Hi-lo Hits: Readers Rank Top 10 Most Popular

Isaiah was an over-aged 7th grader with a ponytail and eyebrow ring who generally flew below the radar in class – mostly he liked flirting with the girls and drawing tattoos on himself. But every independent reading period, he turned into a different person: asking to go to the bathroom, stalking the room distracting other kids, defiantly raging if I addressed his behavior. A few weeks later I sat in the hall with Isaiah doing his Running Record and realized the issue: Isaiah could barely read a first grade text.

On good days, Isaiah would choose The Hunger Games and sit on a beanbag, the book prominently opened, pretending to read. On most days, he’d knock over the bins in my library, curse and storm out of the room. It became my mission to figure out how to get Isaiah reading. In vain, I offered him the lowest level books in the classroom library – generic nonfiction picture books written for very young elementary students. But he always rejected them, saying “I don’t want those books, Miss, they’re boring!” And I couldn’t really blame him; they were “baby” books.

Desperate, I scoured the school book closet, searching for something that Isaiah could read and enjoy. But since Isaiah’s interests did not include books about animal friends, getting a baby brother, or how to make a rainy day fun, I was again out of luck. One day another teacher showed me a thin book with an edgy cover. “Heard you’re having some trouble in your independent reading period,” she said, handing me Fight by Dee Phillips. “See if this works.” Fight is a Hi-lo (high interest, low reading level) text. These texts are written about topics that appeal to older readers, but at low reading levels that are thus more accessible to readers like Isaiah.

Isaiah fought me on Fight for about a minute. Then he opened the book with its eye-catching graphics and strategically few words placed on each page and his protests stopped. At the end of the period he said, “Miss, can I have more books like Fight? That book is wavy.”

This word, the very highest of compliments, encouraged me, strengthening my resolve to find quality texts for below-benchmark readers. Recent studies have confirmed what teachers, principals and even parents have known for years: a large percentage of elementary and middle school students – especially those in low-income areas – are reading far below grade level. Last year, the Annie E. Casey Foundation released a report that found that two-thirds of all entering fourth graders aren’t reading proficiently.[1]

Once a student falls behind, studies have shown it becomes increasingly difficult for him to get back on track. Many of these students harden into resigned acceptance by the time they reach middle school. Those who were once struggling readers are re-classified as “reluctant readers” – in other words, those who say they hate to read because they can’t. What these students need, particularly the ones on the cusp of giving up, are books like Fight that will motivate them to want to persevere in reading.

In building LightSail, readers like Isaiah were on my mind. As we curated our content offerings, it was paramount to me that we offer excellent Hi-lo (high interest, low reading level) book choices to ensure that our text selections would motivate below-benchmark readers.

Today, we know what these readers like because they have shown us.

At LightSail, we have more than 100,000 readers selecting texts from our library, and our solution tracks all kinds of student reading behavior: from how long a student actively reads to which books are checked out most frequently. The data gives us a valuable window into student preferences.

Here are the most frequently read and completed Hi-lo texts among LightSail readers:

Title Author Lexile
1. Bang Norah McClintock 600L
2. Rihanna (Hip-Hop Biographies) Saddleback Educational Publishing 740L
3. Jay-Z (Hip-Hop Biographies) Saddleback Educational Publishing 710L
4. Usher (Hip-Hop Biographies) Saddleback Educational Publishing 296L
5. Blast Dee Phillips 170L
6. A Boy Called Twister Anne E. Schraff 700L
7. Broken Promise Eleanor Robins 340L
8. Fight  Dee Phillips 320L
9. Benched Cristy Watson 560L
10. Shallow Grave Alex Van Tol 460L

Celebrities rank high on the list, especially through Saddleback Publishing’s enticing format of “Hip Hop Biographies.” These texts highlight artists that students are familiar with listening to, even if reading about them is new, and play on the allure of popular rappers and singers to reinvent students’ experience of informational texts.

Fantasy is notably missing from the list, with books that are instead about teens in turmoil going through true-to-life experiences. The list suggests readers want stories that feel straight from their own neighborhoods, families or personal lives.There’s a good mix of horror, suspense and crime, with topics just provocative enough to get students reading and maintain teacher approval. Several of the titles are available through Orca and this fabulous publisher of Hi-lo content also offers Spanish versions of their texts!

Saddleback Educational Publishing also offers nonfiction texts that can be used to support literacy in the content areas with titles ranging from Go Organic and Water Conservation to Holocaust and Forensics. To scaffold below-benchmark readers’ comprehension of traditionally taught whole-class novels, Saddleback offers Hi-lo versions of HamletHuckleberry FinnThe Scarlet Letter, and dozens of other titles in both graphic novel and print.

They also offer titles such as Managing Money and Everyday Household Tasks to support older readers in learning valuable life skills. And because Hi-lo isn’t solely applicable to adolescents, their Red Rhino books are Hi-lo titles for upper elementary students. Characters are age appropriate and come from diverse backgrounds and genres range from science fiction and sports to paranormal and historical fiction. The best part? Books are no higher than a middle of first grade reading level but are super engaging to fifth graders.

And this leads us to the really good news in the story of reluctant readers: thanks to publishers like Orca and Saddleback Educational Publishing, there has been a great increase in the quality and variety of Hi-lo content available, with titles that are more appealing and relevant than ever, and are thus creating an opportunity for all students to truly fall in love with reading.

[1] The Annie E. Casey Foundation. (2014). The 2014 KIDS COUNT Data Book. Baltimore, MD: The Annie E. Casey Foundation’s KIDS COUNT Project. Retrieved from

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