Working with High Interest Age/Low Reading Age Students

Working with higher interest age struggling readers raises a number of particular issues, which are worth highlighting here.

Interests

In simple terms, older readers have interests that are different from those of younger readers. Obviously stories about party balloons and going to the park with Mum and/or Dad are entirely inappropriate, and will do nothing to stimulate the desire (in an older reader) to learn to read! Clearly, any books will need to have age-appropriate content (stories/topics) and illustrations. Even age-appropriate stories can be let down by illustration styles that are simply too young and are felt by the reader to be patronising.

In addition, however, older readers are usually more discriminating than younger readers. Older readers generally know what they do and do not like. Whereas most six-year-olds are pretty happy to read (appropriate) stories on any topic, older readers are often more fussy. Football may be acceptable as a topic, for example, but not rugby or motor racing. Science fiction might be fine, but not ‘ordinary’ fiction.

This is an important issue because, as discussed below, for older readers motivation is an essential element in successfully learning to read. Therefore, for each individual reader, it is worth spending time trying to find out what topics actually interest them (and which do not).

Motivation/disaffection/resistance

Any student aged (say) 10 – 12 who has a reading age of approximately six or seven years has, clearly, been spending quite a few years making little or no real progress in developing their reading skills. As frustrating as this may be for the teacher, it is much worse for the student. They have probably spent four or five years being exposed – repeatedly – to the same teaching methods and the same old books (often age inappropriate). They have seen it all before.

As a result they are likely to be extremely hostile to the business of learning to read (hence the refrain ‘Don’t do books, Miss!’) or simply resigned to repeated failure. They failed the last x times; they’re obviously ‘thick’ and there’s no reason why this time it will be any different. They can’t read and that’s the end of it. So why go through the pain and embarrassment of trying?

Without going into the various mechanisms for teaching reading that these students might have been exposed to (and I’d guess the mechanisms are many and varied), it is fair to say that they have likely become switched off. Whatever methods are tried (new or old), the real trick is to switch them back on to reading: to create something that makes them want to engage with a book or a text, and to make them think that this time it is different: this time it will work. This ‘switching back on’ has as big a positive impact on reading as any reading scheme.

So how to switch the student back on? How to create a situation whereby, instead of you sitting down with them with a book, saying ‘OK, today we’re going to read this’, they come to you with a book, asking ‘This looks wicked! Can you help me read it?’

Part of switching students back on is to create opportunities for them to drive the agenda, rather than your attempting to drive it in the face of resistance. Leave a range of cool books around. If they like the look of a book (and if it has a structured approach, an appropriate reading age and the right interest age), then there is a strong chance that they will make greater progress.

Force-field analysis

In the field of business change management there is a tool, or concept, known as force-field analysis. I think it offers a useful lesson in the context of helping older struggling readers. The idea is that any status quo (such as a student not reading) is a balance between forces driving a change in that situation (e.g. the teacher trying to get the student to read) and forces resisting a change in that situation (e.g. the student resisting attempts to get them to read, because they ‘don’t do books’).

Traditionally, the way to make the change happen – here, to get the student reading – is to increase the forces driving change (i.e. for the teacher to try harder with the student, being more supportive, spending more time with the student, etc.). However this often results in the resisting forces equally becoming stronger, to compensate – i.e. the student resists even harder. So it becomes a stalemate and nothing changes – except that the teacher and student relationship becomes more adversarial.

In fact, the solution lies not in increasing the forces driving change, but in focusing on the forces resisting change – and trying to reduce, or dismantle these forces. By reducing resistance, without increasing the driving force, the equilibrium position is upset and change – i.e. reading – begins to happen.

This sounds very theoretical, but what it boils down to is the idea of focusing primarily on the student’s resistance to reading, and trying to overcome it. And the best way to do this is to let the student become engaged with something that they want to read: a ‘wicked’ or ‘cool’ book (or comic), a car parts manual, whatever: just something that they want to read. One student I know would not read books, but actually used shopfronts and traffic signs as a way to learn to read: he wanted to understand the world around him, but had decided that books were definitely a no-no. That was fine: it worked for him and he engaged positively with reading.

Sophistication

Despite the simplicity of the texts they engage with, older readers are sophisticated. This affects the types of books they choose to read, but it also affects the way that they approach the reading and decoding of texts.

Despite what any ‘hard core’ synthetic phonics advocates might argue, older readers, like most of us, do use pictures and context to ‘guess’ what an unknown word might be. They don’t guess at random, though. Rather, they use the resources available to them to deduce what the unknown word might be. If it’s a long word beginning with ‘com ...’, for example, in a book about TV coverage of a football match, and there is a picture of a man talking into a microphone, then the word might well be ‘commentator’. Rather than making a wild guess (as younger readers often do), encourage the student to test the ‘hypothesis’: are there any parts of this word they can read that would indicate that it could be ‘commentator’: e.g. the ‘or’ at the end, or the ‘ent’, which is easily decodable.

This isn’t guessing: it’s bringing their knowledge and experience of the world together to help understand what is difficult for them. It’s what we all do all the time.

‘Greenfield sites’

A 12-year-old student with a very low reading age is not the same thing as a five or six-year-old with the same reading age. Apart from the age-related issues described above (interests, sophistication, etc.), there are key differences in terms of what they have been taught. A five-year-old is akin to a ‘greenfield site’ – a child who has been exposed to very little formal literacy teaching, and therefore one who, with the right teaching, is likely to be able to learn to read as well as any other child of that age (unless of course they have any special needs).

A 12-year-old, on the other hand, is not such a straightforward ‘greenfield site’. Apart from any specific special needs that they might have which might be affecting their reading skills (e.g. dyslexia), they have also been exposed to five (or more) years of this business of learning to read. It is inevitable that they will have picked up a number of bad habits along the way – especially if a number of increasingly desperate teaching methods have been attempted. Such bad habits might be as simple as persistent b and d reversals, for example, or they might relate to the process of reading – e.g. repeatedly guessing without attempting to decode, or read, a difficult word.

Thus, for a high interest age reader, learning to read is often as much about unlearning bad habits or ‘wrong’ rules as it is about learning to read.

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