Plus: Book Selection Tips and Reading Suggestions for Struggling Older Readers
Do you know of a child in the upper primary age range (9+ years old) who never wants to pick up a book? A child who can functionally read but is not yet completely fluent? A child who finds reading a chore? Often, such children are labelled as 'reluctant' readers, but that is both misleading and damaging. Reluctance implies that they are choosing not to read because they dislike reading. This is untrue. There is no such thing as child who dislikes reading but there are definitely children who have not found the right books! It is also damaging because 'reluctance' is perceived as the problem, when it is just the symptom. If we label a child as reluctant, we may not dig deeply enough to address the root cause. That child is not 'reluctant'. That child is a struggling reader.
A child who is not choosing to read in their own time for themselves is not yet a reader. They are a struggling reader because even if they can decode a simple text or muddle their way through an age-appropriate one given time, they are actively avoiding reading and by avoiding reading, they avoid improving their reading. The simple fact is that the more we read, the better we get at it. Children who are avoiding reading will be stuck at whatever reading age they managed to get to when they were being made to read aloud to an adult daily. This occurs for many reasons but, in my experience, it begins, most frequently, at the start of Key Stage 2, when children are given more control over their independent reading both at school and at home. While we want to foster this independence, we have to remember that they will still value reading aloud to an interested adult and talking about what they read. They will also need encouragement, guidance and support to help them seek out books that they will love.
'Reading is boring!'
For a number of years, while Deputy Head at a primary school in London, I worked intensively with groups of children, aged 9-11, who were getting towards the end of primary school and could still not yet read fluently. They were not children with specific learning needs who required specialist teaching, but were all children who were making good progress when they were younger, which had dropped off somewhere along the line. Their problems with reading were obviously varied and the reasons complex, but the ability and potential to read were there. Generally speaking, they could read common words and sound out phonetic words but struggled with less common words, particularly if they were not phonetic. When they read, it was hesitant and often robotic with little or no attempt at intonation or expression. Often, they would struggle through a passage and then be unable to talk in detail about the content. Reading had become a battlefield for them with no reward for the effort. As older children, they were also painfully aware and often embarrassed by their struggles. When children struggle to read, all other lessons become more of a struggle as more and more reading is required across the curriculum. Often, these children were disruptive, not necessarily in any serious way, but, through boredom and frustration, they would become easily distracted and silly in class.
Partnership is the Key
When children get to the last two years of primary school with no identifiable learning need and still cannot read fluently, you can bet that the majority of these children have not been reading enough. In fact, when I spoke to them in depth about their reading habits, it was clear that none of them read in their own time. They would often pretend to their teacher that they had read at home and even pretend to their parents at home that they were reading in their rooms, developing many ingenious ways to cover up their lack of reading from both teachers and parents. This is not about apportioning blame to either home or school. In the case of struggling older readers, you need a strong school-home partnership to make it work. I would always meet regularly with the parents of the children I was asked to work with because neither the school nor the parents could do it alone.
Daily reading is common in Key Stage 1 where there is a strong focus on decoding, but as children enter Key Stage 2, the focus in reading lessons is shifted towards comprehension with less time spent actually reading. I will admit, there has been a shift in this in recent years to make sure that children are given more reading opportunities both during guided reading sessions and across the curriculum, but if children are not reading in their own time, then, regardless of how much time they spend reading in school, they are not reading enough. Often, the parents of my struggling readers would explain how hard they found it to support their children with reading at home, for a variety of reasons, with language barriers, lack of time and no confidence in their own reading ability being just a few. It took lots of time, patience and hard work to support these children to become readers when they were already behind, but the majority of these children would repay the efforts of their parents and teachers many times over. My greatest and proudest moments as a teacher were when the children who, despite the odds, went off to secondary school not only able to read, but also wanting to as well.
General Tips On Book Selection
While there were a myriad of factors which made the children I worked with successful, book choice was at the heart of it. They don't want to read what they see as 'baby books' and they often struggle with the class set texts, so we have to look carefully for material to both tempt them and hook them into reading. Before I launch into my specific recommendations, I do have some general tips on what works well when picking books for struggling older readers:
Books with a contemporary school setting are a good choice when children do not yet know which genres they prefer. They are also a safe bet when working with a group of children whose tastes differ. Children can quickly orientate themselves within the setting and will relate to the issues and characters, making these books good for discussion.
Humour is always appreciated! If you are squeamish about toilet humour, text-talk (friends 4ever!) or slang (by slang I mean colloquial language - not swearing!), then you need to get over it. Books which are aimed at the ten-year-old sense of humour are not supposed to be for you but may well be just the thing to hook a struggling reader!
