The Can’t Read/Won’t Read Kids

Many were ‘lost for words’ last October as they watched Monteagle Primary’s low achievers stumble over the most basic words in the English language. The Dispatches documentary shone a spotlight on the dismal reality of the governments failed literacy schemes and the shocking fact that one in five children leave primary school unable to read.

Yet what also became clear is that illiteracy is also only part of the problem because for every kid that can’t read there are two more that won’t read. And why should they when there’s Xbox, Nintendo, Harry Potter the movie and 20 channels of kids satellite TV competing for their time?

And herein lies the problem. Whether kids can’t or won’t read - there is a huge lack of appropriate reading material out there - material that can compete for the attentions of an audience that are media –savvy and visually sophisticated well beyond their reading age.

Ransom Publishing have made it their business to engage this difficult audience. Their specialist program is carefully designed in tune with what makes today’s kids tick rather than what the curriculum dictates.

“The only way to get kids to read is to get them to want to read,” says Creative Director, Steve Rickard. “They need books that are suitably appealing, books that will become a viable alternative to TV. The challenge is to produce books so spot on that kids will want to invest the time and effort in reading them. Only then, will reading become, in their minds, a worthwhile and rewarding experience.” 

To start, it’s about tapping into an interest. Whether a child want s to be a pop star, is fascinated by vampires, only does horror or loves manga, Ransom has a book for them. But that’s only part of the battle. Despite being told not to, children do judge books by their covers. At Ransom a huge emphasis is placed on ensuring the books look the part. The illustrations are refreshingly contemporary and mature, and steer well clear of being childish or patronising.

But it’s not enough for a book to look good. To make sure it stays in the hands of a struggling reader it must be both age and ability appropriate. Ransom’s books are sometimes referred to as high-interest, low reading-age. This means they match the reader’s interest level in subject and content, but the controlled word counts and vocabulary cater for a lower reading age. Take Ransom’s Dark Man series, for example. Set in a sinister underworld and accompanied by stunningly atmospheric illustrations, the series has won great acclaim for its ability to engage older, very reluctant readers who have a reading age as low as 5-6 years. The first twelve books are only 200 and 400 words in length, and concentrate on the 200 key high frequency words.

“Try handing a fourteen-year-old that cannot read some Jolly Phonics or Magic Key and I wouldn’t be surprised if they bash you over the head with it,” says Steve Rickard. “Not only will it already have been thrust in front of them countless times at primary school, it’s is an absolute insult to them. With Dark Man, we are able to give ‘switched off’, disaffected boys another go at reading.”

It seems an obvious enough formula but there really is very little out there to compete with the likes of Dark Man. One mother recently enthused “Today I bought four of your books for my son. Andrew is nine and suffers from ADHD and dyslexia. He has problems reading and writing and apart from dinosaurs I have found it very hard trying to find books he enjoys reading...Today he read 'The Dark Fire of Doom' all by himself and loved it...he has never done that before. The drawings are excellent. Thanks again!”  As the government continues to revise its literacy strategy yet again, it seems Ransom are getting it right, and most importantly, getting kids reading.

Stephen Rickard is Creative Director of Ransom Publishing Ltd. He regularly writes and presents on issues surrounding literacy and reluctant/struggling readers.