Helping children succeed: how the publishing industry can engage reluctant readers

Learning to read is arguably the most difficult task a child will undertake. Making sense of the confusing shapes and marks (which can somehow miraculously be made into sounds and words) can be daunting, so it's important to use all our design skills to make this easier.

At The Salariya Book Company, we make baby and early reader books under our Scribblers imprint, information books under our Book House imprint, and children's fiction under our Scribo imprint. Making well-designed books for young reluctant readers that they will keep returning to has been our goal for the past three decades. How do we go about it? Here are a few of our tactics...

We start by researching and analysing what it is children do enjoy reading i.e. texts such as comics and graphic novels. A lot can be learned from the intuitive way that these spreads are laid out, and the methods they employ to convey information in short hand, such as text integrated with illustrations along with speech bubbles.

If a child is reluctant to read because they're put off or intimidated by the complexity of language in most books aimed at their age range, the solution is to simplify and reshape the text. Logically enough, the way the words are laid out on the page will impact on how easily a child can read them. Keep sentences and paragraphs short, line spacings regular, and columns of text quite narrow, as young readers can struggle to follow text that flows across entire pages.

Guide the reader from one element of the page to the next using clear and simple fonts in the body text. However, we are careful not to make the design seem too simplistic as this can put off readers if they think the book is aimed at a younger age group. Keeping it looking fun can be the secret to ensuring a young reader wants to continue turning the pages. Breaking the text up into different sections, using maps, timelines, fact boxes along with illustrations which are well labelled, offer more variety and make the reading process feel livelier and more dynamic. To add further character and visual interest we use more unusual or elaborate fonts in the headings and in dropped caps. These can additionally act as a code to show uncertain readers where to start reading.

If a child finds the act of reading boring, it's no use complaining about 'short attention spans' – we try to make the information topics more exciting by striving to frame our books around high-interest material that will engage children easily distracted by other media channels. In our science and history books, we pick headings that focus on the gory, gross or sensational to be followed through with well thought out texts. We also emphasise humour, believing that a child who's laughing and enjoying herself is far more receptive to reading and learning. We also mix the text with lots of high-quality, dramatic or quirky illustrations, which always serve to make the books more inviting and appealing to children.

Another good way of making a book more involving for a young reader is to literally involve him or her in the story. For instance, if the narrative of a history book is presented in the first-person, with the reader put in the position of a figure living through the period, such as a gladiator in Rome or a peasant in Anglo-Saxon England, it can turn a subject that might otherwise be perceived as dry and stuffy into something much more engrossing.

As is widely known, it is often boys who are the most reluctant readers. Many boys are not interested in reading unless they can see an immediate, practical 'use' in what they're reading about, so the best way to win them over is by providing technology, science and information titles that explain the world to them. We always ensure that we include tips and simple experiment instructions in our You Wouldn't Want To Live Without books alongside the main text, which give these practical-minded readers the opportunity to relate the book directly to the 'real' world and feel more actively engaged with it via the reading process.

Reluctant readers should be seen as a challenge and an opportunity for publishers, not a lost cause, and if enough innovation, invention and thought goes into the titles targeted at them, reluctant readers can be transformed into book worms too!

David Salariya is founder of The Salariya Book Company.