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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 lexile.com 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 lexile.com. Amazon.com 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 lexile.com (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?):
- Day of Tears: A Novel in Dialogue - Lester - not lexiled
- I See You - Shukri - not lexiled (fictional contemporary African country) - a Best Book of 2014, Africa is a Country
- Every Day is for the Thief - Cole - not lexiled - selected for many Best of 2014 lists (Nigeria)
- Citizen: An American Lyric - Rankine - not lexiled - America Book Award 2014 shortlist - poems and short pieces
- The Thunder that Roars - Garda - not lexiled (South Africa, Muslim)
- How to Escape from a Leper Colony (stories) - Yanique - not lexiled
- The Strange Library - Murakami - not lexiled
- The Dead Lake - Ismailov - not lexiled (trans. from Russian)
- 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
- Things We Found During the Autopsy - Manickavel - not lexiled - South Indian short fiction - a Best Book of 2014, Africa is a Country
- Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood - Satrapi GN380 (Iran) or American Born Chinese - Yang GN580
- The Metamorphosis - Kafka 670 or The Room - Karlsson - not lexiled - find a great short film of the Kafka here.
- When the Emperor Was Devine - Otsuka 810
- Snow Country - Kawabata 820
- Drown - Diaz 830 (stories, Dominican Republic immigrants)
- 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)
- Slaughterhouse-Five - Vonnegut 850
- Things Fall Apart - Achebe 890
- Ceremony - Silko 890 (Laguna Pueblo)
- Grendel - Gardner 920
- The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith - Keneally - 920
- The Thing Around Your Neck (stories) - Adichie 920 (estimated) (Africa and United States)
- Montana 1948 - Watson 940
- Life and Times of Michael K: A Novel - Coetzee 940
- The Bluest Eye - Morrison 960
- July's People - Gordimer 970
- Being There - Kosinski - 980
- Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids - Oe 1000
- Nothing - Teller 1000
- The Pearl - Steinbeck 1010
- Snapshots: 20th Century Mother-Daughter Fiction - Oates, ed 1020
- The Secret Agent - Conrad 1030
- Frankenstein - Shelly 1040
- The First Fast Draw - L'Amour 1040
- Interpreter of Maladies (stories) - Lahiri 1050 (India, United States)
- The Heart of Darkness - Conrad 1050
- The Crying of Lot 49 - Pynchon 1060
- The Great Gatsby - Fitzgerald 1070
- The Time Machine - Wells 1070
- Bridge of San Luis Rey - Wilder 1080 (or perhaps The Scatter Here is Too Great - Tanweer, set in Karachi - not lexiled)
- The Bad Seed - March 1100
- The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie - Spark 1120
- Picnic at Hanging Rock - Lindsay 1140
- The Bridges of Toko-Ri - Michener 1140
- My Life in Dog Years - Paulsen 1150 (NF)
- Animal Farm - Orwell 1170
- The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time - Haddon 1180
- Hiroshima - Hersey 1190
- Ransom - Malouf 1200 (estimated lexile)
- Forrest Gump - Groom 1210
- Eighteen Best Short Stories by Edgar Allan Poe - Poe 1220
- Chronicle of a Death Foretold - Marquez 1270
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.