Fifth-grade reading in high school

High school students need to read challenging books to prepare for college and informed citizenship, writes Sandra Stotsky of the University of Arkansas in response to to Renaissance Learning’s 2012 report. High school students’ top 40 books average a 5.3 (just about fifth grade) reading level, according to the company, which makes Accelerated Reader. That’s down from 6.1 in the 2008 report, notes Stotsky.

This republic cannot flourish in the 21st century, no matter how much time English or reading teachers spend teaching “21st century skills” . . . if the bulk of our population is reading at or below the fifth-grade level.

Accelerated Reader software quizzes students on their reading and awards points based on difficulty. The report doesn’t count books without a quiz. But AR now includes a very large number of books.

It’s not just that students choose easy books, Stotsky writes. According to the report, librarians are recommending books of interest to high school students that are written at the fourth- to fifth-grade level.

Readability formulas don’t tell us about the literary aspects of a literary text, but they do provide objective measures of vocabulary difficulty and sentence complexity. And why no serious historical nonfiction?

The list of most frequently read graphic novels shows many high school students are reading “classics” reweritten at a second-, third- or fourth-grade level, Stotsky writes. Examples are: Harriet Tubman and the Underground
Railroad, A Tale of Two Cities, Romeo and Juliet, The Time Machine, A Midsummer Night’s DreamJane EyreDr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Scarlet Letter and A Christmas Carol.

Only Romeo and Juliet is on the top 40 list for all high school students. “In a few years, struggling readers may be more familiar with the “classics” as rewritten than regular readers are with them as written,” Stotsky fears.

Common Core Standards writer David Coleman also sees a problem: “If you examine the top 40 lists of what students are reading today in sixth–twelfth grade, you will find much of it is not complex enough to prepare them for the rigors of college and career.” The reports includes Common Core Standards’ “exemplars” of nonfiction and fiction books recommended at different grade levels.

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  1. In college-prep (as opposed to general/commercial) English in a small-town HS in the 60s, I read the original, unabridged versions of all the classics above – minus Harriet Tubman and The Time Machine. We also read Faulkner’s The Bear, Herman Melville, James Joyce, Hamlet, Macbeth, Hemingway, Chaucer, the Iliad, the Odyssey etc. We wrote in-class and out-of class short essays on literary topics and both junior and senior years, we wrote a 20-page research paper, to college standards.

  2. Deirdre Mundy says:

    Hemingway comes in at a pretty low ‘reading level,’ but he’s a complex text. Also, ARs reading level formula seems…off-

    For instance: Little House on the Prairie is 4.9
    The Patchwork Girl of Oz is 7.2
    The Sun Also Rises is 4.4
    Grapes of Wrath is 4.9
    Sound and the Fury is 4.4
    Great Gatsby is 7.3
    Cross My Heart and Hope to Spy is 6.1

    So, is my second grader ‘more advanced’ because she loves Baum and would think I was nuts if I handed her Faulkner? Should we be encouraging teens to read Ally Carter instead of Ernest Hemingway?

    Or is straight ‘reading level’ a poor way to judge the difficulty of a text?

    • Deirdre Mundy says:

      These numbers came from, btw— I used it early on to make sure my daughter was reading sufficiently challenging books, but it seems to lose effectiveness once the child leaves the ‘easy reader’ stage. Who meets Baum for the first time as a 7th grader? Do kids really wait to 5th grade to read Ramona? Or 6th grade for Anne of Green Gables?

    • Stacy in NJ says:

      “Or is straight ‘reading level’ a poor way to judge the difficulty of a text?”

      Yes, this.

      I’ve found the Lexile numbers given to various books odd.

      My 7th grader just read Animal Farm. I’m sure it’s low on any readability scale. The context is so important, though, and it’s not material for elementary grades.

      Hemingway is another great example: not very complex language, but he does explore complex themes.

      • SuperSub says:

        I’d agree that some of the classics require more abstract thinking and social sophistication despite their lower language difficulty.

  3. If you look at reading and math scores since approximately the late 70’s, you’ll find that not much has changed in reading or math (even though the SAT has been re-normed at least twice in the last 35 years).

    Am I surprised that many high school students can only read at the 5th grade level, no. The reading and writing ability issues show up all the time in job applications or resumes that many employers receive, and discard in the shredder.

  4. Cranberry says:

    There are two versions of Romeo & Juliet, the original (I presume), with an 8.6 reading level, and a “saddleback” version, which has a 3.2 reading level.

