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A Fuse #8 Production
Inside A Fuse #8 Production

Books for Dyslexic Child Reader: Why the British Do It Better

The other day I was talking to someone about what my library could do to meet the needs of those kids that find it difficult to engage with books, for a variety of reasons. At first we talked about the usual things like large print titles, audiobooks, Playaways, ebooks where you can adjust the background or the font size, etc. But the person I spoke with surprised me entirely when they said, in an off-handed way, “You know, there’s actually a British publisher out there that specializes in publishing books for kids with dyslexia.”

In that moment, gentle reader, I felt a little bubble of my ignorance pop once more. Books for dyslexic readers. I’m an average librarian, but I don’t live in a hole or under a rock. So why is it that I’ve never even thought about how we can make our books more appealing to children that struggle with reading in this way? According to LD Online (a national educational service of WETA-TV, the PBS station in Washington, D.C.) 5 to 15 percent of Americans—that’s 14.5 to 43.5 million children and adults—have dyslexia. That would be a significant chunk of readers. So what can be done to produce books that appeal to them specifically?

The British publisher my colleague alluded to was Barrington Stoke (winner of the Most British Name of a Publisher Ever, in my book). Located in Scotland, they’ve been around for twenty years and have created books that appeal, in large part, due to their physical appearance. They say their books, “use a shapely font that promotes character recognition, and we use a tinted paper that is easier on the eyes.” They also publish original books for kids, creating titles that are, “Expertly edited to ensure unnecessary words don’t hinder comprehension while the text will still challenge the reader.” Interestingly, a lot of the authors they work with are big names. Folks like Siobhan Dowd, Meg Rosoff, Anne Fine, Alexander McCall Smith, Mal Peet, Eoin Colfer, and others. And for those of you wondering how they meet ebook needs, in 2015 they launched Tints, a “dyslexia-friendly reading app that allowed its specially-designed books to be accessed via tablets.”

Are they available in the States? Most of them don’t seem to be. The plot thickens when you learn that in 2011 an announcement was made that Lerner Books would be publishing twelve titles from the Barrington Stoke list. I did some digging but found that the Stoke Books imprint must have died off somewhere around 2013. I could find no books still in print here in the States. More to the point, I was following Lerner pretty closely eight years ago and I don’t recall them ever mentioning this plan. However, I was able to find that the adult graphic novel Alpha: Abidjan to Gard du Nord by Bessora, illustrated by Barroux, definitely crossed over, albeit with a different American publisher. I know this because I recently purchased it for my adult graphic novel collection in my library.

All well and good, but let’s address the elephant in the room here. If the British were able to create a publisher that specifically creates high quality books from major authors that are designed for reluctant and dyslexic readers, surely someone here in the States would have done the same. Remember, we’re talking about millions of people that could benefit. Where can they go if they need books? Interestingly, if you search for “books for dyslexic kids” on Google, many of the links that come up will either lead you back to Barrington-Stroke or to other British websites.

What’s even stranger is that while it is not uncommon for some publishers to create books for reluctant readers (in the YA field they’re called Hi–Lo books, sometimes) no publisher that I can find takes the time to make the font or the paper different in any way so that certain readers can process the text with greater ease. This would seem to me to be an obvious publishing choice. Instead, anyone hoping to provide books that are specifically aimed at helping dyslexic young readers will have to order their titles from Scotland.

Folks sometimes ask me if I can name for them some gaps in the marketplace. Usually they’re looking for subject areas (and, nine times out of ten, I’ll say “nonfiction Mexican wrestler books” which have yet to exist for American kids, as far as I can tell) but if ever someone wants to start a new publishing company, take a page out of Barrington Stoke’s book. Or, for that matter, let’s have Barrington Stoke create an American outpost over here. Could be brilliant. Certainly necessary. Worth considering, at the very least.

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About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.

Comments

  1. I am glad that you have addressed this topic, but I must admit to feeling a little bit of skepticism. I went to the company’s website; they describe their books as helpful for both dyslexic and “reluctant readers,” which are really two different categories. They also claim that their books feature “dyslexia friendly font,” an idea which seemed to contradict what little I really understand about this complex learning disability. I then tried to look up studies which would support or question it. I found one, which failed to find value to this font and added that belief in its efficacy stemmed from a fundamental misunderstanding of dyslexia:
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5629233/
    It’s only one study. Other proponents of these books insist that they make a contribution to helping kids with dyslexia. The University of Michigan has an extensive website, although some of the myths and facts listed here seem subjective or contradictory:
    http://dyslexiahelp.umich.edu/dyslexics/learn-about-dyslexia/what-is-dyslexia/debunking-common-myths-about-dyslexia
    It seems that Barrington Stoke has some interesting books which would be inviting to all kinds of readers. That fact alone is worthy of mention. I’m just not sure that the claims they make can be objectively supported. If kids and parents find them to be helpful, that’s wonderful, but I would be cautious about overstating their “specially-designed” qualities.

