There’s more to a book’s “reading level” than the Huffington Post Suggests

Says the Huffington Post in a recent article:

American High School Students Are Reading Books At 5th-Grade-Appropriate Levels: Report

This is a terribly inflammatory piece. It summarizes a recent report done by Renaissance Learning (brokers of Accelerated Reader) regarding the reading choices of students in grades K-12. The report uses the data collected by Accelerated Reader use across the country to provide lists of the most frequent titles read by students in these Accelerated Reader classrooms. According to Wikipedia, here’s how Accelerated reader works:

There are three steps to using Accelerated Reader. First, students choose and read a fiction or non-fiction book, textbook, or magazine. Teachers monitor reading including guided, paired, literature-based, and textbook reading. Second, students take a quiz. Teachers can create their own quizzes for those not available in Accelerated Reader. Third, the teacher receives information that is intended to assist, motivate reading, monitor progress, and target instruction. Reports regarding reading level and comprehension skills are available through the software.

So the database that lead to the lists published in the report reflects books that students CHOOSE to read under the umbrella of their reading for school (that’s what it says there in step one)–not the reading that perhaps the whole class does together for critical study? It’s reading that is more along the lines of independent choice reading, and the software helps the teachers monitor that reading. I’m not totally certain of this because I’ve not used Accelerated Reader myself.

But I wanted to provide that background so you would understand where the statistics presented in the report came from. I wanted to provide that background because the Huffington Post report did not–just one of the many issues with this article.

The most critical issue with this article is that it clearly was not written by any person who actually knows anything at all about teaching reading or literature and the role that the right book suggested to the right kid at the right moment plays in effective reading instruction. Instead, the article is inflammatory along the lines of Chicken Little (the sky is falling! the sky is falling!):

High school students today are reading books intended for children with reading levels far below those appropriate for teens, according to a recent report.

A compilation of the top 40 books teens in grades 9-12 are reading in school shows that the average reading level of that list is 5.3 — barely above the fifth grade.

See what I mean?

And the article does a horrible job summarizing the report–it leaves out adequate mention of how most of the experts who contributed to the report argued for the importance of supporting students in cultivating their own reading interests, regardless of reading level.  Instead it relies on the experts who agreed with the inflammatory approach the article takes. You can read the report for yourself here.

Now let’s get to the list. The Huffington Post published only the first 20 most read works by 9th-12th graders. The numbers in parentheses after each title represent the reading level by grade:

1. Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins (ATOS book level 5.3)
2. Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck (4.5)
3. To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee (5.6)
4. Night, Elie Wiesel (4.8)
5. The Last Song, Nicholas Sparks (5.1)
6. Catching Fire, Suzanne Collins (5.3)
7. Mockingjay, Suzanne Collins (5.3)
8. Animal Farm, George Orwell (7.3)
9. Twilight, Stephenie Meyer (4.9)
10. A Child Called “It”, Dave Pelzer (5.8)
11. Breaking Dawn, Stephenie Meyer (4.8)
12. The Lightning Thief, Rick Riordan (4.7)
13. The Outsiders, S.E. Hinton (4.7)
14. Dear John, Nicholas Sparks (5.5)
15. Crank, Ellen Hopkins (4.3)
16. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, J.K. Rowling (6.9)
17. The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald (7.3)
18. Lord of the Flies, William Golding (5.0)
19. The Giver, Lois Lowry (5.7)
20. Marked: A House of Night Novel, P.C. Cast (5.4)

Yes, this list could be alarming. A few titles on this list I agree shouldn’t be here (The Lightening Thief for high schoolers?). And of course I would prefer Twilight novels never made an appearance for school purposes. And it’s not clear here which of these books students are reading because they were assigned to read them and which titles they maybe chose to read (see my above questions about how this Accelerated Reader thing works). But I choose to take a more nuanced look at this list, something that The Huffington Post chose not to do.

First, consider carefully how the grade level for a text is determined. The article explains:

To determine a book’s level of complexity, Renaissance uses an ATOS readability formula that takes into account several predictors: average sentence length, average word length, word difficulty level and total number of words in a book or passage. While readability formulas can’t say much for the depth of literary aspects within a text, they offer objective measures of vocabulary and sentence complexity.