    I refuse to worry about the “graphic novel” question. Very few high school students completed accelerated reader quizzes on graphic novels (21,641 students read 36,885 novels last year.) In comparison, 388,963 ninth–twelfth graders read 2,290,522 books (not graphic novels) last year.

    As the “graphic novel” section includes _Maus_ and _Persepolis_, large numbers of high school students are not abandoning the classics for graphic novels. Within the graphic novel readers may be some kids with poor reading skills, or students who are still learning English, for whom an illustrated novel may be a great help.

  5. Thank you for this posting. This is a fascinating report.

    It’s interesting to read through the lists of books but what’s most striking is the data table toward the end of the report indicating how little nonfiction titles students are reading, and contrasting that against the Common Core and NAEP recommendations. Around 15-20% of books are nonfiction, but the CCSS recommends between 50-70%, depending on grade. Clearly, we have a ways to go in that area.

    • Doesn’t the Common Core recommendation refer to all reading, not just ELA? In MS and, especially, HS, kids should also be reading in science, history etc. Of course, they should also be reading nonfiction in ELA.

  6. Stotsky does realize that AR is disproportionately used by schools with low-achieving populations, doesn’t she?

    Does she also realize that AR is usually used for SSR, and kids just pick anything to get it done?

    Or is she just enjoying complaining.

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      Sustained Silent Reading?

      I’m guessing this means kids are told, “You have to read and not talk for the next half hour?/twenty minutes?”

      • Yep. And AR is a program that sells to that initiative, by having ready made books and quizzes for the kids. So then they announce all sorts of findings based on the books kids in the program read–except it’s a very biased sample.

        • Deirdre Mundy says:

          Intersting– we NEVER had SSR after 6th grade! (Jr. high srated in 7th.) After all, with a 45 minute English period, why would you waste half on SSR? It seems like the sorts of classes using AR in high school WOULD have to be remedial— good call, Cal!

          • SuperSub says:

            We have 80 minute block classes that meet every other day, and I know English teachers that swear by SSR for classroom management purposes. Waste of time if you ask me.

          • CaliforniaTeacher says:

            If your school institutes AR and your students are low achievers, you must give them class time to read. They are low achievers. They will not read at home. They will not read at lunch. You can’t set them up for failure, therefore they must read at school.

    • Everhopeful says:

      My son’s middle school in a very upscale neighborhood used AR as a supplemental program, spending no class time on it. There was a prize at the end of the year for the most points garnered, which my son won. 🙂 He specifically chose books with high point value, including The Lord of the Rings. I often challenged the AR point values, which never made a lot of sense to me, but since it was a “canned” program, there was nothing an individual school could do about it to improve it.

  7. CaliforniaTeacher says:

    What we lack, and what we need now more than ever (especially with the common core standards hurling headlong down the road), are high-interest, challenging nonfiction books.

    Our library is filled with little 80 page biographies and picture-filled books about ancient Egypt, for example. These books are pithy and they cater to drive-by readers.

    Some publisher somewhere is reading this and will change that, I hope.

    • I recently ordered all of the Rosemary Sutcliff books I did not already own, from Barnes and Noble’s network of used book dealers, since many of her books are out of print. Most were school or town library culls. They are not nonfiction, but content-heavy historical fiction (primarily Roman Britain, with a young male protagonist) and versions of classics (Arthurrian legend, Odyssey, Iliad, Tristan and Isolde, Boadicea etc). All are excellent, in content, in vocabulary, in sentence structure and in style.

      I would estimate that most are grade 5-8 level, although my kids started them earlier and some kids would find them challenging in HS. I just wish I could think that the libraries were replacing them with something approximating their quality, but think that is unlikely. It was almost 15 years ago that I appealed to my son’s young teacher (grade 6 honors) to allow him to use one for a book report; the blank look I received when I mentioned Roman Britain was all too telling. I had brought several copies of her work and she finally agreed to let him read one instead of her preferred navel-gazing twaddle – which certainly doesn’t prepare anyone, let alone honors kids, for serious reading down the line.

  8. So, what would be examples of books that would prepare high school students for the rigors of college/university?

    • Michael E. Lopez says:

      You can’t just think in terms of “college prep” books. Those books are useless without preparation.

      The students won’t be able to read the college prep books fast enough or fluently enough if they haven’t devoured several thousand pages of other reading in the first 8 years of their schooling.

