Monday, May 12, 2014

52 Short Books for 11-CCR Students: TLDR and What HS Students Are Reading (and NOT)

image: from OpenClips on Pixabay
TLDR: Too Long, Didn't Read.  Scroll down if you want to skip this short read and go directly to The List.

A recently released study by Renaissance Learning finds that HS seniors read on average 5.2 books a year, down from 55.4 in grade 2 and 16.2 in grade 6.  There is also a decline in the number of words contained in the reading, from a high in grade 6 (419,121) to 304,252 in grade 12.

Wait a minute.  Do the math.  The books read by HS students must be longer.  That must explain the decline in the number of books read.

Nope. My quick study of the Top 20 lists for 6th and 12th grades provided in the report suggests that 6th graders are actually reading longer books, on average, than their HS counterparts, who are overwhelmingly reading fiction under 250 pages (must have small print). With the exception of The Hunger Games (which first appears on the grade 5 list, 810L) and another light read titled Safe Haven (830L), the longer texts read are found in the bottom (least read) 10. These include some zingers: Twilight (another light read but 544p 770L), Kite Runner (402p  840L), and Divergent (501p HL700L). Hardly a sterling list in terms of challenge.

Supporting my contention that 12th grade students are selecting books well below what they should be reading is the report's finding that the average ATOS book level (similar to the lexile scale) in grade 12 is 7.1 (one month into 7th grade).  The average ATOS in grade 6 is 5.3, which is not great, but at least it's not embarrassing.

I don't think too much should be made of this report, although it purports to be important (it's important for Renaissance Learning). How many of these titles are assigned and how many are choice independent reading?  The titles are all Accelerated Reader quizzed titles, which certainly directs choice and limits what titles are entered into the data.  The identity of the cohort is unclear; the HS students in the sample may not - probably do not - represent the full top-bottom range of student readers.

On the other hand, today's NPR post Why Aren't Teens Reading Like They Used To? reiterates the Renaissance report's finding that HS students are reading well below the level recommended by CCSS and other standards. It is possible to chalk the Renaissance report up as representative of the American public school student reading population.  OK through 5th grade in terms of fiction reading quality and quantity, but downhill from there.  Too far downhill in the 11-12 grades.

The essays which "pepper" the Renaissance report stress the importance of e-reading in today's classroom, suggesting perhaps that digital texts will spur students to read more.  I believe it is valid that e-reading is engaging and, for readers who use the tools, supportive of deeper reading. But a page-turner is a page-turner and a plod is a plod and long is long and a tool can not change that. What needs to change is access to better reading choices.

If we want our HS students to read more than 5.2 fiction titles a year (I am not mentioning nonfiction because the report finds it amounts to no more than 15% of their reading, despite recommendations to the contrary), we need to consider the fact that, in their/our culture of e-communication and e-research, TLDR (Too Long Didn't Read) is a message HS students send out every day.  By not reading.  By selecting short rather than longer titles.  By selecting easy reads with ATOS reading level 5-6.

This is not helping/challenging/growing our students.  What we need to offer HS students are high quality, high challenge, high engagement short books.

I have spent some time with and with good lists over the last few days.  It is possible to mine the classics and good contemporary fiction for excellent short books.  Alas, many of these probably are not in the Accelerated Reader quiz bank.  You may not have read or heard of many of them.  But it's high time HS readers were encouraged to make better reading choices, so gather up as many of these titles as you can.

My arbitrary short book cutoff is 250 pages.  Where possible, lengths are from is the backup.

Here is my list of 52 short fiction books (and one or two nonfiction titles) for 11-12 grade readers, generated by mining (for pages and lexile ranges) and other lists.  They are in lexile order, something a bit questionable, but at least this is a consistent measure in line with Common Core standards. More about that later. Only two titles have been carried over from the Renaissance report's grade 12 top 10.  It adds up to one book a week for a year.

Note: We can not really rely on lexiles to determine suitability and challenge. Examples: most of Gary Paulsen measures well over 1100L and ditto with the best of Zindel (e.g. The Undertaker's Gone Bananas measures 1050). Both novelists are great for MS, but with only a few exceptions are not suitable for HS. Ray Bradbury and Steinbeck, on the other hand, score much lower on the lexile scale than this reader would expect and are suitably complex for HS. Of Mice and Men belongs on this list, but since it is often read in grade 9 or 10 anyway, I have omitted it.

Moreover, many non-Western titles and short story collections have not been lexiled. Surprise! My list is more multicultural than most lists.

The Common Core, by the way, has realigned lexile bands with grade levels to make "stretch" reading the norm. Only the last 2 books on my list fall within the 11-CCR band.  That's absurd. A book does not have to have a lexile over 1200 in order to be great or to be an intellectual challenge for a 16 year old. I stand by all of these short books for 11-CCR.

