Loose Canons

by Robert Pondiscio
April 5th, 2012

The top 40 books read by U.S. high school students – whether assigned in school or chosen by kids on their own – are on average written at a fifth grade level.  In an op-ed in the New York Daily News, Sandra Stotsky blames a curricular approach to literature that worships almost exclusively at the altar of student interest, a practice nearly unique to teachers of English.

“Suppose that a school’s math curriculum director said it didn’t matter in what grade kids actually studied fractions. What’s important is that they “own” fractions if they choose to study them. That way, they will like math better.

“Suppose that the same school’s history curriculum director said it didn’t matter when kids studied the Constitution — or if they did at all. Instead, let them decide what history to study so that they like studying history.”

Stotsky cites a new report that shows The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (reading level 5.3) topping the list of books read by high school students, whether assigned by their teachers or chosen independently. “What high school kids choose to read on their own is one matter,” writes Stotsky. “But, surely, school librarians should recommend and English teachers should assign as many texts above their grade’s reading level as on it. If we don’t actually challenge students, how can we expect serious learning to take place?”

Even books that almost certainly were assigned demonstrate a relatively low level of challenge:  Of Mice and Men (reading level 4.5), To Kill a Mockingbird (5.6), and Night (4.8), for example. All fine works, writes Stotsky, “but these easier-to-read selections must be balanced by other works also with adult themes but much higher reading levels.”  Stotsky faults the “damaging notion that students of all grades should be allowed to read chiefly what they want in the English classroom” for the decline.

“Thus the K-8 reading curriculum came to feature a sequence of culture-and-content-free skills, with a variety of “trade” books for kids to choose from — no oppressive Western canon full of Dead White Males (or Females, for that matter) or even any coherent sequences of culturally or historically significant authors and texts. High schools had no choice but to respond accordingly — you can’t just foist Austen or Dickens on a student who’s been reading fifth-grade-level texts. Few even try: Most of the top 40 books in grades 9 to 12 today are easy “contemporary young adult fantasies.”

The well-intentioned idea behind the ‘just let ‘em read’ approach is that it will create adult readers with a lifelong love of books and reading.  Only there’s no evidence that’s actually happening, Stotsky notes.  “We’ve tried a literature curriculum chosen by students’ or teachers’ whims,” she concludes. “Now it’s time for that unfortunate experiment to end.”

Follow me on Twitter: @rpondiscio


  1. “…students of all grades should be allowed to read chiefly what they want?” Isn’t this consistent with progressive education with its “child-centered” philosophy? Allow students to decide what they’re going to study (or not) and when? What’s amazing is that this line of thinking still exists today.

    “The 1950s was a horrible decade for progressive educators. Progressive education became a stereotype, the butt of jokes and vitriol. First cam the great flood of books and articles attacking progressive ideas and practices. Then, in 1955, the Progressive Education Association closed its doors, closed two years later by its publication, Progressive Education. Since the late 1930s the organization had struggled unsuccessfully to formulate a credo, raise money, and recruit members.

    Having shaped the nation’s education agenda and dominated the nation’s schools of education for most of the twentieth century, the progressive education movement expired from intellectual exhaustion.” (1)

    So how/why is progressive education still affecting the operation of our public schools? Sandra Stotsky is dead on when she states, “Now it’s time for that unfortunate experiment to end.”

    Ravitch, Diane, Left Back: A Century of FAILED School Reforms, Simon and Schuster, New York, 2000, p.361.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — April 5, 2012 @ 1:36 pm

  2. “Trade books” are the operative words. When profit enters the equation things begin to go downhill.

    I yield to no one in my love for Jane Austen and Dickens, but it does seem a bit strange that the books mentioned by Mr. Pondiscio are over two hundred years old. Was nothing of merit written in the 20th century? I find that hard to believe. (Please, no Orwell– shades of the Cold War!)

    I think a way around this would be to go back to the historical method, and chose representative books from different literary eras, preferably in chronological order so that children would get some idea of historical sequence, tied in with a study of history. This is how it used to be done, and as far as I know, is still done in other countries, and it works very well, as far as I can see. The teachers, naturally, should get to pick the books.

    Young children also need to be exposed to fairy tales, folk tales, fables, and myths, legends, and lots and lots of poetry and song. It makes it easier that they actually love this kind of thing. I believe also that the Bible, or excerpts thereof, ought to be taught as literature and poetry, though for many people that is opening a can of worms.

    Comment by Harold — April 5, 2012 @ 2:10 pm

  3. I can’t accept those grade level numbers at face value, and I doubt you really do, either. Setting aside the appropriateness of the content, literary sophistication cannot be reduced to a formula based on vocabulary and sentence length. I’ve had interesting conversations with high school sophomores about the conceptual or emotional complexity of an incredibly simple sentence from “Night” – such as, “That night, the soup tasted of corpses.” And the rating of “Mockingbird” would seem to demonstrate the effect of averaging. Take out the dialogue and then let’s talk. The narrative has a number of complex historical expositions, not to mention the much-celebrated closing argument in the trial (in which Atticus discusses Tom’s “unmitigated termerity”). These passages require a high-level vocabulary, some historical knowledge, and an appreciation for euphimism and irony.

