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Last weekend I gave an all-day reading workshop in Missouri, and of 3 workshop segments, one was devoted to modifying trade books for our kids so they can learn to read “REAL” books on topics they love. I still have a Winnie-the-Pooh book I modified for my son Jonathan (DS, 28) when he was five. He loved it, of course. (That was before SpongBob and his friends sprang to life.)

The Rules Are the Same For School and Home

Modified for Pre-Primer Level

Modified for Pre-Primer Level

The rules of modification are the same whether you’re adapting school reading material or trade books, so this blog applies equally to both areas. In most cases, modifying school materials will be a necessity; modifying trade books is optional, but an exciting addendum guaranteed to engage the student whether at home or in the classroom. Through experience, I am extremely partial to the latter, and because I tutor our children/teens/adults with DS, I have amassed a vast collection of modified trade books (I always couple them with homemade flash cards to use with the Fast Flash method.) I can offer kids/teens their choice of Cars I or  II, Super Heroes, Disney Princesses, Spiderman, etc. etc. There is always something they are eager to grab. Motivation is going to be difficult to engage if the materials are of no or low interest to the student with DS.

Inclusion Needs

With the dramatic increase (we hope) in inclusion settings, modification of materials becomes a hot topic. Some schools handle it well and some…don’t. So what can you do to help? You can become an expert in modifying reading materials, for a start. This whole area of modification expertise is in its infancy; most schools are not used to providing it, and many don’t have a clue how to meet the visual and cognitive needs of the student who needs those materials, even though they sincerely want to. So let’s at least become experts in reading modification for a leap in the right direction.

What the Expert Knows

Modified for Primer Level

Modified for Primer Level

The rules are few but absolutely critical for the student’s success. The guidelines are the same whether the book is school reading material or a trade book.


  • What Should the Level of Difficulty Be? The level of text the student is required to read should be a slight stretch but not more than that; a good rule of thumb is that the student should know solidly AT LEAST 80% of the words in the text; that’s a ratio of 4:1. I say again, at least. I spoke with Sue Buckley (of Downs Ed International) about this, and she told me that depending on the student, the ratio may need to be 95%-5%, or a ratio of 13:1. Whoa! How far from that goal is the material your child is now working with?
  • Determine the Level: So now ask yourself: in the school reading materials that are sent home with your child, what’s the ratio of known to unknown? In the “known” category, are those words solid? Does your child know them cold and can generalize that knowledge anywhere? Or does he know that word on Monday but on Tuesday he’s never seen it before? The percentage of “known” needs to be solid.
  • Correct the Level: So, Step 1 is: correct the ratio of known to unknown vocabulary. In other words, rewrite the text so it matches the reading support level your child needs.
  • Correct the Sentence Length: The child needs to be able to handle the sentence length in the reading materials, for several reasons. One, the longer the sentence, the more challenging (and potentially discouraging) the reading task. Two, the longer the sentence, the longer it takes for the student to work her way through it; for comprehension purposes, that’s a boat-sinker. By the time she reaches the end of the sentence, she doesn’t remember the beginning. Does this sound familiar? So make sure the sentence length is manageable.three grouches


  • Font Choice: You want to choose a “sans serif” font like Arial, Verdana, Tahoma, or Helvetica. Sans Serif means there are no “Serifs” or fancy (and distracting) endings on letter strokes. We want a font without (sans) that so the type is as clear as it can be. Just about anything you read online is posted in a sans serif font. Take a quick look at Amazon or any site. Hmmmmm…never noticed that before. Why do online dot-coms use this kind of font? Because brains  can read it most easily. The online merchant gets the information across the fastest with this kind of font. That’s exactly what we want for the learning brain.
  • Font Size: This is so important in the beginning, until the student has fair fluency going. Keep the font size large, at least 24 pt. and preferably 32 pt. and larger. The younger the student, the less mature the visual pathway, and we’ll see the fastest progress if we match font size with age and reading experience. The younger the child, the larger the font, for use in both flash cards and books.
  • Font Style: Use regular, not bold; though it may seem counter-intuitive, using a boldface font makes text harder to read.
  • Word Spacing: This is a rule you can’t break for a long time: double space between the words. Most fonts of themselves do not provide enough spacing between words for our purposes, so you have to add an extra space. What does this do for the brain? It makes the job of word recognition and retention so much easier. As adults, we easily separate words no matter how closely spaced they are; this is not the case with an emergent reader.
  • Line Spacing: It’s helpful to add extra leading ["ledding"] or spacing between lines; white space of any kind aids clarity, focus, and retention.


  • Visit Mrs. Perkins: Arm yourself with the high-frequency (Dolch) word list that your child is currently working to master. Go to and download your choice of word lists from pre-primer through third grade. Keep that list at your elbow as you write a modified text. To gauge the list you need to use, take a look at any grade list; does your child know 80% of the words on that list? Choose that one. If you feel that 95% of those words are already mastered, choose the next highest list and work those words into your new, modified text. Keep advancing your child’s level, secure in knowing that correct word lists are being mastered in sequence. Those lists were designed according to frequency of use in the English language, so the lower levels are the words he’s going to be most often required to read in any text, and that’s why they’re put first.
  • Write! Using the guidelines above, create a new, appropriately leveled text for your child. On a “full label sheet” available at any office store, type the text (do not handwrite! that will slow progress unless you’re a perfectionist calligrapher.) Fill up that sheet, allowing plenty of space between text for different pages; cut the text sections out, peel away backing, and affix to the original pages. Measure the text space on the book’s page first. Pretend you’re a graphic designer: you have to know exactly how much space you’ve got to work with, for two reasons: One, it has to fit; Two, you have to cover up the original text completely.
  • Don’t paste or tape paper into the book; use labels. This is totally not a shortcut; I’ve seen this done, and it is an open and earnest invitation for the child to rip off the paper and see what’s underneath. Not only that, our kids with DS have a well-deserved reputation for taking speedy care of “hanging chads” such as open drawers, open doors, and little thing-ys hanging off of book pages that shouldn’t be there. You know whereof I speak. So use labels that cover completely and can’t be removed.
  • Make flash cards for the unknown words. Teach them in groups of 5 using the Fast Flash method (see the how-to blog, Fast Flash.)

Working Around The Built-In School Handicap

What handicap? The school’s handicap is that the materials they are required to work with are frequently–how can I say this?–boring. Teachers can work around this a bit by including Personal Books in their curriculum mix. (See my blog on Personal Books for details of how-to.) They can also include the totally awesome element of modified trade books in the classroom. Imagine a first grader’s reaction to successfully reading a Super Heroes book in the classroom. But boring or not, the curriculum used in the classroom is typically what you’ll be dealing with unless  you have a teacher open to using materials designed especially for our kids.

So what can you do if the teacher feels bound to use what s/he already has? Suggest the same modifications I’ve listed above which we follow for trade books. Offer to do it yourself for the teacher if you can manage the time. Copy and print the guidelines above and give it to the teacher. Offer to buy the teacher a month’s worth of skinny lattes in trade. Lie down in front of the teacher’s desk and refuse to move until s/he cries “Modification Granted!”

You get the idea. Now I’m off to Target to get more cool books to modify…see you there!



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