      That means starting early with the Serendipity Books or something similar, moving swiftly to Encyclopedia Brown/Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew, Peggy Parrish, Judy Blume, Beverly Cleary, and the like, then on to more difficult texts (L’Engle comes to mind, maybe Tolkien). Harry Potter and these Hunger Games Books would be good for 6th grade/Junior High maybe. Sutcliff is great; I remember reading the Silver Branch in 7th grade when I found it at a swap meet. It looked cool.

      Cheap, pulpy fiction is great. Go ahead and read a trashy series: Sweet Valley High comes to mind; I read the first, like… 60 or so books in the summer between 7th and 8th grade. In terms of content, a TOTAL WASTE of time. But that’s like 9000 pages of text I devoured that summer.

      I continue to believe that content that younger kids read really doesn’t matter that much. Have the kid read genre fiction (SciFi or Fantasy) if that’s what floats their boat. I read Dune for the first time in 5th grade, but it’s great for junior high students who have done the prep work I just described above. What really matters is getting a couple of HUNDRED books under their belt by the time they start high school.

      Only then, when words are starting to feel like the water in which you swim, will you be ready to face Shakespeare, Hugo, Dumas, Hemingway, Sophocles, Chaucer, Homer, Hesse, Hardy, and company in a way that will make them useful for preparing for college.

      • Roger Sweeny says:


        Any guess as to what percentage get “a couple of hunred books under their belt by the time they start high school.”

        I’m thinking well below fifty.

        Which helps explain some things …

        • Michael E. Lopez says:

          Oh, I’d say well below 25%… probably somewhere closer to 5-8%. But that’s just a guess.

          Also — just a clarification: When I said “a couple of HUNDRED” I didn’t mean 200. I meant something more like 400 or 500, though I’m counting things like “Good Night Moon” as 1 book for these purposes.

          • Deirdre Mundy says:

            Michael – You just admitted that, AS A BOY, you read Sweet Valley High? I am so embarrassed for you.

            On the other hand, there was a study at one point that found that those girls who devoured trashy romance novels actually had a better vocabulary and were more able to read complex works, than girls who don’t read. And apparently the best predictor of success in college is total number of pages read during senior year.

            I’ve lost track of how many books my second grader has read–I know she reads at least one novel a day….. hitting “4 or 5 hundred” isn’t that hard, provided the kid likes to read……

          • Michael E. Lopez says:

            Well, you also have to have access to 4 or 5 hundred books. It’s even better if they’re yours.

          • Cranberry says:

            Public Library = access to hundreds of books.

        • Of course, but could we at least make it a priority to get those kids who are sufficiently able and motivated ready for serious HS reading – in all disciplines? Perhaps stop holding them back to the middle, or worse? Or is the real game “Let No Child Get Ahead” – as I fear it’s being implemented? Bring back homogeneous grouping and stop social promotion; demand mastery.

          Michael, I’ve heard the “it doesn’t matter what you read” argument since I was a young ES kid in the mid-50s. I didn’t buy it then and I still don’t; not for anything assigned in school, including reports on books read at home. On their own, kids can read whatever they want. Good fiction and non-fiction increase the knowledge base upon which improved comprehension is built. I learned a lot about the training and showing of dogs from the Albert Payson Terhune books and a lot about horses of varying types from the Marguerite Henry books. Words like trotter, sulky, thoroughbreds and the legacy of the Godolphin Arabian, Morgan, Chincoteague and Assateague Islands, the origins of wild horses in this country, the origins of the English thoroughbred and the understanding of TB and sanitariums all came to me easily, from reading her books.. I don’t know if the orange history/biographyseries of books (American Heritage, perhaps?) still exists but I learned a lot about our history and the people who made it from them. I still remember that account of General Wolfe’s English army climing the cliffs to beat the French, under General Montcalm, on the Plains of Abraham. Also, the Greek and Roman myths, the fables of Aesop and La Fontaine and the classic fairy tales (Grimm, Hans Christian Anderson) are great. It’s an unresolved correlation/causation issue, but the kids at the upper end of the academic spectrum were reading things like that while others were reading Judy Blume. I’d like to see teachers steer kids to books that will enrich their vocabulary and their store of knowledge about the world. Also, all of the books I mentioned are ones that appeal to boys (unlike most of the stuff the schools are using now), like Robinson Crusoe, The Swiss Family Robinson and Jack London’s work.