    But more importantly, it’s not necessary to present this as an either/or situation. We can offer a balance of choice and required reading – it’s the extremes of removing choice or removing a core that will get us in trouble. I have multiple responsibilities as a teacher, and need multiple approaches and strategies to meet those responsibilities. If students won’t do their best work on readings I assign, but step up and show their full abilities on work grounded in readings of their own choosing, I wouldn’t want to suppress or ignore that performance. Some students are more motivated to do their best work when they like the book. We can debate the causes and remedies, but the bottom line is that I need to assess these students’ abilities right now. If they write weak essays about “Gatsby” and stronger essays about a book by Sherman Alexie, I’m still glad to see the stronger essays and my ability to assess the students’ skills accurately improves by seeing their best work. If we insist on removing choice entirely and imposing the entire content and sequence of academic reading, we’ll miss important opportunities to help students learn in other ways.

    The analogy to teaching fractions isn’t convincing for me, as reading is much more personal, dynamic, and varied. There is an absolute necessity to mastering arithmetic and fractions before moving on to algebra. In reading, there would be a number of logical and coherent approaches one could take. Books can be appreciated in different ways at different phases in life. Do you have to know Arthurian legend in order to appreciate “Lord of the Rings” or Harry Potter for that matter? Does a child have to know Greek mythology before reading “The Lightning Thief”? My older son had some of that background, but my younger son enjoyed hearing the story as well, though he was less familiar with the sources. So, for one son, the book made more sense on a different level. For the other, it was an introduction and he will probably benefit from it when he goes on to study the original mythology. In the end, I’m confident that they can both emerge with an appreciation of both the original mythology and the modern use of it. (Note: I’m not suggesting Harry Potter or “The Lightning Thief” as curriculum, per se, but trying to show that learning through reading doesn’t have to follow one particular sequence).

    Comment by David B. Cohen — April 5, 2012 @ 2:27 pm

  4. I remember hearing the “it doesn’t matter what kids read, as long as they read” argument, from parents and some teachers, when I was in early ES in the 50s. I don’t agree with it,for any assigned reading, either in terms of content or language. Kids whose k-2 teachers read/assign them Aesop’s Fables, Beatrix Potter, and the classic fairy tales, in their original language, gain benefits that kids who hear pablum versions or low-quality stories do not. There are excellent versions of the classic myths and legends for young children, also. It takes years of increasingly content-rich and language-rich books to develop real literacy. It doesn’t hurt their writing, either.

    Comment by momof4 — April 5, 2012 @ 2:49 pm

  5. The reading levels do sound low. I asked Professor Stotsky for a copy of the study. Here’s a link: http://doc.renlearn.com/KMNet/R004101202GH426A.pdf

    The study refers to “ATOS” reading levels without a description of it readily apparent. I’ll look into it. But Stotsky’s point is a valid one to which I’m sympathetic: the read what you want idea not only seems to be doing little to raise reading achievement, it arguably diminishes the field of literature. Also, I don’t think Stotsky is making a dogmatic argument. I don’t see her saying “kids should never choose.” But I don’t think there’s much question that we should expect more and raise our game.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — April 5, 2012 @ 3:09 pm

  6. I agree her quotes don’t sound dogmatic or extreme, but perhaps dismissive.

    One more quick (admittedly somewhat imperfect) analogy for the ratings. If you were to rate a mountain climb by it’s average difficulty, a casual stroll leading to a supremely challenging technical descent would seem like a moderate trek. In fact, if you can’t handle the hardest part, you’re not ready for it. So, the easy portions of a book weighed against the difficult ones might mask the level of skill truly necessary to handle the text. (In a book of course, unlike a climb, you can skip certain parts; that’s how I made it through “Moby Dick”).

    Comment by David B. Cohen — April 5, 2012 @ 3:40 pm

  7. Per Stotsky’s POV, this occurs to me: those who argue in favor of canonical approach to teaching literature seem, like Stotsky, always quick to say “Of course, students should also have free choice in reading.” But I can’t recall (perhaps others can) a reader’s workshop or engagement devotee say, “Of course there are some works that every child should read.”