Right. “Readability formulas can’t say much for the depth of literary aspects within a text.” EXACTLY. So let’s consider a few titles from the list:

Night. It comes up with a 4.8 reading level. That’s 4th grade. It would be malpractice to ask the average 4th grade student to read that book. Wiesel describes his experiences surviving the holocaust during WWII in vivid detail–such vivid details I will not mention them here. Sure maybe the “average sentence length” is short and the “average word length” doesn’t suggest complexity, and on the whole it’s a pretty slim book. But the story that those “short” sentences and words build together is no children’s book and should not be suggested as such.

The Great Gatsby. It comes up with a 7.3 reading level, 7th grade. I would not attempt this text with the average 7th grader. I myself first approached Fitzgerald as an 11th grader and had no clue how to relate to it. Only as an adult do I get Fitzgerald. Gatsby is stunningly beautiful as a work of literature–part of it is the simple language. Simple on the surface but so much depth to unpack. It’s a joy to teach to a group of high school literature geeks who live for finding all the references to colors or eyes or cars and then discussing at length how to interpret these things.

And by the way, later in the report, Renaissance Learning presents “exemplars” from the common core standards for texts that achieve adequate “text complexity” for particular grade levels. Gatsby is one such examplar for the 11/12 grade band in the common core standards, but if you took Huffington Post’s article on this report, you would think Gatsby was only for 7th graders and certainly way below high school students.

As for the Hunger Games books–well these may be young adult literature but they deal with some pretty adult themes. And I love these books right now because of how they are engaging all kinds of readers. Even my reluctant 12th grade male readers are tearing up these books (on their own outside of the requirements for my class). Then they come to school and talk with each other about the books. And they have been analyzing the movie and whether or not its deviations from the book are acceptable. Any text that gets my reluctant readers reading becomes a bridge to reading more challenging books. This is important, and reading teachers know this. Anyone who wants our students to be critical thinking, engaged readers knows this.

I’m concerned that readers will look at this article and think that all these books should be offered to 5th graders. Twilight? The Hunger Games? Nicholas Sparks books? NOOOOOOOOOOOO. These books should NOT be on a 5th grader’s reading list in my opinion. But if a high school student is reading them on his or her own outside of class instead of watching TV, I’m thrilled.

When I first read this article, it almost even felt to me like propaganda for the common core standards proponents (see! what your children are reading in school is crap! we’re right to demand texts of higher complexity for them!). I don’t have a problem with asking students to read texts that are complex and that will challenge them as readers and thinkers. It’s basic survival for their world that is becoming ever more complex in ways we can only imagine and I am trying to find ways to accomplish this in my own classroom with the titles my students choose for their work for my class. But I do have a problem with a major web-based journalistic source publishing something so terribly un-nuanced, that does not help readers think critically about the report that it summarizes, that uses the article to lead readers to believe that ACK! AMERICAN HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS ARE ONLY READING WHAT 5th GRADERS SHOULD BE!!!!!

Come on Huffington Post–you can do a better job here. Else your readers might think this article is only meant to send more business toward Renaissance Learning, a company that is most certainly offering solutions to schools to meet the demands of our common core standards, data-driven world.

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2 Responses to There’s more to a book’s “reading level” than the Huffington Post Suggests

  1. Pingback: Helping students choose books that challenge them as readers and human beings | The Paper Graders

  2. Nailah Malik says:

    I concur with the rebuttal to the yardstick used for assigning grade levels to this list of the top 20 most read teen books. The measurement is misleading, hogwash. The content of these books matters far more than the factors that were actually considered.
    What also troubles me about this report is the apparent absence of those who lived the experience making decisions for tackling the teen low literacy issue. As a “late bloomer” who went on to become a Ford Foundation Scholar, write a short story published in the “Chicken Soup” series and serve the public as a librarian, I strongly believe teens in this predicament are seriously shortchanged when this problem omits meaningful contribution from people who have traveled down this path in the design of remedial programs and curriculum. I have watched for too many years how these perhaps well intentioned educators and advocates still manage to overlook basic components that I used to hurdle the formidable barrier leading to the liberating power of gaining literacy proficiency. Here we are back to basics again after decades of failure and yet the latest literacy movement is not infused with proven approaches born of people who in their youth faced this problem. How does this community justify ignoring the obvious valuable input?

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