Renaissance Learning’s report on What Kids are Reading has garnered national media attention, much of it focusing on perceived inadequacies among today’s readers. A National Board Certified Teacher offers a different perspective.
Renaissance Place’s Accelerated Reader program gathers a lot of data when students take AR tests. Kids rate books and the program counts how often tests are taken. The results can be interesting…and misleading. For example, kids almost always pick the top rating, so you can’t place much stock in the stars books receive on the ARBookFind site. Additionally standalone titles of perennial popularity (Charlotte’s Web) do better than really, really popular series. Kids love Magic Tree House books, but there are so many that they split the vote.
Sometimes the reason for a book’s popularity isn’t what you think. For example, three of the top books read by third graders (Boom Town, Officer Buckle & Gloria, and Lon Po Po) are in the Harcourt Trophies third grade reader. Would these books be so popular among AR test takers if they weren’t in the reading textbook?
Reading level can be a misleading thing. Just because a student is in third grade doesn’t mean she reads only books rated three point something. A quick glance at the top books for any grade level shows you that reading level is just an average. For example, third graders love Diary of a Wimpy Kid (5.5), but they also enjoy Green Eggs and Ham (1.5) Books hovering around grade level are prominent, but so are outliers.
Reading levels run the gamut in every grade, both among the readers and the titles they favor. That’s why I’m not nuts about assigning kids to a narrow reading level (2.5-3.1 would be a common reading zone for third grade.) Kids miss out on so much and the reading level is not always an indicator of whether the child can read the book. It’s an indicator of sentence length, word length, sentences in a paragraph, that sort of thing.
Much has been made in the media about the low average grade level of high school students’ favorite books. Don’t wig out, America! There are several forces at work here. First of all, mostly younger high school kids take AR tests, and mostly kids who are in regular English, not honors are required to earn points. Honors students read literature and write papers; AR tests rarely figure into the curriculum. If it does, it’s just an assignment to rack up points for independent reading. Why not get credit for Twilight under such a system?
A look at AR tests high school kids are taking reads like the bestseller list. Some of the reading levels may surprise you. For example, The Hunger Games clocks in at 5.3, but anyone who has read it knows the issues, characterization, and depth of the novel go far beyond that. Besides, how can you knock The Hunger Games for a low reading level when Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men is lower, only 4.5? The low reading levels are indicators of today’s writing style—clear and concise. Short sentences and paragraphs mean low reading levels.
What differentiates the high school books is topic, not word length and sentence length. Glass by Ellen Hopkins is considered 3.7 grade level, but would I share that novel-in-verse with my third graders? It’s way above their comprehension level!
Use the list of What Kids are Reading as it was intended: a way to report usage of AR tests, indicating popularity of certain books. Don’t think it indicates the end of literacy or a terrible decline in the reading ability of today’s kids.
The report also has interesting essays by some of today’s most famous authors. Ellen Hopkin’s article about frequently challenged books and what kids should be reading is insightful.