Learning to Read
I’ve been teaching high school English in Quebec for nineteen years, and every year I learn to read. I realize now what I didn’t know as a student: learning to read and learning to love reading are two different things, and both take time.
I teach students of mixed abilities; some are voracious readers, while others have trouble reading through a chapter in one sitting. My challenge is finding material for all learners to progress. In order to do that, I need to understand how they read.
This is why I have chosen to write two YA Hi-Lo books of my own. High interest, Low reading level books are short, accessible books intended for struggling or reluctant readers. Avid readers enjoy them because they are fast-paced, emotion-driven stories, while striving readers are not intimidated by them. Writing Hi-Lo means sticking to a linear plot. And for someone who gets caught going off on tangents, it wasn’t easy. I spent more time revising my book Take Off! (Rebel Mountain Press, 2023) than I did planning, plotting, researching and writing it.
What helped is that through my job I am constantly surrounded by teenage conflict, meaning I have no shortage of writing ideas. It also means I have a clear vision of who my audience is. Educators tend to label struggling students as reluctant readers, but most students want to read. They are striving to do what comes naturally to others.
When they have progressed past the age of picture books, some readers may give up, and I can empathize. As a teenager, I read a novel a week. Reading in English was effortless to me, but reading French has always been an arduous task.
I dreaded French reading exams. I couldn’t get through a paragraph without a dictionary, and by time I found the definitions, I’d lost track of what I’d read and had to start over.
It wasn’t until my twenties, when I took a job teaching in an English school outside of Montreal that my French began to improve. I teach predominantly francophone students and most of their parents speak only French. Immersed in a francophone community, my communication skills quickly improved, but reading and writing in French was tough.
In Comes Hi-LO
When I taught Shakespeare or Steinbeck, some students loved the rich, detailed language but some students left class frustrated. One student told me, “This is too hard. I mean, could you read Molière?” I was stumped because no, I couldn’t, but I was going to try.
I hit my school library in search for something I could read and found French Hi-Lo books. I was hooked. Why hadn’t anyone shown me these when I was a teenager? I was thirty years old when I learned to read French. I have no qualms telling my students that their level of reading in French is likely higher than my own. I am still learning to read, so it is okay if they are too. I still can’t read Molière.
Every year, my challenge is to convince students they could enjoy reading. Without telling them my plan, I use my own experience as a struggling reader and introduce Hi-Lo books. I read aloud, first chapters from several books a week.
Once students see how exciting and enticing Hi-Lo books are from page one, they often beg me to read more. I let them walk over to my bookshelves and read the back covers of my books. Usually a few students who state they hate reading are asking to borrow books. The first time this happened is when I knew I wanted to write books for striving readers.
Hi-Lo books get kids hooked on reading. For many of them, it will be the first book they read without the assistance of an adult. However, young readers need the option to shop around before committing to a book. Reading cover to cover is a huge leap for some students, and I encourage them to take their time, and read chapters from many books before settling on the one. It takes practice. Just like I can’t step into a pair of skates and score a goal, or stand on stage and sing an opera, neither can all my students open a book and finish it.
There is no shame in not reading to the last page. In shopping around, they may sometimes read the first chapters of six books before finding one they like. I am proud when they’ve invested their time in finding the one.
Where the Magic Happens
I changed my perspective when my student asked me to read Molière.
Reading Hi-Lo books aloud to my class generated excitement about stories, and nothing makes my heart sing louder than hearing, “Miss, please, read more!” Short chapters with emotional cliff-hangers keep even the most reluctant reader wanting more.
I ask students to make predictions, note their answers and use this to evaluate their comprehension. After reading a few pages, we’ll talk about a book and students are able to articulate their level of comprehension through guided discussions.
More proficient readers will notice subtext and emotional character arcs. When it comes to literal questions about the text, my struggling students get to shine. No one feels left out; everyone shares and no one has to write down a word.
I use Hi-Lo books to plan academic conversations where students prepare answers to pre-determined questions. With practice, they’re able to guide themselves through a discussion about the text. It’s best to use this technique later in the year once a teacher knows their students well, but there is an unmistakable positive vibe in the class when almost everyone is engaged in talking about a book. We need more Hi-Lo books of all genres to appeal to all striving readers.
Finding The One
Literacy is about the practice of reading, but the love of reading is worth nurturing. Students need to feel like it’s okay to dislike a book, with emphasis on discovery rather than completion. Hi-Lo books are perfect for this exploration not only thanks to their brevity, but also to how well they dive into the conflicts of the stories. Within a page or two, a reader knows if the story will appeal to them. When their feelings are validated, that they don’t need to complete a book they don’t like, students are more likely to keep reading to find The One!
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Lea's book Take Off published March 2023:
The only thing worse than crash landing a plane is spending a weekend hiking with your bully. Marisa’s only hope for a second chance at her test flight is extra credit from a survival camp weekend. As an aviation cadet, hiking in the wilderness should be a breeze. But Marisa, who is gay and out, needs the courage to deal with Aimee, a toxic basketball star and long-time bully. When Aimee is injured on the hike, Marisa has to decide how to help her. Getting them to safety may cost Marisa her credits. Is it worth it to save a bully?
Visit Lea's website: leabeddia.com