What Kids Are Reading, 2012 – Why It Doesn’t Matter

I’ve been stewing over this study for a few weeks now.  Back when it started making the rounds on Twitter I was busy finishing up my National Board portfolio and I only had time to skim the study and make a few passing remarks to my PLN.  But today I was able to sit down and read it cover-to-cover. Boy, do I have a lot to say.

Anyone who has been reading my blog since the beginning knows how I feel about Accelerated Reader.  When I taught sixth grade I worked very hard to grow my students into readers.  Inevitably, though, they moved on to the local middle school, which utilized AR, and their growth stopped.  I documented a specific example back in 2009.  I know every school is different and that my experience does not represent all experiences but I fear that student’s experience is all too common.

Needless to say, Renaissance Learning’s annual study gets me all riled up.  I am going to focus on the 9-12 list here, but I imagine that the statistics would ring true regardless of grade level.  According to Renaissance Learning, the 9-12 list represents “388,963 ninth–twelfth graders … during the 2010–11 school year.”  According to the National Center for Education Statistics, “In fall 2011, over 49.4 million students will attend public elementary and secondary schools. Of these…14.5 million will be in grades 9 through 12 (source) . An additional 6.0 million students are expected to attend private schools (source).”  In other words, if I am doing my math correctly, the study represents the Top 40 reading choices made by 2.8% of secondary students in the United States.  That’s a pretty small sample size.  The study doesn’t mention this, but anecdotally I know that many secondary schools utilize AR for below-grade level readers who are placed into ‘enrichment’ reading classes in order to increase their reading instruction. AR is a one-and-done curriculum solution in that you just need a proctor to watch the students read and take quizzes.  In these times of budget crises across the country, it’s a simple solution for too many schools.  So the sample most likely includes a large number of below-grade level readers to begin with.

Also speaking anecdotally, many of my former students readily admit to choosing the easiest books from the AR list for a variety of reasons.  For those who enjoy reading, the easy books are fast reads that let them get their AR requirement over and done with quickly.  And many students will tell you that they read easy books because the AR quizzes are so ridiculously hard to pass.  Easy books hopefully means quizzes that the students can pass.  It’s been a  few years since  I’ve had the opportunity to see an AR test, but those I did see were nothing but rote memorization.  Basic recall questions about setting and minor characters don’t prove that a student can read critically or think critically. I remember a conversation on Twitter last year where various YA authors were wondering if they would be able to pass their own AR quizzes- for the books they wrote!

I have no idea why the lists are broken down into individual grade levels for K-8 but 9-12 are lumped together- that’s not consistent and affects the overall list.  But I’m going to work with what I have and just look at the overall list of popular books for grades 9-12.

The most popular book is The Hunger Games.  Is anyone surprised by this? It’s a gateway book for thousands of readers!  I know elementary school students, middle school students, high school students, and adults who have started reading again because Collins’ book pulled them into the vortex.  I have no issue with this being the most popular book for secondary students.  The themes are worthy and there is a lot to talk about.  Catching Fire is also found in the top ten, followed by Mockingjay.

The next three books are curriculum books.  Of Mice and Men, To Kill a Mockingbird, Night, Animal Farm- would anyone argue that our students shouldn’t read these books?  My guess is these books are required reading in many schools and they count towards AR points, so the majority of the surveyed students read them.  Plus, three  of four are under 120 pages.  My guess? They are offered as part of a list and lots of kids pick the shortest books.  However, all three books are extraordinarily important books!  While their readability might be 4th/5th grade according to Renaissance Learning, I think there is a lot more to reading level than running text through an algorithm. Would I hand Night to a fourth grader?  Most likely no!  The themes and ideas are well above an elementary school reading level.  The same goes for the allegorical tale in Animal Farm. I read it as a 3rd grader because I read at a high school level and a teacher thought I should read books appropriate for my reading level.  You know what I got out of it at eight years old? A weird story about farm animals.  I didn’t have the background knowledge to fully understand the book!  I needed to grow up before the book would be important to me.  And guess what? If I reread Animal Farm today I would have a different interpretation than I did as a college student.  We grow and change and books grow and change with us, regardless of their text readability.

