November 21, 2017

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Helping the Reluctant Reader

Students in the age of digital screens often face significant reading challenges. A library’s large print collection can be instrumental in helping them change their habits for the better.

Reluctant ReaderMore than any other time in history, today’s students are overloaded with information. Multiple media types and delivery devices occupy their school, work, and leisure time. Attention spans are purportedly getting ever shorter. Distractions abound. For many, this results in an aversion to the one activity that humans have historically relied upon to advance themselves in society—reading.

There is no shortage of dire statistics on illiteracy and its impact on dropout rates, economic loss, and even crime rates. Librarians and educators also know the long-term, positive results of students making the “leap” from reading reluctance or aversion to becoming avid, self-motivated readers. To that end, the search for effective tools is ongoing. One such tool—sometimes neglected as too simplistic—is the use of large print books.

Basic Issues

Large print is defined as text formatted in approximately 16- to 18-point type, with increased line spacing or leading, using a highly legible font, and printed on high-opacity paper with dark, high-density ink. Increasingly, publishers are making these books as similar as possible to their standard counterparts—even omitting the phrase “Large Print” on the cover—to prevent reluctant readers from feeling self-conscious when selecting them.

Large print is typically thought of as mainly for those with visual or cognitive impairments—as are audio books and other NIMAC resources. However, large print is also an effective tool for increasing reading comprehension and enthusiasm. A 2000 study of large print book use by third and fifth graders found that students improved 41% to 70% on their SRA Reading scores after one year’s use of remediation.

We contacted Jennifer Lara, District Instructional Media Center Coordinator at Illinois’ O’Fallon Township High School, to discuss how her team engages reluctant readers. Since 2005, she has collaborated with multiple departments to create programs for struggling students. “We’ve done a lot of successful reading initiatives, but we’ve also encountered large populations of reluctant readers,” she said. “Often, these students advance through successive grades despite their reading difficulties, and have more problems in courses that required more reading. They simply did not enjoy it, and did not read anything outside what was required.”

For Lara, large print plays an important part in reaching these students, and in motivating them to become better readers. “For those who have a reluctance or distain for reading, if they see a large amount of text on a page, it almost immediately shuts them down,” she said. “It just seems overwhelming. It comes from years of struggling to get through one paragraph.” Lara pointed out that visual clutter and information density in general can be daunting, whether the medium is printed or digital. Large print pages present a positive, less intimidating visual cue. “When they see a page with fewer words, they are relieved—and more likely to view reading as a positive experience.”

We also spoke with Sabine McAlpine, Strategic Account Manager at Thorndike Press, about the role of large print in helping students with reading performance and confidence issues. From her experience working directly with public libraries and larger K-12 facilities, she noted, “Up to 80% of students are reading below their grade proficiency level, so this provides a great transition. After starting with books in 16- to 20-point type, students who had reading issues suddenly switch to 8-9 point. Large Print is a fantastic addition to all reading programs and school library collections. They offer struggling readers high interest titles in an easy to read format that builds confidence.”

Screens and Paper

To many educators, low reading performance seems attributable to the distraction of small-screen digital media. McAlpine pointed to survey findings that teens spend an average of 6-9 hours a day on screens of various types—64% of which involves both passive and active media consumption, and 26% communication. Although digital e-books emulate one of large print books’ main attributes (type size), there are other concerns, including device cost and availability, ease of use, potential distractions, and some troubling medical issues.

McAlpine also raised deeper print-versus-digital issues regarding reading comprehension. An academic literature review by the University of Texas suggests that the question is a complicated one—especially when considering multiple forms of content. However, for long-form content, brain researchers and a 2014 survey study indicate that those who read printed books have better content retention and empathy levels than those who do so on a screen. In a 2014 Education Week article, researchers Heather and Jordan Schugar pointed to early studies where a small sample of students comprehended traditional books at “a much higher level” than they comprehended the same material when read on an iPad. Clearly, printed books—including large print—still have an integral part to play.

The Publisher’s Role

For such reading programs to succeed, the selection of large print titles must be one that attracts interest among reluctant readers. This means having a close collaboration between librarians and publishers. “We develop ‘interest inventories’ from our interactions with students,” Lara said, “to discover hot topics and trends, which we also combine with state reading lists. Obviously, the more of these that are available in large print the better.” Among students, popular categories change periodically, depending on pop culture, world events, and heightened success of a particular book series. “Publishers have an important job, to make sure that what they’re putting into large print is something that’s going to be ‘sellable’ to the kids—either by content or look of the cover.” She highlighted the importance of publishers’ listening to librarians and educators, developing selections that coincide with student interests.

Beyond optimizing their large print title selection, publishers need to ‘calibrate’ their offerings to educators’ needs. This includes grade leveling—using both Accelerated Reader and Lexile numbers—for classroom use.

Publishers must also pay attention to the basics of book production for the K‑12 market. This includes binding durability and paper opacity. The latter is especially meaningful for large print, where high contrast is essential. Even page layout and design are essential—not only to create a visually balanced and non-intimidating large print page, but also to create covers that are audience attractive and (importantly) not different from their smaller-print counterparts. This also factors in to page count and weight—and the all-important goal of printing regular- and large-print versions simultaneously.

Large print has evolved far beyond its origins as a cumbersome aid for the visually impaired. Now increasingly mainstream, this medium has far-reaching implications for readers (and would-be readers) of all ages.


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Thorndike Press

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