    • I was curious as well and since the company has been around for 20 years I tried to find any articles criticizing their claims. I found nothing and since this isn’t my area of expertise I leave it to the experts.

      One point that has come up in many discussions I’ve had with people who either have dyslexia or work with people with dyslexia is the importance of the background color of a page, whether physical or virtual. That alone might make the books worth considering.

  2. Elisabeth says:

    I am not an educator with a special education credential. I’m just a library associate and a mom of a 13 year old son with dyslexia. In my experience, the things Barrington Stoke is doing are helpful for most people with dyslexia–particularly the page tint and the line spacing. My son has a lot of trouble staying on the same line of text. Having the text spaced out helps a lot.

    Dyslexic readers and reluctant readers are different categories, but dyslexic readers are usually a subset of reluctant readers, and some methods to help both are similar–shorter paragraphs and chapters, and action-packed stories that keep one’s interest. In the end, the most proven help for dyslexia is special teaching using the Orton-Gillingham method. But I am thrilled to find a publisher doing all they can to make books more appealing and easy to read for anyone with reading difficulties.

    Research on dyslexia is ongoing. So it is very difficult to say which fonts are efficacious and which are not. The U of M website Emily cited is a good one, but they seem to discount any link between dyslexia and visual perception (not eye function, but how the brain processes visual input). In my experience, there is something there which has not been thoroughly explored.

    The article cited from ncbi only worked with OpenDyslexic font. There are a few other things to find by googling dyslexia font studies. The best one seems to be here: https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&source=web&rct=j&url=http://dyslexiahelp.umich.edu/sites/default/files/good_fonts_for_dyslexia_study.pdf&ved=2ahUKEwjGuL2jn_PiAhUHna0KHVSsATcQFjAUegQIBBAB&usg=AOvVaw2FiJVYepJQqFVQ9l37GBKg

    But even that study had only 48 participants. Additionally, the age range was 11-50, which is past the typical age of learning to read. I have not seen any study address the difference between readers and reading learners. Surely if dyslexic readers have learned to read using Times New Roman (the most common English font) then they will read most easily with that font and have more difficulty with others. Whereas, if a child learns to read using another font, they may be more comfortable with that. This is just my theory with no evidence behind it.

    Barrington Stoke does not say on their website which font they use, or if it changes from book to book. They just say “dyslexia-friendly font.” This could be because our understanding of dyslexia is changing all the time and they plan to change with the latest research. All the other things they do in their books are very helpful to my son and others with dyslexia.

  3. Elisabeth says:

    One other thing. While Barrington Stoke’s books aren’t currently printed in the US, you can order them on the Barrington Stoke website. (Or from that Big River Distributor)

  4. Thank you for the information. The evidence must be evolving. I, like most parents, have sometimes just chosen what works. I certainly don’t mean to denigrate these books. It’s only that we live in a post-fact world, and I am concerned when companies make unsubstantiated promises, or when people substitute anecdotes for data. In this case, if certain types of books in specific formats help some readers, it makes sense to use them. I still feel that it’s important to maintain the distinction between readers with dyslexia and reluctant readers.

  5. Thorndike Press is working to expand its large print title offerings of well-loved and critically acclaimed middle reader and young adult authors in partnership with all the major publishing houses. A national research project has been underway this year studying how use of large print titles in schools is engaging readers who typically struggle, whether it be with dyslexia or ADHD or some other challenge. The combination of font size, style, line spacing, margins and quality of paper/ink all factor into the results. We’d be happy to share our results with SLJ as the research is published. Please browse our title selections for middle readers and young adults below (or order through Follett, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, etc.):
    https://www.gale.com/thorndike/-/N-5pZ1z1213j
    https://www.gale.com/thorndike/-/N-5pZ1z12194

  6. Eric Carpenter says:

    Betsy,
    I was sorry to see the the dyslexia industrial complex has convinced another blogger that dyslexia is a thing that exists and is understood. There’s good reason why the APA removed dyslexia from the DSM. There are also lots of $$$ behind convincing the general public that dyslexia is a real thing.
    I encourage you to read the letter (linked below) sent to PBS’s News Hour after their uninformed dyslexia segment in April. I think this letter sums up current research understandings quite well. It is undersigned by what amounts to the entire literacy academics hall of fame (Stephen Krashen, Richard Arlington, Timothy Rasinksy, Gay Pinnell, etc.)

    http://d31hzlhk6di2h5.cloudfront.net/20190523/07/24/d7/ba/61dbd6272d114e8ae9177e0e/Concern_letter_to_PBS.pdf

    • Eric, Betsy et al:

      Yes, please read the letter from the “57 Experts.” Then read the response from Dr. Steven P. Dykstra, which provides evidence that, among other things, the APA has not removed dyslexia from the DSM. https://decodingdyslexiaca.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/Dykstra-Response.pdf . Then please read Dr. Timothy Shanahan’s responses to the PBS segment and to the 57: https://shanahanonliteracy.com/blog/what-about-that-pbs-news-hour-report-on-dyslexia-and-the-controversy-it-set-off and https://shanahanonliteracy.com/blog/more-on-the-pbs-news-hour-dyslexia-segment. You’ll see that decodable books have been trapped in the DMZ of the so-called Reading Wars, and it’s time for this to end.

