A hi-lo book is a title that offers highly interesting subject matter at a relatively low reading level. Publishers take different approaches to producing and defining these books in their product line. Some produce books which have a large gap between the age of the intended reader and the reading level; others are one or two grade levels below the expected reading level. The concept behind a hi-lo book is to encourage struggling readers or readers who are learning English as a Second Language (ESL). Readers are more likely to try a book which is about a topic of great interest to them especially if it has features designed to make it easier to read.
The high interest is generated by subject matter that appeals to readers in a particular age range. The content is what readers would read on their own without any input from adults. Readers aged 10 to 13 are often interested in sports, adventure, animals, humor, mystery, magical or fairy tales, and natural disasters. Teen readers are often interested in tough, realistic circumstances like bullying, suicide, teen pregnancy, sexuality, and drug use. They also enjoy science fiction, fantasy, adventure, graphic novels, comics, and Manga, the Japanese version of comics. Hi-lo books are like any good book with a compelling story line and fascinating facts.
The low reading levels are measured with various reading scales including the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level Readability Test and the Fry Graph Readability formula. Most companies also assign Lexile levels which is text analyzed by MetaMetrics software. Some companies work with the Renaissance Learning to assign Accelerated Reader (AR) program levels. In addition to the reading levels, editorial decisions and design features also play an important role in making these books more readable. For instance, vocabulary may be carefully selected and plots may proceed linearly rather than with flashbacks or other difficult structure. Sentences may be short and simply constructed. The length of the book may be shorter to be less intimidating to the reader. More white space, slightly larger typeface, and subtly enlarged white space between lines makes it easier for the eye to follow the text.
In addition to age appropriate content, the books are designed with graphics and photographs that complement the content and avoid a “baby book” appearance. The covers look similar to any other book designed for that age range.
Application in the Classroom. Hi-lo books are a great way to engage your students’ interest in reading. The books allow students to practice critical reading skills and develop reading fluency. They may also be designed to increase vocabulary by including limited amounts of higher level vocabulary in otherwise simple reading structures. Ideas for use in the classroom include:
• Use as independent reading selections or as a classroom assignment.
• Consider having students read and discuss the book exploring the plot flow, character development, and how the information in the book relates to real life.
• If you are working on developing writing skills, have the students pick out a book and then write a one page plot summary or character description.
Deliberately set abbreviated assignment lengths so the task does not overwhelm the student.
• Download or create a worksheet to accompany the hi-lo book and have the student complete it. Many publishers of this genre offer worksheets and other training material through their websites.
• Make hi-lo book selections for student book clubs.
• Use them in buddy reading programs which pair a high school volunteer with a middle-schooler.
• After reading the hi-lo book, have a group of students develop and film a “Public Service Announcement” for a school assembly or the school TV station or website.
• Alternately, use the book as the catalyst for the development of a short movie to be posted to YouTube. YouTube videos are limited to 10 minutes. As an example, students could pick an issue described in the book, research it, and develop a video with possible solutions for teens facing that issue.
Finding hi-lo books. Many school librarians are familiar with the hi-lo book concept and probably have some on-hand. Public librarians may or may not be as familiar with these books. Search the Internet on the terms “hi-lo books” and “books for reluctant readers” to find reading lists and publishers who specialize in the genre.
In summary, struggling readers and ESL learners have a limited vocabulary set and a limited understanding of complex grammatical, sentence or plot structure. Both groups benefit from hi-lo books for many of the same reasons. These books make the journey to understanding written English easier. So if you have students who are struggling to read and you need a way to build their confidence and practice time, try hi-lo books.