Larissa told me that reading a sentence was like putting together a jigsaw puzzle piece by piece – first, she had to absorb the words and then put them together before then struggling to process them into a picture in her head. For her, reading took so much concentration it would give her headaches, and all of it combined put her off books altogether.
It was then that she asked me – a former political journalist and avid writer of fantasy stories – to write books for children and young adults. Books that would be designed for children like her who desperately wanted to read without getting lost in the words.
So I did my homework. I gained my diplomas in child psychology, dyslexia, and co-occurring difficulties. But my best source of knowledge was from Larissa herself and my students in my children’s creative writing workshops. They explained to me what would help them become engrossed in a book and how I, as an author, could make reading not only enjoyable but easier for them.
Every child with a learning difficulty is different and they each have different strengths and struggles but in my Dragon Born and Ascension series, I have endeavoured to tailor the writing to benefit as many reluctant readers as possible.
Here are some of the techniques I have used in writing my books for these readers:
GET STRAIGHT TO THE ACTION
Massively long books will not even be picked up by most dyslexic readers as they automatically think of how long it will take them to finish it. The same applies to books with overly long chapters with long paragraphs of descriptions – for a child who has to absorb each word individually there is nothing harder than having to read seemingly endless words strung together.
Keep the book short with chapters that do not go beyond seven to eight pages. This is visually more palatable for the dyslexic/reluctant reader. Make sure there is action and dialogue in each chapter to keep the story moving along.
In Radiant, I started with drama, adding action and mystery with few words, to pique the reader's interest:
One shall be born from the sanctity of three
In whom all powers combined shall be
Part Sky, part Earth, and something more
To bring a new future to the fore.
This messenger a prophet shall be
For the new world order this child is key
Nothing will endure, nor unchanged remain
All shall be transformed, nevermore the same.
When the time is come and the stars align
The child, touched by all that is divine,
Will awaken finally, powerful as never before
To strip away the world to its very core.
KEEP DESCRIPTIONS GRAPHIC AND SHORT
The general consensus amongst the children who gave me input into their various conditions was a fast-paced story with very graphic, yet concise, descriptions helped them to visualise the story better in their heads and made reading easier and fun for them.
Dyslexic readers find it much more palatable for descriptive passages to be interspersed with action and dialogue in between. Descriptions are concise and sensory descriptions help ground the reader.
Avoid paragraph upon paragraph of descriptions and repetitions. The scene can be set most graphically in fewer words; this not only is better for the dyslexic reader but also for the imagination of all children.
Here’s a paragraph from Chapter 9, Origins, Book 2 of Ascension series:
Ishkan strode with the grace of the hunter that he was past the crowds. As intended no one noticed him – such were the advantages of having dominion over the darkness. The scent of spices wafted around him as he passed by where the food stalls were set up. Warming cinnamon and ginger mingled with a plethora of other smells piercing the frost in the night air.
AVOID PROBLEM WORDS
Interestingly, research shows that the words dyslexic children are most likely to 'mix up' are the more common shorter words. Our brain is like a computer and when we are reading it looks at a word and quickly flicks past words which look similar that it has 'seen' before. Perhaps ironically, longer, less common words, are actually easier for the child to absorb whilst increasing their vocabulary at the same time (this is particularly the case for older children and young adults, in the case of younger children and those with severe dyslexia short words which are more phonetical are to be preferred).
Here’s a line of description from Chapter 1, Radiant, Book 1 of the Ascension series:
Thick clusters of gargantuan trees rustled in the night’s damp earth scented breeze.
A word like 'big' is easily read as 'wig', 'jig', 'bit', 'bid', 'did'… and so on by a dyslexic mind. However, words such as immense, gargantuan, massive, and enormous are less similar visually to as many other words and more likely to be absorbed correctly.
IF YOU HAVE CONTROL OVER IT, FORMAT THOUGHTFULLY
Keeping the page layout staggered so that the reader is not confronted with a rectangular block of uninterrupted text is essential. Try to separate the text with dialogues and paragraph indents. This, alongside 1.5 or 2x line spacing breaks up the text making the reading experience more enjoyable and easier (many children with learning difficulties also have eye tracking difficulties – this benefits them greatly).
I did this in Chapter 11, Radiant, Book 1 of Ascension series:
“Are you alright?” Sena asked softly, genuine concern in her face.
“Yeah,” Kyan frowned. “One minute we were talking and the next, poof, you turned a ghastly shade of green like you had just seen a ghost.”
Ari breathed in deeply to steady his racing heart. Kyan’s words were closer to the truth than he realised – he had seen a ghost – the ghost of the happy, loved boy he had once been… He gasped, doubling over as a sharp pain pierced his head.
“Ari?” Kyan was calling his name repeatedly, but his voice sounded muffled as though coming from a great distance.
Ari clutched his head as forgotten memories began to flood his mind, battering relentlessly at him. The sweet voice of his mother singing him to sleep as a young child, the perpetual twinkle in his prank-loving father’s warm brown eyes – a real home where he was wrapped in the warmth and unconditional love that he had never felt since. Images of birthdays and school days flicked past – the floodgates of his mind opened now in earnest.
With e-books the advantage is that the formatting can be personalised by and for the reader; some prefer back-lit screens, or larger font, or different font types. This is of course not the case for print books and there is no universally agreed font style or size better suited for dyslexic readers. The only consensus is that font size should be minimum 12 and that the font style be one where the letters are clearly defined. Arial and Calibri are two of the preferred choices.
If you are interested in learning more about how to help children with reading and learning disabilities enjoy books, please feel free to contact me at www.facebook.com/elaaysanlourenco/. You can also view my series of articles on learning difficulties and how to help through my LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/ela-lourenco-71555071/.