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — April 5, 2012 @ 3:44 pm

  8. I agree with Momof4.

    Comment by Harold — April 5, 2012 @ 3:51 pm

  9. A clarifying point when it comes to independent reading in some schools (well, mine, at least): In order to get credit for independent reading, my students must read works that challenge and stretch their reading ability. Denying extra credit for books that are less than challenging is different than saying “You should not read that book.” Of COURSE I want my students to read the books that grab them by their shirt collar and demand to be read well past lights-out. The flashlight under the covers is a childhood rite. Reading should be fun, and I am all for it. However, as a teacher, I have a duty to push them beyond the relatively limited syntax and vocabulary of authors such as Rick Riordan, Suzanne Collins and Anthony Horowitz.

    Comment by Jessica Lahey — April 5, 2012 @ 5:06 pm

  10. Jessica; If you have not yet done so, check out books by Rosemary Sutcliff. She has excellent versions of the Odyssey, Iliad, Tristan and Isolde, the Arthurrian legend etc. and a lovely set of historical novels set in Roman Britain. Depending on the reader, they are anywhere from 4th grade into HS. Both the content and the language are outstanding.

    Comment by momof4 — April 5, 2012 @ 5:46 pm

  11. The reading levels in the study you cite come from Renaissance Learning, the company that makes the dreadful “Accelerated Reader” (AR) software reading program. AR assigns kids reading levels based on computerized tests they take, and it then “matches” students to books that its computers have classified at that level. (No human intervention required!)

    AR’s reading level assignments are truly insane, and it’s a wonder that so many schools pay for this stuff. [See Susan Straight’s take down of AR here: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/30/books/review/Straight-t.html.

    How crazy are AR-determined reading levels, such as the one’s quoted in the cited study? Consider: The Catcher in the Rye is listed as a 4.7 [i.e., written at a 4th grade, 7th month reading level) — which means it’s not as demanding as “Captain Underpants and the Big, Bad Battle of the Bionic Booger Boy” — which is for fifth graders in the second month of school. Ulysses is merely a 7.5 — so it’s only slightly more difficult than Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” (7.2). King Lear, meanwhile, is just perfect for early eighth grade, because it is no harder than Vera Wang: A Passion for Bridal and Lifestyle Design (an 8.1).

    The AR bookfinder website is here: http://www.arbookfind.com/default.aspx.

    Go crazy with it, because it truly is crazy.

    Comment by Gary — April 5, 2012 @ 7:37 pm

  12. I once met a sci-fi/fantsy-loving fourth grader in a bookstore. Her mom was asking the sales clerk for ideas on what she could read. Be nosy, I butted in and suggested The Phantom Tollbooth. Her mother picked up the book, looked on the back, frowned, and put it back on the shelf. “It’s only a 5th grade reading level. My daughter reads on the eleventh grade level.”

    As educators and parents, it is totally inappropriate to fixate on reading level when choosing books for our students. The fact of the matter is, most books, magazines, and newspapers on written so that an elementary school student ought to be able to read the words on the page. Why should we force students to read some books (or discourage them from reading others) just because of the reading level? We need to find some other grounds for a value judgement that actually reflects what students get out of the books they read.

    Comment by Alison F. Solove — April 5, 2012 @ 9:18 pm

  13. How sad for the fantasy-loving 4th grader :-( I’ve got one of those who reads at a high school level as well, and The Phantom Tollbooth is one of her favorites. Sure, she also reads H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, and Arthur Canon Doyle, but she loves the math & humor in Norman Juster’s book.

    Comment by Crimson Wife — April 6, 2012 @ 1:12 am

  14. It is a principle of pedagogy that pupils should have a feeling of success in order to encourage them to persevere. I have seen this especially in the Suzuki method, which gets incredible results. This means reading things on and even below their level — and there is nothing wrong with below their level, as this constitutes invaluable review.

    They should also of course be periodically challenged, so as to raise their level, regularly and in small doses so as to avoid discouragement and also boredom. This is true for any skill. In the Suzuki method, for example, one and only one new “teaching point” is introduced at each lesson, the rest is review.

    As for canons, I don’t think any other country but ours has official canons — of course canons do and should exist, but in a descriptive and not a prescriptive sense. As I said earlier, the historical method is the tried and true, because it works. On the other hand, it goes without saying that whatever is put before children should be of the highest aesthetic and literary value — no junk reading!

    Comment by Harold — April 6, 2012 @ 1:44 am

  15. My ideal society is one in which all citizens have studied a single canon. How I wish everyone in America knew Socrates. But such a dream probably seems absurdly quaint to the titans of capitalism. Onward to the Singularity!

    Comment by Ponderosa — April 6, 2012 @ 11:46 am

  16. In general, I agree with the sentiment here. I hated a lot of the books I was forced to read in school, but interestingly enough, the ones I hated most were the more contemporary ones. As someone who prefers to read slowly and thoughtfully, I struggled to get through any book I was assigned to read in AP English. Being asked to read a book that held no place in any sort of canon of great literature seemed like such a waste to me. Did I love Antigone and The Scarlet Letter? Not really. Do I remember them, and am I glad I read them? Absolutely. Even as a high school student, I felt it was worth my time to read those books. Some of the other books I was asked to read – the ones that were supposed to be “contemporary” and “fun” – I don’t even remember. I always hated slugging through some book an English teacher loved that didn’t really hold any cultural significance. I would have rather read something more difficult that I knew would serve me well to have read – because it would actually come up as a cultural reference in other books, films, academic work, etc.

