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Developing Quality Books for Every Child

Reading is the art of using text to make sense of our world. Young learners in the developing world miss out on this process in many ways. They may have limited access to text experiences in their early years. Schools may be under-prepared to provide effective instruction. Even when children are in school and schools are prepared with effective pedagogy, students often lack access to high-quality reading materials reflective of their unique cultural and language settings. Access to high-quality decodable and appropriately leveled books, written with themes that connect to children and in languages specific to their home and learning contexts, is critical to ensure development of early reading skills.

Many efforts are underway in the developing world to provide more effective early primary reading instruction. However, these large-scale programs struggle to reach the local level with sustainable and localized materials development strategies that enable participants to develop their own texts beyond target funding periods. Initiatives such as Enabling Writing address that need by providing the resources and skills to allow the creation of quality books at the local level. 

While creating high-quality books for young readers is difficult, there are particular elements that can form the foundation for successful local book-writing activities.

Text for Emerging Readers: Decodable and Leveled Books

Emerging readers who are just beginning to understand what it means to read and are beginning to learn to read need two types of text: Decodable Text and Leveled Text.

In decodable text, the writer only uses letters and (sight) words that the children have already learned. That way, everything children attempt to read is familiar. For beginning readers, decodable books may include only words that have two or three letters/sounds. For example, students may begin the year learning the letters A, S and D.  At this point, the decodable words are limited, and may include:

Sad                         Add                        Dad                        Dads

The process of leveling books is not always clear or simple, and it also takes knowledge of the developmental stage of the readers to know if a book would be at the right level or not. Levels gradually increase in difficulty over time. In each grade, there should be multiple levels indicated for a full school year.  Here are some criteria that can be used, drawn from Marcia Davidson’s Books Children Can Read: Decodable Books and Book Leveling (Cambridge Education, 2013):

  • Content that is appropriate, familiar, and of interest to specific children
  • Illustrations that support an understanding of text
  • Length of sentences and over all text that is appropriate for specific age groups
  • Linking of text to ongoing curriculum at the grade level
  • Language that includes pattern and repetitionContent that is appropriate for the background of the reader
  • Technical format appropriate for young learners (fonts, sizes, layout, etc.)

Other Elements That Support Quality Book Development

In addition to ensuring that books are correctly leveled for student learning, here are other elements that support quality book development.

Creating Text in Context

When developing new texts for young learners, it is important that the books relate to the lives of children within that specific culture. Narrative themes and stories should:

  • Have characters that look like, live like and are the same age as the reader
  • Have story plots that are familiar to the children, aligned with normal activities in their daily lives
  • Have other characters that represent other realistic people who children may encounter in their daily lives
  • Draw on traditional themes and folktales, when appropriate
  • Focus on appropriate grade-level content, when written for informational purposes

Creating text in the context in which children live and learn improves students’ connection to the text, their understanding and their motivation to read.

Aligning Text with the National Curriculum

When writing texts for young children, it is important to align the content with the national curriculum in two areas: reading skills development and grade-appropriate content.

Reading Skills Development: The specific reading skills that projects need to consider should be available within the national reading curriculum documents. It is important to provide these documents during writing workshops and to discuss how text can create opportunity for skills practice.  Some common skills for early grades readers include:

  • Understanding character traits and motivations
  • Understanding problems and solutions in a story
  • Predicting information or events in a text
  • Using illustrations to better understand text
  • Recognizing appropriate beginnings, middle and endings of text
  • Drawing conclusions about a story

Any text written for young learners should include opportunities to practice these types of skills. No one book will allow children to apply all of these skills. However, when writing a variety of texts, check book drafts to answer this question: Does the text give the reader a chance to practice and apply any of these skills?  By reflecting on skills practice within text reading, writers will create books that are more useful to children and teachers.

Grade-appropriate Content: The content of informational books should align to the national curriculum. For example, if social studies are a part of the national curriculum, then developmentally appropriate texts need to be written for that content.

Addressing Cross-Cutting Issues

Each country has social priorities or issues that are common to the culture, as well as a focus for social development at all levels. Any texts developed should be sensitive to these issues. No one text can address all cross-cutting issues. However, when creating a variety of texts, writers should make sure there is a representation of these issues.

Some common cross-cutting issues include:

  • Gender equity – ensuring that boys and girls, and topics related to boys or girls, are equally represented across a number of books
  • Differently abled people – ensuring that disabled people are represented and are presented in a positive and accepting light
  • Religious tolerance – ensuring that people of different religions (within the specific context) are positively and equitably represented across a variety of books
  • Under-represented ethnic and cultural sub-populations – ensuring that these groups are positively and equally represented
  • HIV/AIDS – ensuring that people with HIV/AIDS are positively represented in text

In addition, writers should look within their own national context to identify the important social or cultural priorities or issues that should be addressed during text development. In addition, most ministries of education have defined these cross-cutting issues, and so documents to provide you with information and support should be available.

Motivating Students by Creating High-Interest Materials

It is important to have text that is not only appropriately leveled and culturally relevant, but also highly interesting for children. Some elements of high-interest books have been addressed earlier. Other elements include:

  • Excitement – adventures, problems and interesting solutions, hero-children stories
  • Substantial illustrations – illustrations that not only reflect the content of the text, but also enhance it, providing additional information beyond the actual text on the page
  • Comfort and care – stories where children are treated well and where families are steady
  • Animals – showing wild and domestic animals in positive relationships with children
  • Relationships –  showing positive relationships among children and between children and adults
  • Predictable – children can guess the outcome and be correct most of the time
  • Patterned – with rhythmic sentences and patterns

It is important to discuss this question before writing: What will motivate children in my country to want to read and re-read the books the project provides?

Ensuring That Books Meet Technical Requirements

Finally, consider the following technical requirements that help determine the reading level of books for young learners. These include:

  • Book size – books that are neither too large nor too small for students at the target age
  • Font type, font size and line spaces – font that is simple block type, large enough for students to see easily, with spaces between lines to support easy reading
  • Number of pages per book – based on the age and developmental readiness of the reader
  • Text/page density – number of words and sentences per page, based on the age and developmental readiness of the reader
  • Sentence length and types -  how short or long a sentence should be and how simple or complex, based on the age and developmental readiness of the reader
  • Word length and word frequency –how complex words should be and how often they should repeat within the text (syllables, tenses, frequency, etc.)


Writing high-quality books that are appropriate for specific populations of young children is a complex process. However, with detailed planning, training support, and monitoring of book quality during development, it is possible for local actors to engage in writing books for the children they know well and work with every day. This will help students become life-long readers.



Amy Pallangyo, Senior Technical Advisor, Reading within REACH