Never be a book snob! If they want to read about nothing but fairies or are crazy about fart jokes, then let them indulge in it to their heart's content. As Neil Gaiman has said, there are no bad children's books! Children's books are not written for adults and, whilst many are fantastic and enduring classics of literature, plenty of them are trite and formulaic. Formulaic is great for emerging readers. They have no frame of reference for most of what they read and are just building up their understanding of narrative structure. Formulaic stories and books help to cement this understanding and also provide a sense of expectation and satisfaction in what they read.
There is a stage of reading when a child becomes fluent in which they discover a character, topic, series or author that they will want to devour. It is unique to a reader's life and is a stage that we only go through once. In Sweden, they have a term for it! They distinguish three stages of reading. The first, when children are learning, is when they are open to trying lots of different stories and books which are read to them while they are learning to decode. The second, they call bokslukaråldern, which is referred to 'the age of book devouring' (bokslukare translates on Google as 'book worm', but I think that 'book devourer' has more of the sense of the urgency that I remember feeling at this stage!). This is where a child reads a huge amount with an insatiable hunger, but this will often be exclusively one series, author or type of book. I love this term and remember my own age of book devouring (Enid Blyton!) with great affection. I am convinced that getting to this stage will make a child a reader for life! I also miss it. I don't think we ever get that enthusiasm in quite the same way ever again. It should be what we aim for with children and it needs to be indulged because it is such a special and short time! The recommendation is to get them into this stage of reading and then eventually guide them out. But I wouldn't push them out of it because that would just be too cruel!
When trying to get a child into the 'devouring' stage, a long-running series is a great find! Familiarise yourself with popular series. If you see a library or bookshop shelf full of a particular author or series that you are unfamiliar with, find out about it. If there are more than five books in a series, then it must be popular or it wouldn't keep getting published. If it is popular, you must find out why! I try to read the first in any popular series I find so that I can get a sense of the writing style, the vocabulary and the content in order to be able to recommend it to emerging readers. "You like cats? I know a great series! You like detective stories? I know a great series!" You get the idea.
If they are devouring one thing almost exclusively, they will soon want something else. Research similar authors or series that you can recommend to them so that you strike while the iron is hot! Try to find books that will move them forward in their reading journey.
Fast-paced, plot-driven books with plenty of action are best for struggling readers. This doesn't mean that they have to be action or adventure books! Just that there are continual problems to be solved and questions they want answered.
Shorter chapters are actually a good way to keep a reader hooked. Most of us will read another chapter if we know they are short ones. Think about it the next time you are reading and weighing up whether to read another chapter or not!
Some of the books, series and text types listed below may seem obvious and some you might not have thought of in a long time, but they all worked to hook some, if not all, of those struggling readers. Here are some of my tried and tested suggestions:
Joke and Riddle Books
What child doesn’t love jokes and riddles? As adults we might see the same old corny jokes and limericks being regurgitated in books but children absolutely love them. If they have toilet humour, all the better. The real bonus here is that good jokes and tall tales need to be told expressively and fluently. Why not challenge them to create their own stand up routine using the joke book, complete with expression and intonation?
The Guinness Book of Records and other 'weird fact' books!
I have yet to have a group of struggling readers who were not enthralled by this and it is a staple for the classroom book corner in my humble opinion. In fact, any books with weird and wonderful tales and facts go down a storm. When I was a child, my brother and I used to spend hours reading an old Readers’ Digest book of strange phenomena that my parents had. Things like this go down a treat!
With their trademark mix of facts and humour, this series continues to entertain as well as educate. Humorous illustrations and graphics make these books enjoyable less daunting for the struggling reader than unbroken blocks of text.
Fantastic series by UK author Liz Pichon, who wrote the kind of books that she would have loved as a dyslexic child who struggled to read. Follow the eponymous hero Tom as he navigates life and school with plenty of humour and excellent illustrations and graphics throughout these wonderful, engaging books. Children are often attracted to the covers because they are reminiscent of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, which is hugely popular, but I prefer this series, particularly as it more representative of UK school children’s experience. What is great is there are more than 15 books in the series and I have yet to recommend it to a reader who didn’t love it.
I was far too old for this series when it came out in the mid-nineties but I love the pulp horror covers and B-movie names. Children love a good scary story and these are still as popular today as they ever were. RL Stine designed these books to hook young readers and keep them reading. Based on his own experience of fifties B-movie horror films and old TV show cliff-hangers, which kept him returning week after week to find out what happened, these books are plot-based page-turners with a cliff-hanger in every chapter. Stine includes lots of dialogue to make them less daunting to read and keep the pace fast, plus he intentionally uses vocabulary which is no higher than fifth grade (Year 6 UK). The stories are intended to be scary but not gruesome. No-one ever dies in Goosebumps and they always have a happy ending. Stine claims that children get to live out any extreme emotions in these books in a safe environment. They are always set in the ordinary world which makes it easier for children to immerse themselves in the story. There are dozens of titles to keep a hungry reader satisfied!