    I do think, however, that we have to distinguish between selecting challenging works for students to read and selecting “adult” content for students to read. As an adult, I now realize that I was asked to read some books before I was able to really comprehend their content from a social/emotional standpoint. Not just in high school, but in college as well. It’s tempting to push teenagers – especially bright teenagers – to read books written for adults, but we have to remember that teenagers are not adults. They may be able to comprehend sophisticated language, but that doesn’t mean they’re able to comprehend all of the content that an adult can comprehend. Social/emotional development does not accelerate the way intellectual development can. Promoting a love of reading requires English teachers to select meaningful, challenging books with cultural significance and content appropriate for the age group.

    Comment by Christina Lordeman — April 6, 2012 @ 12:51 pm

  17. One more thought: In school/for school, students should read books that teach them good writing. That means they should elevate and expand a student’s vocabulary and incorporate increasingly sophisticated syntactic and stylistic devices. (In other words: not The Hunger Games! They can read that on their own – if they want to.)

    Comment by Christina Lordeman — April 6, 2012 @ 1:02 pm

  18. One of the great PR coups in education has to be the appropriation of the term Balanced Literacy for sight reading. The reading wars quieted down not because the proponents of sight reading lost and agreed to teach reading phonetically. They simply learned to market their philosophy more tactfully.

    Reading levels in high school are low because too many students cannot read words unless they are already familiar with them. When I interview adults in their twenties, the steady answer of what to do when you encounter a word you do not know is to look to the context. Not sound it out in your head. Not look it up in the dictionary. One gets tired deciphering print when there’s no fluency with letters and sounds nor a large spoken vocabulary just looking for that first sighting of the actual word in print.

    Under Common Core this is only going to get worse. In states planning to roll out Common Core next fall, elementary teachers are telling me that every single word they utter in class must be prescripted. And that every prescripted word must be defined so there is no ambiguity in how it is being used.

    We are moving towards constraining what concepts and what words our students (those future citizens) are to be allowed to know. Who needs censorship when so much of print and thought from the most astute or experienced from generations past will be inaccessible?

    It is frightening how often in the past 6 months especially I am seeing the idea that we are moving beyond print literacy.

    Not without momentous consequences if that official aspiration proves true.

    Comment by StudentofHistory — April 6, 2012 @ 1:25 pm

  19. David is correct to point out Stotsky’s false analog of teaching literature to teaching math. Her analog of teaching literature to teaching American history is also deeply flawed. The United States only has one Constitution. Shakespeare wrote more than one play. And her choice of using a list of top 40 books is also a poor place to start finding evidence of what students read in school. In a list of this type, a book that is currently popular, like “The Hunger Games,” is always going to be statistically more apt to appear at the top. It doesn’t mean that no one is reading Dickens. I think she had a conclusion in mind before she started investigating the evidence.

    Comment by Jeff Bryant — April 6, 2012 @ 2:59 pm

  20. Christina: I am absolutely on board with having kids read material that will teach them what good writing is. They’ll never learn how to write decently unless they do. Regarding your previous comment about social/emotional development, I think that most of the above-average and many of the average HS kids could handle much more challenging material than they currently receive. That is, IF THEY HAVE HAD AN ES-MS EXPERIENCE OF RICH CONTENT AND RICH LANGUAGE, increasing on a yearly basis. The foundation needs to be cement, not sand. The upper-level McGuffy Readers tackled serious issues, and they were pre-HS.

    Comment by momof4 — April 6, 2012 @ 3:55 pm

  21. Why ever should every citizen not know Socrates, he was of the greatest historical importance, canon or no canon. I am sure every educated European citizen has at least heard of Socrates. In France, Italy, and Germany philosophy is a required high school subject.

    Comment by Harold — April 6, 2012 @ 6:57 pm

  22. In the Renlearn document (thanks for the link) a high-school librarian writes both that students “shouldn’t be required to read books that are over 200 pages” and then “They shouldn’t be reading things that are developmentally inappropriate.” The first of these statements is so stultifyingly inappropriate that I wish I had never had to read it (in accordance with the second statement, which holds a perfectly logical position).

    Thus, here’s a great example of a “both”: we CAN have students who read what they want — in their outside reading, in their free time — AND read what they need within the curriculum. This librarian makes both an insightful point about developmental appropriateness (followed by an even more insightful if not novel one that students hate to read because they have not been allowed to read things they like) AND reduces this to a does-not-follow head-scratcher that they should not be required to read anything long or taxing. Who goes to these kids’ houses and refuses to allow them to read for fun? Not any teacher I know.

