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 have basic language skills: 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 have all proven to be daunting.
You know that the only way to improve your reading is to practice. 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.
So, what would you read?
Books like “My Baby Sister” are rather uninteresting, definitely demotivating, and actually, embarrassing! You don’t want everyone to be able to see how low your skills really are. And since you’re human, you’re going to have a tough time sustaining your motivation to practice reading with content that you couldn’t care less about. The content that you’d like to read is still too far above your head.
So, what do you do? 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). 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.
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 on books like Curious George, which are far below their interest level (and again, embarrassing). On the other hand, books like The Hunger Games are still a bit too much to grasp.
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.) 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 begun creating this category, and we’re calling it Relevant Reads… Easy to Read. Hard to Put Down.
Our Relevant Reads collection now includes over 150 titles, written specifically for pre-teens, teens, and adults. These stories are being read by thousands of students in hundreds of schools. They are already helping to reveal that reading can be fun to students who’ve been previously disenchanted by it.
We have been able to crowdsource these stories with an annual writing contest, a community of committed writers, basic guidelines, and a digital publishing tool. We are inspired by the stories that have been created so far, and we are excited to continue growing the collection so that we can provide more great books for the tens of millions of readers who need them.
Now, we are turning to the crowdsourcing concept for another purpose: to help us fund the next phase of this literacy endeavor. We have launched a Kickstarter campaign with the goal of raising $50,000 in 30 days. The success of the campaign will allow us to grow our collection of Relevant Reads, providing more of these free books for more readers.
We hope you will pledge your support so we can share more relevant, accessible, and free stories with the millions of readers who need something good to practice their reading. Please help us reach $50,000 by December 17. Every dollar counts! Visit our campaign page today.
 Center for Immigration Studies: http://cis.org/record-one-in-five-us-residents-speaks-language-other-than-english-at-home
 National Assessment of Adult Literacy: nces.ed.gov/naal/kf_demographics.asp