'Choose Your Own Adventure' Books
These are a book and game in one! The reader gets to be the star of the book and decide what happens next. The most classic series in this genre, Fighting Fantasy by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone, was hugely popular when I was a child and they were recently re-released with new covers and art (the original artwork would now be considered quite inappropriate for primary children!). Charlie Higson has also written some brand new adventures. I started a lunchtime club where we went on the adventures together and took turns reading the parts but these are great to read independently too. Excellent fun.
Poems present a less daunting prospect than a block of text and there are poems on every subject under the sun. Humour always goes down well, particularly Michael Rosen, and classic school poetry, such as ‘Please, Mrs Butler’ still resonates today. Poetry is also best when performed, so it provides a real reason to read expressively and children enjoy performing poems immensely.
Cloud Busting by Malorie Blackman
I love this book and cannot recommend it highly enough. Malorie Blackman wrote this story entirely in verse. Sam is set an assignment to write a poem and he begins to write about his friend Davey because 'isn't with us anymore'. Davey is whimsical, poetic and a bit different from the other children. As the story unfolds, we discover what happened to him when the other children decide to play a trick with disastrous consequences. This book has never failed to engage the readers I've worked with. The story is enthralling and the poetry format makes it far less daunting for struggling readers.
Flat Stanley Series by Jeff Brown
The classic tale of Stanley Lambchop who was flattened by his wardrobe overnight and is now as flat as paper. This series is still extremely popular and for good reason! The reading age is 7+, so it's a simple enough text for a struggling older reader while the stories are still engaging. Flat Stanley is a fascinating and funny idea executed brilliantly.
Warrior Cats Series by Erin Hunter
I only recently discovered this insanely popular series and I think it is fantastic for older readers. The reading age is 9+, so it may not suit all struggling readers, but they are not too challenging in terms of vocabulary. For me, the premise and pace of the action make these books about tribes of feral cats a must for any class book corner or library. The first book follows Rusty, a domestic cat, as he leaves his owners and joins the Thunder Clan to become a warrior who is renamed Firepaw. Warrior training, betrayal, war, politics, mysticism and family are just a few of the themes of the series. Best of all, there are at least two dozen titles in the series, so plenty to keep them going!
Manga - the term for Japanese comic books and graphic novels - is hugely popular with tweens and teens. You need to be really careful here that you are not selecting something inappropriate. Manga can be deceptive in appearance with much of what is aimed at adults being stylistically similar to what we would think of as a children's comic book but containing violence or sexually inappropriate content so you really must do your homework. There are some helpful articles I found online but do ask librarians and booksellers for advice. Also, be aware that the books read from right to left - not the text, but the pages! Some helpful articles:
Often hailed as the new Roald Dahl (and, to my cynical eye, the use of Quentin Blake's illustrations by the publisher is a real push to drive that message home!), there is no denying the phenomenal success of David Walliams' books. Humorous but often with a serious message at heart, children absolutely adore Walliams' work and these books go down a treat. The reading level is also excellent for struggling older readers. It would be remiss of me to leave him off this list because he ticks lots of boxes for tempting older readers, but this recommendation comes with a caveat. I have only read two Walliams books myself, Billionaire Boy and The Boy in the Dress and I find that he mentions some things I wouldn't be comfortable having to explain to primary aged children should we get into the topic, such as 'Page 3 Girls' (if you are not from the UK, these are photos of topless women appearing in daily tabloid newspapers - I kid you not!). They aren't explained, only mentioned, however, I don't understand why they need to be mentioned at all! I must say I have never had any of the children I work with ask me about what any of these things mean. As always, I would advise you read the books yourself first and use your own judgement here.
The Demon Headmaster Series by Gillian Cross
This classic series is a staple that I turn to when I'm working with struggling older readers. School setting? Tick! Plot driven? Tick! Manageable reading level? Tick! All that plus a great premise. The first book in the series, titled 'The Demon Headmaster', introduces us to Dinah Glass as she meets her foster brothers Lloyd and Harvey Hunter. When they take her to their school, everyone seems impossibly perfect and Lloyd and Harvey are keeping secrets. What exactly is the headmaster telling them in assembly? Brilliant books and a great nineties TV series. There has been a recent adaptation for BBC which is on iPlayer but with different characters and storylines.
Demon Headmaster 2019 TV series on iPlayer.
Have you got any reading recommendations to support struggling older readers? Let me know in the comments!