    “Like” and “hate” matter, as anyone who has ever tried to control a petulant toddler can attest. They’re not all that matters. If we indulge little more than “like” and “hate” we’re going to get embryonic opinions that may never develop to maturity until long after school-age, if ever. Given guidance and intellectual stimulation, an educated person may emerge sooner and by design, rather than later and if-we’re-lucky. The adults in this equation should be able to separate want-to reading from need-to reading — yes, I’m talking about the canon — and help kids understand this in much the same way that we can teach them the difference between outside voice and inside voice. We can explode the pernicious fallacy that Wants and Needs have to be the same at all times. There’s a time and a place for both.

    We teachers do have to have respect for the need to engage kids. Any true educator will do so naturally. We shouldn’t assume it’s easy, or that a child’s will simply has to be broken. We educators have to persist to “sell” classics. We don’t have to limit our apple-picking to the fruit that has already fallen to the ground…but we do have to work, which includes being creative, listening and fine-tuning and re-teaching, making connections, understanding where kids are, and acknowledging them lovingly in their weaknesses while not ceasing to build toward strength.

    Comment by Carl Rosin — April 6, 2012 @ 8:11 pm

  23. While I believe that it is best to read whole books, I see nothing wrong with reading of excerpts as well, in order to expose students to a larger picture.

    Comment by Harold — April 6, 2012 @ 11:48 pm

  24. There seems to be a divide between the level some of these books are written at and the maturity needed to understand the material.

    I am for reading more, rather than less. An analogy, actually two: my Mother being sensible did not buy junk cereal, myself being stubborn thus did not eat breakfast. On the other side: my parents more or less let us read anything we wanted so I read pretty much everything sports and I read a lot, everyday. Sometimes, imho it is better to have them reading what they want so they read, read, read, as opposed to having students read “the good stuff” which turns them off. This video sums up my argument perfectly:
    So, a little Frosted Flakes can lead to some Raisin Bran…

    Comment by Jeremy Greene — April 7, 2012 @ 10:03 am

  25. It seems to me that a couple of truths risk being missed here:

    1. Much reading ability (most?) comes from LISTENING to adults talk and explain the world. Many of these comments seem premised on the false idea that reading ability is a muscle that only reading can exercise. On the contrary, once decoding has been mastered, acquiring knowledge becomes almost the whole game, and that can be done very efficiently orally. So instead of using the AR criteria, we might ask, “How much new knowledge will this book give this student?”

    2. The primary aim of reading is not to garner more generic reading ability, but to learn about the world and gain cultural literacy so as to become a well-constructed human being. True, acquiring this kind of knowledge does boost reading ability, but that’s just a byproduct: the more important result is that the student is developing an interesting soul. So instead of using the AR criteria, we might ask, “Will this book help this student better understand seminal truths about ourselves and our world?”

    Comment by Ponderosa — April 7, 2012 @ 11:07 am

  26. Ponderosa, what you say is very true. What children are interested in mirrors the interests of society at large I am thinking of Neil Poston’s “Amusing Ourselves to Death.” Abraham Lincoln and countless other geniuses of the past made so with only the Bible and some poetry (probably) while growing up — “plain living and high thinking.” Perhaps this is the insight of new groups like “The slow reading program”.

    Back in the day, when I was growing up (and I mean until I was 13 or 14) there were relatively few children’s book in our house, or even books of any kind, compared to now, when we are inundated in them. And my parents were readers. There were relatively few books but these were of high quality. When my parents, aunts or friends’ parents read to us, it was mostly from Rudyard Kipling or Alice in Wonderland. I don’t think we were any the worse for having these few texts almost memorized. No one made a big deal about reading levels or considered reading as preparation for a “race”. List-making and obsession with numbers are symptomatic of what is wrong with our cultural climate.

    As important as the acquisition of new knowledge is to be allowed the time to assimilate and reflect about it.

    Comment by Harold — April 7, 2012 @ 12:06 pm

  27. @Ponderosa (#25), I’m not convinced about the first sentence of your item 2, but I like “interesting soul” and the last sentence. Sometimes and for some people, The Hunger Games is an action book; maybe it can also tell us about tyranny and dystopia and justice. A more promisin example: you can read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn on a sixth grade level (but I wish you wouldn’t) or on a much more mature one. Reading CAN do so much, including entertain…if only people were to read quality literature and take the time to think about it.

    Comment by Carl Rosin — April 7, 2012 @ 12:39 pm

  28. Related story in The Atlantic today: http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/04/the-next-time-someone-says-the-internet-killed-reading-books-show-them-this-chart/255572/.