      Dyslexia is indeed a real thing, though among researchers the definition remains fluid as more research is done examining the differences between kids who can’t decode and kids who can decode but can’t comprehend. (The latter may actually be due to a developmental language disability that affects all language.) Practitioners and state dept of education use different cut-off scores from different assessments to say who has “dyslexia” and who is “merely” a poor reader. But fundamentally, severe difficulty in learning to read seem to be a brain-based disorder — brain scans of people with severe reading problems look different from scans of typical readers. But, with remediation, the differences disappear. The matter is complex. Regardless of how we want to define dyslexia, and whether or not we use the word, the troubling facts are that in 2017, only 37% of fourth graders read at the Proficient level or above. (Proficient meaning grade level.) Only 36% of eighth graders read at the Proficient level or above. That means more than 70% of American students are not reading at a level required to benefit fully from their education. These percentages include students of all races/ethnicities. Even fewer non-white students are able to read at the Proficient level. Clearly, one implication is that the reading instruction practices of the last 20+ years have failed to serve our children. Those practices have eschewed systematic instruction in phonology, phonics, and decoding of common spelling patterns, even though those skills have been demonstrated to be foundational to strong reading. No wonder American publishers have shied away from decodable books. In this climate, decodable book series are not profitable.

      The tragedy is that reading instruction practices have not kept pace with the leaps of understanding that reading science has made in past decades about how all humans learn to read, and what impedes this process in so many people, resulting in different levels of impairment. (Here is one piece of it: while the human brain evolved over millennia to understand and use spoken language, the brain has not had the evolutionary time to adapt to the relatively new invention of written language. Learning to speak is natural; learning to read is not, even if, for many of us book people, learning to read felt effortless.) In universities, there is a chasm between Education departments and Linguistics, Cognitive Psychology, Neuropsychology, and Speech/Language Pathology departments. Consensus science is not permeating the brain barrier to reach educators. Instead, administrators and teachers rely on education publishers to provide “proven” reading programs that are often based on outdated, incomplete theories about reading. (Many of the 57 are originators and promulgators of such theories.)

      To me it is a matter of social justice that our schools teach reading effectively, using all the knowledge that has accrued through painstaking scientific research, evaluated through peer review. It is estimated that between a third and a half of the prison population has moderate to severe reading difficulties. Imagine if those inmates had had effective reading instruction and intervention in elementary school. In modern society, the prospects of non-readers and poor readers are severely limited; poor education has set up too many to fail. I believe that every library should have books that beginning readers can read, meaning decodable books with words that largely stick to the spelling patterns that they have learned. So many “easy-to-read” books today are readable only if following predictable sentence patterns and guessing based on pictures are counted as reading. Many children do not need their reading skills to be scaffolded in this way, but many do! They need good books to read! I call on publishers to educate themselves on what many beginning readers actually need. The desire for books to be included in “balanced literacy” programs should not outweigh publishers’ duty and mission to help create new generations of capable, eager readers. I call on librarians to do the same.

      Lauren Thompson
      Children’s Book Author
      Certified Structured Literacy/Dyslexia Interventionist

  7. What a tough time it is to be a blogger! You call attention to books that are created to help reluctant readers, and readers who have reading problems that are called–correctly or incorrectly–dyslexia–and you would think that would be a pretty good thing to do. Suddenly you’re in the middle of a discussion about whether dyslexia even exists and whether it is offensive to suggest that dyslexic readers are, or are not, reluctant readers. And THEN, there’s a conspiracy–possibly a financial conspiracy–to defraud the public by something called the Dyslexia Industrial Complex! Who knew there was a Dyslexia Industrial Complex? We live in edgy and acrimonious times.

  8. Melissa says:

    I went to a great presentation by Katie Lumsden at the Lianza (New Zealand libraries) conference in 2017. “How to support people with dyslexia to use your library: it’s more than dyslexia and hi-lo books” Katie is dyslexic and a librarian at Christchurch City Libraries. She talked about her experiences as a children’s librarian and hi-lo and Barrington Stoke books amongst other strategies. I don’t think the presentation is on the Lianza website but I did see this podcast. I haven’t listed to it myself (yet) but you might be interested. https://turbittnduck.com/podcast-episode-8-katie-lumsden-chats-about-dyslexia-libraries-and-her-love-for-ebooks/

  9. Margaret says:

    In one of those odd instances of synchronicity, I’ve been reading the ARC of The Bookwanderers by Anna James. Tilly is helping her classmate, Oskar (who is dyslexic), select a book from her grandparents’ London bookshop: “Tilly picked out a pile of books for Oskar that she knew were printed on a different kind of paper that made it easier for people with dyslexia to read.”
    When I read that yesterday I thought to myself, that’s interesting, I knew about dyslexia-friendly fonts but not anything about different paper. Thank you for providing the explanation before I even had a chance to go looking for one!