          • Michael E. Lopez says:

            It’s an unresolved correlation/causation issue, but the kids at the upper end of the academic spectrum were reading things like that while others were reading Judy Blume.

            Oh don’t be such a snob.

            My friends and I — and we were the upper end of the academic spectrum — loved reading that stuff.

            The big difference, of course, is that we were reading it in second grade, and by fourth grade (when most kids pick up on it) we were already on our way to more substantial texts because there simply was no more Cleary or Blume to read. If there had been, we’d have kept reading it.

            But you’re not going to get the ‘regular’ kids to catch up by just scooping them out of the Blume and of the pool and throwing them in the Homer end. Reading isn’t like swimming; we don’t have a genetic memory of it.

            And everyone doesn’t have to be an elite cultural critic, for Christ’s sake. Being literate is good enough. And if you read 160,000 pages of book (excluding textbooks) by the time you finish high school, I can guarantee that some of them are going to be beyond the fifth grade level, even if they aren’t all The Mayor of Casterbridge.

          • Lightly Seasoned says:

            As a lifelong horsewoman and someone who rehabs ex-racehorses as a hobby, I have to say that the horse books you mention really aren’t particularly accurate. But they were a lot of fun to read. My own kid, who has grown up around horses, couldn’t get into them for that reason. So that made me laugh.

            I have to say, one of the huge battles I fight with my students is that I don’t care if they LIKE the book I assigned. K-8 drills this idea that reading is something one does for pleasure. It is. But not in English class. In English, it is work. They can read for pleasure on their own. I’m not being paid for them to do what they already know how to do.

  9. A lot of kids started out on the Classic Comics, which I assume have been re-issued and are still available, before they were ready for the real thing. Thornton Burgess and Beatrix Potter are also great. My older grandkids (3 and 5) have already learned a lot of English vocab from Potter; waistcoat, wellies, macintosh, hedgerows. Also, the classic mysteries are appealing to many; Poe, Agatha Christie, Sherlock Holmes etc.

  10. Cranberry says:

    According to the report, librarians are recommending books of interest to high school students that are written at the fourth- to fifth-grade level.

    That agrees with the advice given by a high school librarian in the Renaissance Learning report: Maybe I should start out with what students shouldn’t be reading! They shouldn’t be required to read books that are over 200 pages. They shouldn’t be reading things that are developmentally inappropriate, no matter what their reading level is.
    “I hate to read” is a common saying among teenagers. However, many of them hate to read because they haven’t been allowed to read things that they like. The basic tenet of getting all students to read is to let them choose what they are interested in.
    (page 50 of the document)

    I don’t know how a student could miraculously jump from Orca Soundings or 64-page sports biographies to college-level texts.

    If a kid’s reading everything he comes across, he’ll build up his skills and knowledge base, even if it’s mostly “light reading.” If, however, he’s never read a whole book, or at most 64 pages a month (or less), I would not say he’s ready for college.

  11. LS; What a disappointment! Still, I learned more about horse terminology than I would have without the books, even if they weren’t accurate enough for accomplished horse people. That’s probably true of books about a lot of fields; not accurate/challenging enough for the experienced.

    Michael; I object to the snob label, because I already stated that kids can read whatever they want, ON THEIR OWN. I did and I still do light reading. Like LS and Cranberry, I don’t think it prepares kids for HS level reading, let alone college. School reading should demand more of kids; both quality and quantity.

  12. Nothing about the deteriorating achievement just maybe having something to do with the demographic shift of the student body?

    I understand that the children of immigrants from places like Mexico achieve better here than children in their home countries, but they are still behind compared to children of the US founding stock and still drag down the averages.

  13. Yeah, I think this is pretty much a non-issue. As people have pointed out – the levels on the AR system are only based on sentence/vocab complexity formulas which classify “Night” as easier than Harry Potter. Clearly the “oh no, high school students are reading books on an average of the 5th grade level!” panic is overblown. And the AR program is all about the “light reading” – it’s meant to be for what you read on your own, for fun, outside of assigned books (though I’d guess that many kids might take the AR test on the books they’re reading as assignments, too, for points purposes – but that’s not ever going to be as many as a kid could read on their own). If I were in high school, I’d love reading Hunger Games for fun. Tears of a Tiger…Outsiders…there’s a lot of good stuff on those lists. It doesn’t represent the downfall of American society. Sandra Stotsky has too much time on her hands if this is her worry!