    Comment by Carl Rosin — April 7, 2012 @ 11:10 pm

  29. I can’t believe that teachers have not learned anything in 30 years. When I was in high school my English teacher informed us that this year we were to study American authors, so we were to read a certain number of pages of any book by an American author. So I showed her a trashy, poorly written romance novel and asked if the book would be ok for my assigned reading. She told me that as long as it was written by an American it would be fine. ARE YOU KIDDING ME? Fortunately that was the reaction of my parents who gave me a list of classics from which I could choose a book.

    Comment by Mary S. — April 8, 2012 @ 12:07 am

  30. When I skimmed through the comments on the renlearn report what struck me is the lack of why we do whatever we are doing. Education in my book and as I am supporting my children is to prepare them to be thoughtful, insightful citizens and creative workers (yes I have bought into the idea of a knowledge economy.) I follow this blog and use the Core Knowledge materials because you have to know what has been to have a sense of what more can be done. Many people I know could not really describe what they want education to accomplish besides getting into college and a job. Most politicians see it in terms of economic opportunity. But the hows and whys of that are not articulated in most cases. Thus Renaissance Learning provides us a snapshot of the haphazard method of the American education system. Like the NCLB test a much despised method provides us insight in learning patterns many would rather not face.

    Comment by DC Parent — April 8, 2012 @ 3:19 pm

  31. Let me chime in with comments on several important issues.
    1. Evidence. I wrote the essay for Renaissance Learning after I was given the results to look at for the top 40. By their readability formula’s calculation, the top 40 had an average level of 5.3. I had also completed two surveys, one of Arkansas high school English teachers and the other a national survey of high school English teachers, and found a similar result. What kids read on average doesn’t get more difficult, using a readability formula, from grade 9 to 11.

    2. What readability formulas are good for. They provide an objective measure of vocabulary difficulty and sentence complexity. That is useful to know because the goal of Common Core is to get kids ready for college-level reading (i.e., mature reading). Most American kids aren’t reading texts with high school level vocabulary.
    Whether or not one likes Accelerated Reader as a program (and I know nothing about how it functions in a school), it has the only broad-based data set on what kids choose to read–OR are assigned. I know of no other evidence on reading level.

    3. Yes, of course high school kids can read whatever they want outside of school. My concerns have always been on what a formal curriculum is or should be. Teachers are paid to help students become educated citizens. They should have worked out a reading curriculum that reflects that goal.

    4. I am puzzled why, at every grade level, teachers and others think kids need to be engaged to become readers (which always means letting them choose their curriculum). When do they ever get a demanding curriculum that moves them higher if they never get out of the stage where they need to become engaged? No other high school subject functions that way.

    Comment by Sandra — April 9, 2012 @ 6:50 pm

  32. Carl the Atlantic sheds an interesting light on the question at hand here. If you read teacher who advocate student choice I am thinking Here Nancy Atwell and Donalyn Miller, especially the latter you find teachers that are frustrated by books that are encumbered with so many literary devise strategies that the book is not read, the worksheets are read. To them that is what drives kids from reading. My reading of the CK is that the lack of background knowledge may be what decreases children’s love of reading. Both may be right.

    But I also see something different happening here. The Atlantic article above points to reading as part of the entertainment culture and certainly Atwell and Miller love reading so much they want others to be part of that culture. The bigger question that needs to be addressed in education policy is purpose- it may not matter if the majority of people read regularly if they have sufficient background knowledge for citizenship and their job. In 1949 the majority of people did not need to be able to read complex material or understand advanced scientific concepts to be either a citizen or have the average job. That is not the case anymore -think stem cells, fuel policy any number of issues even for citizenship we need to know more. I would argue that many teachers do not feel that education should serve that purpose, they instead see subjects as reading or math or science, not an integrated citizen. That is the larger purpose we need to imbue in our education system. The possibly insurmountable problem may actually be the culture wars.

    Comment by DC Parent — April 9, 2012 @ 8:05 pm

  33. Sandra writes:

    “My concerns have always been on what a formal curriculum is or should be. Teachers are paid to help students become educated citizens. They should have worked out a reading curriculum that reflects that goal.”

    Exactly. How or why a school of thought exists to the contrary is as mind boggling as the 2012 Mets being 4-0. Both are incomprehensible.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — April 10, 2012 @ 6:14 am

  34. Paul-

    It’s finally comprehensible to me but it requires no longer thinking of education as a public good just because it should be. When I first decided to write a book I was trying to figure out why what worked was being stopped and the catastrophes were getting more funding. And usually a new name.

    Think of all the interest groups that benefit from poor quality education. Plus it’s the most effective means of censorship on the planet.

    Who benefits from malleable and manipulable citizens who react from ill-founded beliefs and emotion instead of facts analyzed and dispassionately reasoned through?

    Still incomprehensible?

