  One hummed, one banged his head on the desk, and the other read in a staccato high-pitched voice to make the kids laugh.  And we did.  The Reading Rockets became our entertainment.  Over the years I’ve often wondered what became of the Reading Rockets and if they overcame their reading difficulties.  One thing I do know for sure was the Reading Rockets believed three things. Reading wasn’t fun.  Reading led to embarrassment.  Reading was bad. 
It’s no secret that most reluctant readers test lower than proficient on standardized tests - many far below grade level.  When this happens, we add to the stigmatization of “the reluctant reader label” by placing them in remedial classes where we saturate them with tedious, mundane “skills” books that only manage to solidify their underlying belief: reading is boring!  Then we have the audacity to question why all ninth graders cannot read Dickens’s Great Expectations with proficiency.  The answer is clear.  Discouraged by years of failure and apathy, we have lost most of the Reading Rockets by the time they have reached high school. 

 If the end goal is for all children to acquire grade level proficiency in reading (and hopefully acquire a love for the written word), I contend that reluctant readers are highly capable of reaching their destination – they just take a vastly different path.  It reminds me of when I teach Romeo and Juliet.  When we finish the play, I do the time-honored tradition of rewarding my class with the movie.  Whereas most students love and appreciate the beautiful Franco Zeffirelli adaptation, a handful (many of them reluctant Shakespeareans) prefer the modern day gang-inspired Baz Luhrman’s version with Leonardo DiCaprio.  Either way, all the students are exposed to Shakespeare’s magnificent words coming to life on the screen.  Different path – same destination.

Enter the subgenre – Hi-Lo.  High Interest/Low Reading Level books are what reluctant readers are in desperate need of to spark their untapped literacy success.  Hi-Lo is for those teens and tweens who for some reason do not test on grade level, but mentally and physically are right there with their peers.  In a nutshell, they find the act of reading more tedious than fun.  And while many reluctant readers are still learning to read, most have never discovered the sheer joy of reading to learn.  It takes a special author to write Hi-Lo, one who keeps this little fact in the forefront of their storytelling.  

So how does one write Hi-Lo?  The author must first adhere to the aesthetic formula, which is code for providing the necessary supports.  When writing Hi-Lo, brevity is paramount without sacrificing content.  Sentences are short (with the subject and predicate close together); paragraphs are short (ideally three-four sentences); chapters are short (better to have many short chapters than fewer long chapters).  Illustrations hold much sway with reluctant readers, and it is no surprise that most are highly visually literate.  Consequently, the title and cover should by mysterious and welcoming.  We’ve all heard the adage – don’t judge a book by its cover.  Well reluctant readers do just that – and with gusto! 

Hi/Lo plot is all about engagement.  It should be simple and fast-paced but age appropriate.  When we expect middle and high schoolers to read about bunnies and turtles, there is thematic disconnect that dishonors the tween/teen’s interests.  Making real-life connections to the subject matter is essential when engaging reluctant readers.  Topics of interest include music, adventure, sports, horror, rebellion, and school.  While the plot must pack a punch, it should progress chronologically, avoiding confusing techniques like flashbacks, plot twists, and point-of-view switches, etc.  Any challenging vocabulary words should be easily decoded using context clues.    

Characters must be strong and distinguishable, starting with the names.  Authors should avoid naming characters names that sound alike or start with the same letter, which can lead to confusion on behalf of the reluctant reader.  In lieu of complicated description, use voice to differentiate the characters.  Zany dialogue and an ear for teen lingo is essential.  It breaks up text and is much easier for the reluctant reader to digest than meandering description.  Also, use humor whenever possible.

To find a paragon of Hi-Lo, I look to the master himself – R.L. Stine.  Kids love R.L. Stine – especially reluctant readers.  And although his books are often dismissed as lowbrow schlock for their violent content, undemanding vocabulary, and opening lines like, “More blood,” – no one writes Hi-Lo more adroitly as R.L. Stine.  His model is an action-packed thrill ride that puts Jerry Bruckheimer to shame: a riveting hook, breakneck paced plot, ghoulish characters, roller coaster twists, turns, and twirls.  With the turn of every page, the reader is reeling for more, and with titles like Welcome to Dead House, Monster Blood, Say Cheese and Die, Welcome to Camp Nightmare who can blame them?   

Writing Hi-Lo gives reluctant readers the opportunity to master story with success (and hopefully a little bit of fun).  Hi-Lo’s adolescent-friendly themes and emotional appeal turn reluctant readers into avid bookworms.  This does not mean we dumb down or reduce the writing – we simply modify it to develop an attitude of “I can” within the reader.  The ultimate goal of writing hi/lo is to hook, engage, and help readers evolve into their best selves.  Even those Reading Rockets!  Remember – different path, same destination – as so eloquently stated by Robert Frost: “I took [the road] less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.” 

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