The List, in lexile order (do you notice a pattern in the titles not lexiled?):
  1. Day of Tears: A Novel in Dialogue - Lester - not lexiled
  2. I See You - Shukri - not lexiled (fictional contemporary African country) - a Best Book of 2014, Africa is a Country
  3. Every Day is for the Thief - Cole - not lexiled - selected for many Best of 2014 lists (Nigeria)
  4. Citizen: An American Lyric - Rankine - not lexiled - America Book Award 2014 shortlist - poems and short pieces
  5. The Thunder that Roars - Garda - not lexiled (South Africa, Muslim)
  6. How to Escape from a Leper Colony (stories) - Yanique - not lexiled 
  7. The Strange Library - Murakami - not lexiled
  8. The Dead Lake - Ismailov - not lexiled (trans. from Russian)
  9. Family Life - Sharma - not lexiled - India/America - Named one of the Ten Best Books of 2014 by the New York Times Book Review and New York Magazine
  10. Things We Found During the Autopsy - Manickavel - not lexiled - South Indian short fiction - a Best Book of 2014, Africa is a Country
  11. Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood - Satrapi GN380 (Iran) or American Born Chinese - Yang GN580
  12. The Metamorphosis - Kafka 670 or The Room - Karlsson - not lexiled - find a great short film of the Kafka here.
  13. When the Emperor Was Devine - Otsuka  810
  14. Snow Country - Kawabata 820
  15. Drown - Diaz 830 (stories, Dominican Republic immigrants)
  16. If I Die in a Combat Zone: Box Me Up and Ship Me Home - O'Brien  830 or How To Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America - Laymon - non-lexiled (NF)
  17. Slaughterhouse-Five - Vonnegut 850
  18. Things Fall Apart - Achebe 890
  19. Ceremony - Silko 890  (Laguna Pueblo)
  20. Grendel - Gardner 920
  21. The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith - Keneally - 920
  22. The Thing Around Your Neck (stories) - Adichie  920 (estimated) (Africa and United States)
  23. Montana 1948 - Watson 940
  24. Life and Times of Michael K: A Novel - Coetzee 940
  25. The Bluest Eye - Morrison 960
  26. July's People - Gordimer 970
  27. Being There - Kosinski - 980
  28. Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids - Oe 1000
  29. Nothing - Teller 1000
  30. The Pearl - Steinbeck 1010
  31. Snapshots: 20th Century Mother-Daughter Fiction - Oates, ed 1020
  32. The Secret Agent - Conrad 1030
  33. Frankenstein - Shelly  1040 
  34. The First Fast Draw - L'Amour 1040
  35. Interpreter of Maladies (stories) - Lahiri 1050 (India, United States)
  36. The Heart of Darkness - Conrad 1050
  37. The Crying of Lot 49 - Pynchon 1060
  38. The Great Gatsby - Fitzgerald 1070
  39. The Time Machine - Wells 1070
  40. Bridge of San Luis Rey - Wilder 1080 (or perhaps The Scatter Here is Too Great - Tanweer, set in Karachi - not lexiled)
  41. The Bad Seed - March 1100
  42. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie - Spark 1120
  43. Picnic at Hanging Rock - Lindsay 1140
  44. The Bridges of Toko-Ri - Michener 1140
  45. My Life in Dog Years - Paulsen 1150  (NF)
  46. Animal Farm - Orwell 1170
  47. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time - Haddon 1180
  48. Hiroshima - Hersey  1190
  49. Ransom - Malouf 1200 (estimated lexile)
  50. Forrest Gump - Groom  1210
  51. Eighteen Best Short Stories by Edgar Allan Poe - Poe 1220
  52. Chronicle of a Death Foretold - Marquez 1270
It goes without saying that most of these books will require more effort to read than The Hunger Games trilogy. That effort is one of the reasons that readers find Animal Farm, Of Mice and Men and Gatsby turn-offs and Percy Jackson so captivating, and it is probably the real motivation behind TLDR. Educators can give in to this, or they can combat it with titles like those above. One approach builds lists of easy, long, page-turners; the other approach builds better and better-educated readers. Your choice.

This is, of course, just one solution to our national non-reading dilemma. There are others:
  • If you really want students to be stretched, assign books and articles about fiction and authors.  That's the best place for students to meet those higher lexile texts.  Some might find these essays lead them to great novels.
  • Allow/encourage your students to read multi-culturally and diversely.
  • Celebrate the humanities as well as STEM.
  • Write and read.  Introduce students to living writers and their works.
  • Encourage collaborative reading in 11-12 grades.  What?  This means groups encouraged to read like a book club reads.  
  • Invest in great audio books for your students. Time well spent.
  • PBL: Oral histories of the reading memories of parents and seniors; Twitter reading selfies and campaigns.
Want to add a book or an idea?  Write a comment or email me directly.

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