Category Archives: hi-low books

Hi-lo books attract English language learners

A mother contacted me about recommending summer reading for her rising eighth grade son.  Her son is learning English as a second language.  His reading level is probably late fourth or early fifth grade.

The typical middle grade books I might suggest won’t work for this boy.  He needs “hi-lo” books—books with high interest appropriate for his age but with low reading difficulty.  Such books exist, but matching the reading level with the student’s age and interests is hard.

What do I look for in hi-lo books?

  • Characters the student can relate to and care about. Usually this means characters of the same gender and age as the reader or one or two years older.
  • Characters easily distinguished from other characters. All names should begin with different letters.  Characters should have different body types, interests, idiosyncrasies and goals.
  • A story that holds the reader’s interest. Students who like video games like adventure and danger in their stories.  They like characters who get into trouble but figure out how to extricate themselves.
  • Books that are not too long. How long is too long?  That depends on the typeface (bigger is better), the spacing between lines (more space is better), page margins (more white space is better) and the size of the page (typical paperback size or bigger is okay).
  • Books with short chapters. A book with 30 chapters containing four pages per chapter is better than a book with 15 chapters containing eight pages per chapter even if the content is identical.
  • Books whose plots move quickly. This means more action and less description, more dialog and less backstory.
  • Plots that follow chronological order without flashbacks. Surprises are okay, but sudden plot twists are not.  No secondary plot lines.
  • Good guys who are good and bad guys who are bad. The reader should know which is which.
  • Stories with one point of view only.
  • Books with dark, easy-to-read typefaces and no hyphens at the ends of lines.
  • Sentence structures that reflect the way people talk: subjects before and close to predicates; prepositional phrases later in the sentence, complex sentences with just one subordinate clause placed at the end of the independent clause.
  • Simple vocabulary except for new words important to the story’s topic. New or difficult vocabulary should be used many times to reinforce its meaning.
  • Books that look like any other book without identifying themselves as “special.” They should have no more illustrations than books aimed at the same age group.  They should attract good readers who appreciate a good story.