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