What Should Kids Be Reading?

Books above a sixth-grade reading level, for sure. According to Renaissance Learning’s 2012 report on the books read by almost 400,000 students in grades 9-12 in 2010-2011, the average reading level of the top 40 books is a little above fifth grade (5.3 to be exact). While 27 of the 40 books are UG (upper grade in interest level), a fifth-grade reading level is obviously not high enough for college-level reading. Nor is it high enough for high school-level reading, either, or for informed citizenship.

And yet, the demographic gaps haven’t closed. As Renaissance Learning’s 2011 report indicated, the average reading level of books read by “struggling” readers in grades 9-12 was 4.9. Does the average book reading level for all kids have to fall down to the fourth-grade level (it was 6.1 in Renaissance Learning’s first report–in May 2008) before we can declare victory on that egalitarian front and move on to what really matters–increasing everyone’s reading scores?

This republic cannot flourish in the 21st century, no matter how much time English or reading teachers spend teaching “21st century skills” with texts deemed UG, if the bulk of our population is reading at or below the fifth-grade level.

In corroboration of this trend, national scores in reading have been moving downward for almost 20 years. Average scores on the grade 12 NAEP reading tests were lower in 2009 than in 1992. In addition, average scores on the SAT fell in 2011, “with the reading score for the high school class of 2011 falling three points to 497, the lowest on record,” and the writing score continuing its decline since the writing test was introduced less than a decade ago. The latter trend is to be expected. As research consistently shows, writing is dependent on reading, and as average reading levels decline, so will writing achievement.

The average book-reading levels for grades 9-12 on the new comparison tables in the 2012 report are also very low, but some tables are more troubling than others. Let’s begin with the most troubling one. According to the Top 25 Librarians’ Picks by Interest Level, drawn from a list of 800 titles, librarians are recommending UG books at fourth- to fifth-grade reading levels for high school students. The books are in school libraries and have quizzes based on them; otherwise they wouldn’t have been on the list. But why are librarians and/or teachers encouraging kids in grades 9-12 to read books with such low reading levels even if the books are designated UG? Readability formulas don’t tell us about the literary aspects of a literary text, but they do provide objective measures of vocabulary difficulty and sentence complexity. And why no serious historical nonfiction?

The list of most frequently read Graphic Novels raises a different issue. Many high school students are now reading “classics” rewritten at a second-, third-, or fourth-grade level (e.g., Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad, A Tale of Two Cities, Romeo and Juliet, The Time Machine, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Jane Eyre, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Scarlet Letter, and A Christmas Carol), although only Romeo and Juliet is on the top 40 list for all high school students. In a few years, struggling readers may be more familiar with the “classics” as rewritten than regular readers are with them as written. This is perhaps the most appalling insight I had after looking over these lists. And some graphic novels are now required reading in college-sponsored summer programs for incoming freshmen, according to a 2011 “Beach Book” report.

Are the forthcoming common tests based on Common Core’s ELA standards likely to address this deteriorating situation? Not clear yet. Based on the Informational Texts and Stories in Common Core’s
list of five exemplars of “complexity” (for which completed quizzes were available to determine frequency of choice), the table below shows that the novels for grades 9/10 in Common Core’s Appendix B are at about the fifth-grade reading level (informational texts are closer to an eighth-grade reading level), while the novels for grades 11/12 hover around the eighth-grade reading level. Yes, they are all designated as having a UG interest level, but only eight of these titles have reading levels above grade 8 (e.g., The Scarlet Letter and Pride and Prejudice). How many reading passages on the common tests determining “college readiness” will be above the grade 8 reading level we do not yet know.

Common Core Standards Chart.jpg

Surprisingly, despite the almost singular focus of education policy makers in the past four decades on moving the bottom up, a few American students still manage to become advanced readers, according to NAEP’s most recent grade 12 reading test. In 2009, 5% were considered Advanced–a figure that hasn’t changed much in many, many years. Our Secretary of Education is determined to make all students college-ready after the common tests are in place, but he hasn’t indicated what reading level he thinks “college readiness” means. Hopefully, well above the seventh-grade level. Otherwise, only the top 5% of our students will be able to read this country’s seminal founding documents in grade 11 or 12.

We’ll find out when we can apply a readability formula (with a grade-level placement score) to the reading passages selected for the common tests. If most are well above the fifth-grade reading level from grade 7 on and the cut score by grade 10 or 11 reflects high school level reading, perhaps we can begin to turn the ship of state around 180 degrees, so to speak.

A fifth-grade reading level won’t be adequate for the reading needed by a technical workforce or four-year state college. Nor is it likely to be adequate for our major national newspapers. Maybe a holding pattern is all we can work on for now, given the many obstacles to the construction of a coherent literature/reading curriculum in grades 6-12 in our public schools.


This essay appears in Renaissance Learning’s 2012 edition of What Are Kids Reading: The Book-Reading Habits of Students in American Schools.

Sandra Stotsky is professor of education reform at the University of Arkansas, holder of the 21st Century Chair in Teacher Quality, and author of The Death and Resurrection of a Coherent Literature Curriculum: What Secondary English Teachers Can Do, to be published by Rowman & Littlefield in June.


One thought on “What Should Kids Be Reading?”

  1. Is it me, or all these books all biased toward promoting the African American experience or showing the evils of European civilization? (exception, the Odessey, the only classic book there).
    The only “Asian” book there, the Joy Luck club, is essentially anti Chinese. And the science book, the Hot Zone, is a good thriller, but doesn’t really teach you much about the joy of science or medicine as much as the dangers of evil governments that use monkeys for research.
    The good news: No Charles Dickens.
    And the reality is that forcing kids to read these things might not work: Personally I can’t remember much about what I learned in high school English class…

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