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Writing HI-LO Material (High Interest, Low Ability) for Slow Readers

To write books for readers at an elementary reading level (for either adults or children) you start off exactly the same way as you do any other book: you work out a strong plot and people it with interesting characters.

Your primary concerns:

  • To write a story that will seize the interest of the reader immediately (reluctant or emergent readers aren't going to waste time on a story that doesn't look interesting)

  • To try to stick to one idea per sentence. If the reader is plodding along trying to decode text, the overall sense of a sentence will be lost if it contains embedded clauses, lots of commas, and so on. Keep sentences short.

  • To choose popular topics. This will increase your chance of a sale and increase the likelihood of a reluctant reader picking it up in the first place.

  • To choose an appealing title.
Popular Topics For Adults and Children

Children between 9-12 years who are just learning to read or who need to be encouraged to read like to read about:

  • Social issues between families and friends

  • Humorous situation stories

  • Teenagers and conflict

  • Street kids and gangs

  • Adventure and mystery stories

  • Science fiction

  • Disasters

  • Biographies

  • Skateboards

  • Spy stories

  • Sports stories

  • Naughty child becomes a hero
Adults have many similar interests:
  • Social issues between families and friends

  • Humorous situation stories

  • Families and conflict

  • Workplace conflict

  • Adventures

  • Mysteries

  • Science Fiction

  • Fantasy

  • Disasters

  • Biographies

  • Spy stories

  • Sports stories

  • Romances

  • Thrillers

  • The shy or quiet adult who rises to the occasion when challenged
Research has shown that approximately 70% of children who experience reading difficulties are boys, hence the subject matter chosen should reflect the interests of boys. The inclusion of girls in the plot is essential.

Before You Start

Before you start to write this sort of book yourself, get hold of some published books for your targeted publisher and study them. Make sure you read them aloud, too. That will help you get an idea of the rhythm and length of the sentences.

You'll probably find it helpful to type out several pages to get the 'feel' of the simpler writing style. It wouldn't even hurt to type out a whole book. Then you can start applying what you've learned to your own material.

How To Proceed

Write the story without worrying about the vocabulary or sentence length. If you fret too much at this stage about whether your story is 'easy' enough, it'll never get written. Or you'll finish it, but it will seem stilted and slow. So just write. Let the story come to life.

Then edit and polish your story until you're happy with it.

The Final Step

Finally, go through and start adapting the text to a simpler format. (Even when you've written and published quite a few hi/lo texts, and you naturally start to write shorter sentences and easier words, you'll find that this second run through pays off.) Shorten the sentences. Where there are two ideas in a sentence, make it two sentences. Every so often make a sentence a little longer or very short. If all your sentences are the same length and structure, the book will seem stilted.

Check The Words You Have Used

Study the words you have used. Where possible, substitute simpler words for those with difficult sounds. Note: you will not always be able to do this. For example, 'thought' is quite a difficult word to read. (The sound ough can say different things, as Pedantic Pat pointed out in her column!) But the word 'thought' might appear in your story several times, because it's hard to think of another way of saying 'he thought'. In this case, use it. And use it several times, so the reader will get to recognize it. But you must then avoid using other words with the ough sound in them, if it is pronounced differently in those words.

Difficult Sounds

Other difficult sounds are 'augh' as in laugh and caught; 'igh' as in night and thigh. Also beware of words that contain silent letters such as know, knife and psychic. The letter 'y' can also cause problems in the middle or on the ends of words: for example, 'funny' and 'spy'.

Try to remember: not too many new sounds; avoid using sounds that are spelt the same but pronounced differently in different words.

Sending Your Story To A Publisher

Publishers may ask you to divide your story into chapters. They then decide, in collaboration with the artist (if illustrations are to be used) where the page breaks will occur. Some editors prefer that you divide your story into 'chunks' for each page as you go, telling you approximately how many words they want on each page.

If you do write your story in sections divided ready for each page, don't start each section on a new page when you send your story to the publisher. Just insert several line spaces to indicate page breaks.

When you have finished adapting your story to the hi/lo format, you should leave it a while before the final edit. (This is good advice for any story, of any length, for any level of reading ability!) When you come back to it, read it through again, silently and out loud. Ask yourself:

  • Does this story sound natural, even though the text has been simplified?

  • Can I picture the story clearly? Is there plenty going on?

  • Will the reader be engrossed in my story and want to read on to find out what happens in the end?
Finally, type your story in the standard format-double spaced on one side of A4 paper, with 3cm margins all around.

(c) Copyright Marg McAlister

Marg McAlister has written many books for reluctant readers, as well as being the foundation editor of Lit-Bits, a newsletter for adult literacy providers. She has also published magazine articles, short stories, ezines, promotional material, sales letters and web content. She has written 5 distance education courses on writing, and her online help for writers is popular all over the world. Sign up for her regular writers' tipsheet at

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