Old news here for some, perhaps, but I just crawled out from under my recent school deadlines and have some catching up to do. So this company, Renaissance Learning, put out this report called What Books Are Students Reading in Grades 1–12? It would stand to be a fairly useful report for educators, parents and even the occasional writer, to see what kids are drawn to and what is popular. This “report” is their collected data, taken from their Accelerated Reading program that tracks the reading and interests of kids who read books from their approved list.
Monica over at Educating Alice has her take on it, as does Susan over at Chicken Spaghetti. Okay, so let’s all just agree that the data is controlled, that the report doesn’t really give anyone an accurate snapshot of what’s read outside of their proprietary Accelerated Reading program. Good. Fine. Still, I can’t help but puzzle over the information concerning YA readers.
According to their data the quarter of a million or so participants across the spectrum tended to read near or slightly above grade level, but only to a certain point. There are a few oddities — The Lemony Snicket books are listed at a 6 or 7 grade level but they begin charting around 4th grade and continue into the YA charts, that’s simply an issue of popularity. No, what’s odd is that starting at 7th grade the reading levels of the titles read flatten out and rarely reach an 8th grade level.
How is it all these “accelerated” readers are pushing to read older books when they’re younger but once they hit junior high they stop pushing? Most of the titles on the list reek of assigned class reading — Oliver Twist, Of Mice and Men, Lord of the Flies — with a couple Dan Brown titles thrown in — The DaVinci Code and Angels and Demons. Okay, so that’s a bit odd. But none of these books breaks the 7th grade reading level, and we’re talking ninth graders at the least. Holes is number four on the general list; four also happens to be its reading level. Shouldn’t we be seeing something a little more challenging from “accelerated readers?” Kafka, perhaps, or maybe some Camus? Dostoevsky ought to be right in there for a 10th grader who is ready to move beyond the warm comfort of the 6th grade level To Kill a Mockingbird. Did the conservative educational reformists finally succeed in removing Slaugherhouse Five from high school curricula? What gives here?
Criticism of Renaissance aside, what I’m worried about is something larger, a vast reading cliff where otherwise solid readers are coddled and nestled securely in their middle school comfort zones. Every year it seems we read more and more stories in the newspaper (NYT is a 7.8 reading level paper) about colleges complaining that students don’t have the basic skills necessary to function. Their writing skills are atrocious, they aware of the basic canon of cultural literacy — by any measure of that hotly contested phrase — to function in basic literature classes.
Could it be the “as long as they’re reading” attitudes from adults who worry that pushing a student too hard might send them running from books for life? I’m not suggesting that high school students (and adults) can’t occasionally enjoy a Harry Potter or some other genre fiction, but should that be their steady diet?
Has anyone done a study on whether the growing field of YA literature has had the effect of keeping readers from progressing into adult books, essentially retarding their entry into more sophisticated reading? I got questions, does anyone have any answers out there?