    Comment by StudentofHistory — April 10, 2012 @ 5:41 pm

  35. Hey, look who is back. Good to hear from you again, Student.

    My “incomprehensible” remark was a rhetorical.

    So, what’s the title of your book? I put one out just after the first of the year as well.

    And the NYMets?

    Comment by Paul Hoss — April 10, 2012 @ 6:10 pm

  36. I am preparing a blog right now. Have a name reserved that’s the perfect concrete metaphor for what is going on. You will like it paul because it captures the why you can no longer just close the door and teach.

    Or at least that’s the current plan. Before I meanly captured the declarations on implementation rolling forward quite a few years. Silly ed bureaucrats seem to think a cloak of invisibility attaches when they travel abroad.

    Just waiting for current senior to get that diploma in hand to be beyond retaliation.

    Basically I took my due diligence experience and figured out what made education as a business tick. Written for busy people needing to know what’s really going on and how it will affect them.

    Comment by StudentofHistory — April 11, 2012 @ 8:52 am

  37. As an elementary school Principal I appreciate, the conversation about the ultimate goals of reading. Here are my thoughts

    1. We use AR at our school and I have a love/hate relationship with the program. I need to state that the reading that students are doing in AR – at least at my school – is not the totality of what they are reading in school. Besides these independent “choice” reading they are reading teacher selected books for guided reading, basal based excerpts, and in some cases, whole class novels – usually connected to the social science content at that grade level. I encourage a healthy balance of choice and teacher directed book reading. I want students reading books of high interest and at the same time I want students challenged and supported to read more complex texts that would provide the kind of content knowledge complex themes that will benefit their overal learning goals. Basically, I agree with David B. Cohen,

    “But more importantly, it’s not necessary to present this as an either/or situation. We can offer a balance of choice and required reading – it’s the extremes of removing choice or removing a core that will get us in trouble.”

    2. I think we need to explore our thinking around what Ponderosa said here,

    “The primary aim of reading is not to garner more generic reading ability, but to learn about the world and gain cultural literacy so as to become a well-constructed human being.”

    3. The ATOS scale is one way to measure text complexity, but it cannot be used in isolation. I used to teach Old Man and the Sea with 9th graders, which I noticed has a 5.1 ATOS level. That book is nothing but a fish story on one level, but it has much deeper levels worthy to explore at high school, college and beyond. In fact, at 49 years old, I’d like to re-read it and I’m sure I’ll get something new from the text. I think the ATOS level was based on a premise similar to the editor of this book of poetry from Dead Poet’s Society:

    4. I noticed on the Renaissance study that the book levels increased consistently from grade 1 through 6, then flattened off from grades 7-12. I’m not sure that’s a victory for elementary schools (because i don’t find the ATOS text complexity scale the be-all and end-all), but at least students are reading consistently more complex texts in elementary school.

    4. A friend of mine gave me The Hobbit when I was still in high school and it didn’t interest me one bit. I picked it up again in college and devoured it. I do think getting students to appreciate and comprehend complex texts is frankly, complex.

    Comment by Dan Winters — April 15, 2012 @ 12:03 am

  38. Let me try to get this point across. Complexity and difficulty do not refer to exactly the same phenomenon. Mathematicians have made exactly the same point in their evaluation of test items.

    American students have generally been reading more complex works in grades 6-12 (e.g., complexity of theme, character motivation)than they read in grades 1-6. What they have NOT been reading (generally speaking) are more difficult works with respect to vocabulary and sentence structure. They cannot read college-level or adult writing in areas other than fiction (e.g., Old Man and the Sea) because adult writers use much larger vocabularies than Hemingway used.

    I have not said anywhere that works like Night, TKAM, etc. have no place at the high school level. That is, of course, where they should be studied, not in grade 4 (even if their readability level is grade 4). I wish those who think this is an argument against the use of readability formulas would understand the point. The point is that high school students in English classes in this country need ALSO to read fictional and nonfictional works with hard vocabulary in them. That is what they will encounter, e.g., in adult works of historical nonfiction or scientific exposition, e.g. Complexity of theme and character is not a substitute for difficulty of vocabulary and sentence structure, no matter how the two concepts are fudged in Appendix B of Common Core.

