Imagine Not Being Able to Read This

By Louise Baigelman

Imagine moving to a new country. You have only just begun speaking the language and you have a lot left to learn. You know some simple vocabulary and common expressions, and you’re able to use them to have short conversations. You’re still learning to read and write.

You’re determined to improve these skills, because you’re having trouble understanding a lot of the information you encounter: signs, menus, newspaper articles, the lease for your apartment and the instructions on your medicine bottle. The only way to improve your reading is to practice, so that's what you set out to do. But here’s the thing: your reading skills are comparable to those of a student in 1st or 2nd grade. Your interests, however, are obviously not. Books like “My Baby Sister” are uninteresting, demotivating, and embarrassing!

So, what do you read?

Where can you find material that will a) hold your interest and b) enable you to improve your skills so that you can get to the point where you’re able to read the kinds of things you’d actually want to read?

This challenge is remarkably common. In the US, the number of residents who do not speak English as their first language is huge, and growing quickly. According to the Census Bureau, more than 60 million people in the US spoke a language other than English at home in 2013 (up more than 2 million from 2010).[1] Understandably, many of these people do not read proficiently in English.

Besides English Language Learners, many other people in the US read at a level below their age. Students with dyslexia or other learning disabilities, for example, often have reading skills that don’t line up with their interests or maturity levels. Students from low-income communities are likely to have reading skills that lag behind as well. Some estimates say that as many as 90 million people in the US lack crucial literacy skills.[2]

Many of these readers face the same conundrum you (hypothetically) faced above. One student may be 13-years-old, but she reads at a first grade level. Another student may be in tenth grade, but he reads at a third grade level. These students need to become proficient readers in English, but they don’t want to practice with books like Curious George,which are far below their interest level (and again, embarrassing). On the other hand, books like The Hunger Gamesare still a bit too much to grasp.

Hear it from Nicole’s perspective:

Like Nicole, these readers often become discouraged, leading many of them to give up on reading altogether. (In 2010, 26% of 12th graders graduated with reading skills below the basic reading level.[3]) So, they move through their education, and then their adult life, without the skills needed to read much of what they encounter.

We know how important literacy skills are for individuals, communities, and society at large. Higher literacy rates lead to a better quality of life.

We also know that these millions of readers can only improve their literacy skills if they spend time reading. To get them to do this, we have to give them choices for content that is accessible, age-appropriate, and compelling. But where do we find the stories to meet this need? As a middle school teacher with many struggling readers, I had a lot of trouble finding content that I could offer my students… was there anything out there that was relevant for their age but also readable at their level?

And this is exactly why we created Story Shares.

At Story Shares, we know that not all great stories are hard to read. Using some pretty straightforward principles, writers can create stories for older students that feature complex characters and thought-provoking themes, with language that is approachable. These principles – of clarity and simplicity – are not novel; great writers like Ernest Hemingway have been known to espouse them. What is new, however, is building on these principles, and the reality of the state of literacy today, to create a new category of literature that meets the needs of millions more readers. We’ve built this new shelf, and have dedicated ourselves to filling it with more and more books that are Easy to Read, and Hard to Put Down.

With our annual contest launching just next week on April 2, you can join in this initiative by submitting your own stories as part of this growing body of literacy. We've provided detailed guidelines to help you craft these just-right books, and are always available for any questions/assistance you may need as you draft your submissions (which, by the way, are free and unlimited!) We can't wait to see this collection expand still further, and you can help us get there. With your characters and words, and our solution, we'll effectively change the literacy landscape so that no reader is left behind. 

[1] Center for Immigration Studies: http://cis.org/record-one-in-five-us-residents-speaks-language-other-than-english-at-home

[2] National Assessment of Adult Literacy: nces.ed.gov/naal/kf_demographics.asp

[3] http://www.takepart.com/article/2013/01/23/graduation-rates-are-all-time-high-not-so-fast

Louise Baigelman