There are also a bunch of Nicholas Sparks’ books in the top 40.  Hmm, Sparks also makes many appearances on the NYT Best Seller list.  I have no issue with that.  Many adults read Nicholas Sparks so why should we fault high schoolers for picking up those same books?  Is he a fantastic writer? No sir. But does he get kids reading? Hell yes!

I have a big problem with the readability scores given to many of the classics on the list and that’s where the problem lies. Romeo and Juliet is listed as an 8.6 reading level and I think that explains why many of my gifted and talented students read it as a whole-class book in middle school.  Inevitably, they read it for 5 months, fill out countless worksheets, and still consider it a love story.  I teach the play in ninth grade and the number of students who read it in 6th grade astounds me.  Just because they are reading at a high school reading level doesn’t mean they can or should identify with R+J as eleven year olds!

You know what I would like to see?  The readability scores of the books that experts think HS students should be reading.  Last time I checked, lots of experts were decrying the lack of classics put into the hands of secondary students.  Classics were going to save us!  Only classics were worth reading!  Well, according to this list plenty of students are reading classics. But now the classics aren’t good enough because their readability school is too low.  So then what is the answer? How about we let students read what they want to read independently and as teachers, we push them to a higher level in class.  Get to know your students as readers. They like The Hunger Games? Awesome!  Hand them other books with similar themes. How about The Road by Cormac McCarthy? Oh wait- the ATOS readability is just 4.0 for McCarthy’s National Book Award winner.   Or 1984?  Ok, the ATOS for that one is 8.9  Phew!  I guess that one is ok for kids to read.

Here’s the problem as I see it- nonfiction rates as more complex than fiction.  That makes sense to me.  (Check out http://www.arbookfind.com/ for the ATOS levels of various books. Once you get into upper grade books, the majority of offerings are primary source documents and books from history.  Very little science, almost no literature, a smidgen of math-related books).

Here’s the deal- NF books are expensive. Librarians have little money nowadays and they stretch what they do have. They order the books that get them the most bang for their buck and that means getting kids into the library and getting teachers to use the books.  That doesn’t leave a lot of money for lots of new NF. And publishers are part of the problem, too. My students (boys especially) crave NF. But there isn’t a lot of secondary level NF that isn’t a textbook.  Someone get on that!

We do need to have students read more NF in school and increase the complexity of what they read.  I fully support this, which is why I support the Common Core Standards in theory (I worry about how they will be put into practice, though).  I love that the CCS ask content area teachers to include more reading and writing. Students should be reading primary texts in history. They should learn to read articles from scientific journals in science. I love having my students read the NYTimes in humanities. But do we throw the baby out with the bathwater? Absolutely not!

Humanity craves stories. We need stories. And stories are frequently fiction.  Our students can and should read YA, middle grade, adult books- whatever interests them. And we should take them by the hand in school and move them into more complex texts across the content areas.  Many adults read the newspaper daily and read novels, too. Why can’t we trust our students to do the same?

My students read Chaucer and Shakespeare in class.  We read Achebe and Adichie, Golding and Sophocles.  But you know what? My students also read Stephenie Meyer, Suzanne Collins, Paul Volponi, Matthew Quick, Laurie Halse Anderson, and Sarah Dessen. They gain a lot from those experiences, too.

Renaissance Learning is a corporation. They need students and they need school districts.  More importantly, they don’t make money if students are reading independently in classrooms like those belonging to Donalyn Miller, Penny Kittle, Paul Hankins, or Nancie Atwell.  They make money  when students must be forced to read and when they don’t read well. Why are we swallowing their study hook, line, and sinker?