    Comment by Sandra — April 15, 2012 @ 2:24 pm

  39. I do agree that readability formulas are valuable for determining if a text is challenging in the sense of syntax and vocabulary and they can serve as a reasonable way to judge difficulty but sometimes they miss important aspects such as how clear is the meaning based on context or content. A very good example of this phenomenon is with Harry Potter, which ranges from 5th grade to 10th grade in the Accelerated Reader scale but is frequently enjoyed in full by students who are in elementary or middle school because the seemingly high level of vocabulary required turns out to be far lower since the content tells a lot of the word meanings.
    In addition, the Accelerated Reader scale can be quite far off in determining the actual difficulty of a text as shown by Absalom, Absalom!, which somehow only got a difficulty level of 9.1 even though there is a 1000 word sentence in it and much of the important vocabulary words such as varicose, effusive, and triumvirate are not known by many high schoolers. At least it’s not listed as a middle school book anymore. This also goes for Ulysses, which should have gotten a far higher difficulty level from what I know. Ulysses would most likely have gotten into twelve grade or above if it had not been for the dialogue.
    However, despite what may seem like a disagreement, I still agree with Sandra Stosky that there is far too little increase in the actual level of difficulty in a text even though the complexity of meaning does increase in a logical manner. It’s quite disturbing actually that Alice in Wonderland has been used in high school for AP English for this very reason and it does illustrate the lack of true difficulty in the texts used. Even though Alice in Wonderland does serve as a great example of complex text because of its very rich wordplay and satire, the text is not difficult.

    Comment by Kevonni — April 26, 2012 @ 4:14 am

  40. Young children also need to be exposed to fairy tales, folk tales, fables, and myths, legends, and lots and lots of poetry and song.


    I teach an entry-level composition course in which the texts are fables, folk tales, fairy tales, and myths. Most of my students have heard of Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty, but that’s all.

    Very few have heard of Aesop.

    Comment by Catherine — April 28, 2012 @ 11:08 am

  41. Complexity of theme and character is not a substitute for difficulty of vocabulary and sentence structure, no matter how the two concepts are fudged in Appendix B of Common Core.


    Here is a paragraph my students have enormous difficulty reading:

    The Grimm’s “Little Red Cap” erased all traces of the erotic playfulness found in “The Story of Grandmother” and placed the action in the service of teaching lessons to the child inside and outside the story. Like many fairy tales, the Grimms’ narrative begins by framing a prohibition, but it has difficulty moving out of that mode. Little Red Cap’s mother hands her daughter cakes and wine for grandmother and proceeds to instruct her in the art of good behavior: “When you’re out in the woods, walk properly and don’t stray from the path. Otherwise you’ll fall and break the glass, and then there’ll be nothing for Grandmother. And when you enter her room, don’t forget to say good morning, and don’t go peeping in all the corners of the room”. The Grimms’ effort to encode lessons in “Little Red Cap” could hardly be called successful. The lecture on manners embedded in the narrative is not only alien to the spirit of fairy tales – which are so plot driven that they rarely traffic in the kind of pedagogical precision on display here—but also misfires in its lack of logic. The bottle never breaks even though Red Cap strays from the path, and the straying takes place only after the wolf has already spotted his prey.
    Tatar, Maria. “Introduction: Little Red Riding Hood.” The Classic Fairy Tales. Ed. Maria Tatar. New York: Norton, 1999.

    I don’t think I’ve had a college student yet who could read this passage without a great deal of help. Some of my students are well into their 20s, by the way.

    For the record, I myself do not understand what Tatar means by the words “it has difficulty moving out of that mode.” If I were her copy editor, I would ask her to clarify. However, the rest of this paragraph is clear to me but not to my students.

    Another observation, relating to the importance of teaching students to read grammatically complex texts with sophisticated vocabulary: most of my students seem to have little trouble understanding what Tatar is saying once I’ve explained it AND we’ve gone over it a few times. (caveat: I need to do a better job assessing whether they’re getting the meaning. So I could be wrong.)

    The issue isn’t their ability to think or even to analyze a text (although they are novices at the latter).

    The issue is being able to read and understand academic prose.

    Comment by Catherine — April 28, 2012 @ 11:21 am

  42. Many college students have difficulty dealing with relative clauses, it seems. I’m guessing that relative clauses in the passive voice may be especially confounding:

    Arthur Whimbey’s relative-clause test I’ve now given my students this test in four different classes. In each class, 40% could not understand it.

    Parkinson’s patients have difficulty reading sentences with center-embedded relative clauses (I posted this because I suspect students with ADHD may also have difficulty reading such sentences, but I haven’t had time to read the literature – )

    Comment by Catherine — April 28, 2012 @ 11:39 am

  43. oops – sorry – that link doesn’t work

    trying again:

    moping the lady (& children with ADHD)

    Comment by Catherine — April 28, 2012 @ 11:41 am

  44. hmmm….

    Let’s try this:


    And, yes, that’s ‘mooping,’ not moping.

    Auto-correct prefers ‘moping.’

    Comment by Catherine — April 28, 2012 @ 11:42 am

  45. I doubt students reading “Of Mice and Men” has anything to do with students being allowed to read anything they want.

    There may be an argument to be made that mid-20th century fiction — in particular Steinbeck and Hemingway — have a prose style that doesn’t challenge readers grammer and vocabularly and that that’s a problem in for high school English classes. But its a very different issue than students choosing to read the hunger games.

    Comment by Rachel — May 1, 2012 @ 1:23 pm

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