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Books for struggling readers in high school

posted in: Secondary literacy

Books! I get asked every couple of weeks to recommend reading material for That Reading Thing students.
I don’t know your students so the specific titles I offer might not work for them but please have a read of these guiding principles.
Each link opens in a new tab. Apologies if you’re not crazy about that but it makes it easier to explore, meander and find your way back to the post.

Books don’t turn struggling readers into readers. This can’t be repeated enough.

  • The most important consideration when buying books is whether or not the reader can lift the words off the page and understand what they mean.
  • However, they should not be ‘easy’ – rather pitched to encourage growth in reading ability and vocabulary development.
  • This is why the small cost of That Reading Thing training is worth the investment as this process isn’t something schools should leave to chance.
  • A young person who struggles to read in high school won’t accidentally pick it up as they go.

Reading material should be age appropriate no matter what a student’s reading age.

  • The high school age range means that so many different types of books are possible but make sure they do not look like they were written for primary pupils.
  • Think of some in the 8 -12 range, others in the teen/young adult range and some books you might want on your own shelves.
  • Here’s a series of blog posts about reading material I’ve found that has worked for a range of reading abilities.
  • Barrington Stoke publish books for struggling/reluctant readers in those age ranges and they are just what we suggest – not embarrassing to be seen with. TRT tutors have had good experiences with them.
  • To quote a teacher:

I am excited to see that there is life for older kids outside of Biff and Chip! ..no matter what stage they are at with their reading, older people are much more sophisticated learners than young children.

Not everyone wants to read a novel.

  • Have on hand a good range of non-fiction about topics your students say they want to read about. See note below about assuming what that will be.
  • Look for some books with chunks of text rather than whole pages.
  • Dorling Kindersley still publishes books with small sections of text which are great for those who think they will never read a book. I’m sure there are other publishing companies like DK.
  • Short story collections are also great for those who find a whole book too daunting. I like books like Terry Deary’s True Mysteries.
  • A book with shorter chunks of text does not have to be juvenile or too simplistic. The purpose is to read a little bit then decide if they want to read a little bit more.

Other readers do want to read whole novels with full pages of text.

  • Some TRT tutors have enjoyed reading novels that students should have read in previous year. Louis Sacher’s Holes comes to mind. What are the novels on the secondary curriculum that students will have avoided reading because they couldn’t cope?
  • Other tutors have loved A Waste of Good Paper by Sean Taylor.
  • A tutor has recently recommended Orangeboy by Patrice Lawrence and When I was Joe by Keren David.

Look for subject matter that is both familiar and stretching.

  • Don’t assume that teens all want to read about the same things. I think I’ve met as many boys who don’t want to read about cars or football as those who do.
  • They might want to read the local paper, a website about their favourite tv show, a book about cartooning.
  • I’ve found that they love reading about something they can relate to but takes them beyond their own lives.
  • One of my favourite anecdotes was from an elderly tutor who lived in the same neighbourhood as his TRT student and told him about his experiences as a boy during WW2. They ended up reading a history book about their neighbourhood from the tutor’s own bookshelf.
  • If you work with indigenous young people, maybe find indigenous authors in other countries to compare experiences. Shared experience in a different context is stretching but the background knowledge makes comprehension much easier.
  • Here’s a blog post explaining what it looked like for one of my students – a young person with experience of the UK criminal justice system reading about what happens to a jaywalker in the USA.
  • Here’s another blog post recounting the experience of reading with another young person about historical criminal justice.

Finally – the majority of secondary students do not need decodable readers.

  • TRT students, even those working slowly through the Foundation levels, are not beginning readers. If your intervention requires decodable text for students who are not learning English for the first time or who don’t have serious learning difficulties, it might be aimed at much younger students.
  • Instead, learn to pick authentic reading material that will have a lot of words that are decodable, decodable with one sound given and likely sight words for the level at which you are working. We cover that in TRT training.
  • Here’s a blog post on decodable text for teens and adults.


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