A few thoughts on writing texts for older struggling readers
We’ve encouraged teachers to write stories or articles for our Summer Writing Challenge, and have been delighted at the quality of the submissions so far. To support those who are taking part, and those who teach secondary students with weak reading, here are some guidelines for writing or selecting a text for older students with reading difficulties.
1. Reading ages are only ever an approximation. Don’t focus exclusively on the score from a formula – it’s just a guideline. On the other hand, it’s always worth checking your text against one or more formulas, because it’s very easy to pitch a text too high – we often incorrectly assume how much knowledge our students have.
2. Readability formulas are tools, and like all tools, they are good for some tasks and not so good for others. It’s useful professional development to be familiar with these tools, and their strengths and limitations. Some focus on word lists, some on syllable count, some on sentence length and so on. This is why results can seem so anomalous, and why readability formulas can only be part of the final decision. Decisions about how suitable a text will be for students should also consider issues such as topic, structure, imagery, allusions and register – things that readability formulas are not well placed to assess.
3. When evaluating the readability of a text, it’s generally a good idea to exclude technical terms or proper nouns from your calculation, as these are likely to push the text into a much higher level – leaving you scratching your head as to how you can write an article on endoparasites without using the term endoparasites. The practical reality is that we will teach students proper nouns and technical terms as needed, to enable them to access the passage. Just try to avoid using a lot of different technical terms in the same article. Repetition of a few technical terms is more helpful.
4. Explain unusual vocabulary in the text if you can. For example, instead of “The president’s critics claimed it was a fraudulent election,” we could say, “Some people said that the election had been fraudulent – that the president had won by cheating.” The second example is as easy to decode as the first, but much easier to understand. It also saves the teacher the task of explaining the word fraudulent, because the text does this already.
5. Shorter sentences are generally preferable for lower levels, but as the reading levels get higher, include more complex syntax so that students get to practice thinking though chunks of language – phrases, dependent clauses, independent clauses, parentheses, etc. For example, at a lower level, I might write:
Some people want to drill for oil in the Arctic. They say there is a lot of oil under the sea. This oil could be sold for a lot of money. But others say that we should leave the Arctic alone. We would cause too much damage if we drilled there for more oil.
At a higher level, I could say:
Advocates of Arctic oil exploration claim there are huge profits to be made, but opponents say that the damage to the environment would far outweigh these profits.
6. Inference is powerful – and concise. We can say a great deal, and make students think harder, by leaving some things implied or inferred. For example, “Jenae hated going into the garage. It had been her father’s favourite place to hang out. It made her think of the good times, before the accident.” The passage is not saying anything explicit about Jenae’s relationship with her father. However, the student who is reading thoughtfully knows that it used to be good, but there’s been an accident that has either ended or changed the relationship (and we don’t know which – yet). Particularly in fiction, we want students to speculate about these issues, so that the story becomes a puzzle to solve, not just a list of events. Inference is very helpful in making students think harder about texts – though they may often need teacher prompting to get into the habit of doing so.
7. Help students to navigate non-fiction texts through headings. These form prompts that enable students to locate information more quickly, and help them to work out the main idea in a paragraph or section of an article. If I’m writing an example about grizzly bears, for example, I might organise the text under headings such as: Where grizzly bears live; When grizzly bears are born; How grizzly bears grow up; What grizzly bears eat; and so on, in order to frame the information in each section for the reader.
8. Make captions informative. We haven’t asked for images as part of the Summer Writing Challenge, but if you do include them, make sure that captions support the content of the text explicitly. A photograph of a tiger with bared teeth is better supported by a caption that says “Tigers are carnivores (meat-eaters) with sharp fangs for catching and holding prey,” supports student knowledge better than “A fierce tiger.”
9. It’s helpful to structure your story or article in sections of about 250 – 300 words. This is an ideal amount for planning lessons around a portion of text each day. It allows for a limited amount of content to be taught, and for the student to concentrate on accurate reading, rather than merely trying to plough through to the end of a long passage.
10. Don’t be afraid to address big ideas in simple language. This is one of the biggest challenges for writers of texts for older struggling readers, but it is also a challenge that others, like journalists and advertisers, deal with every day. For example, the same meaning is expressed in “The fall of the Berlin Wall constituted the advent of a new chapter in the history of Germany” and in “After the Berlin wall was taken down, many changes began to take place in Germany.” However, the latter is much more accessible for the weaker reader.
Lastly, and above all, remember: these children are not lacking in intelligence. They just need explicit teaching to help them with their reading. Simplify the language, not the content.
Of course, these guidelines aren’t useful just for our Summer Writing Challenge – they are also good guidelines to employ whenever you are writing resources, or selecting texts for your students to read.