Reading ‘Hunger Games’ in high school

Few high school graduates are culturally literate, says Sandra Stotsky in an Education News interview. Her new book, The Death and Resurrection of a Coherent Literature Curriculum, comes out next week. In 2010, she surveyed a national sample of high school teachers to see what books they assign.

. . .  most students in this country experience an idiosyncratic curriculum, a fragmented curriculum whose individual titles don’t relate to each other in any way so that there is no accumulation of literary and historical knowledge of major literary traditions, movements, and periods in American, British and World Literature.

. . . what students read from grade 9 to grade 11 didn’t increase in reading difficulty. They were in essence, being pandered to, not intellectually challenged and educated.

Hunger Games is now required reading in some classes, interviewer Michael Shaughnessy observes. Teens can read the book on their own — it’s written at a fifth-grade level — without a teacher’s guidance, Stotsky replies.

Students who take honors, AP or IB courses may be prepared for “authentic college-level work,” she says. But there’s a vast middle group of students who graduate, go to college and find they can’t read well enough.

They have been shortchanged by an incoherent and intellectually flat literature curriculum reflecting idiosyncratic choices in the name of “engagement,” motivation, or relevance, or trendy ideas from the academy.

Bringing back leveled courses would provide more challenge for the top 20 percent of students and let average students read books written at the high school level in high school, she argues.

About Joanne


  1. The Hunger Games contains depth of character, numerous allusions to rich history and a wide variety of thematic issues. A good teacher can do wonders with this at many grade levels.

    Not sure where Shaughnessy gets his reading level on Hunger Games (, I’m guessing), but tagging a novel with a grade-equivalent reading level, then attacking it for being “too low” is a problem that must be overcome in education, if we are to get kids to love reading, which will ultimately lead them to more difficult texts.

    • It’s about the language, Mark. The biggest mistake English teachers – and departments – are making these days is assigning books based on the stories and themes they like to discuss with the kids. There is – and should be – a huge difference between what a 4th grader can read and understand and an 11th grader.

      The rich themes are available with classic, more challenging texts, but teachers choose “easier” material because kids “like it better.” That is a huge problem for kids going on to college. The Hunger Games is a neat book and a fun read, but it does not prepare kids to discuss literature at the college level. And we shouldn’t be “leading them to more difficult texts” at high school – that should happen at middle school. High school should encompass the more difficult texts.

      Otherwise, Mark, it’s a race to the middle, the average, the mediocre.

      • Crimson Wife says:

        It might be an interesting exercise to pair The Hunger Games with a study of a dystopian classic like Brave New World. I had an English teacher in H.S. who did something along those lines- we’d read the classic and then a modern novel with a similar story, The one that stands out in my mind was Shakespeare’s King Lear and Jane Smalley’s A Thousand Acres. We obviously spent much more class time discussing the classics but I really enjoyed the discussions we had comparing & contrasting the classic with the modern novel.

        • I see your point, Michael, but if you don’t get kids to love to read, they’ll never get to the challenging text.

          Crimson Wife, I love this idea. Pairing what kids may perceive as more interesting with what teachers perceive to be more challenging might be a great way to achieve both goals — love of reading and the challenge of college material.

          • SuperSub says:

            That has to be one of the biggest fallacies that has caused the degredation of our school systems. Plain and simple, students do not need to love a subject or assignment to do well in it.

  2. My mother developed an interest over her teaching career in high interest, low capacity readers – how to take a kid who wants to read but, for whatever reason, lags behind the curve in terms of reading skills. When I read the statement, “I nearly puked the other day when a teacher in Texas, teaching summer school, said ‘Hunger Games’ was now required reading”, no reference to context, grade level, student ability, my thought is not “Wow, how horrible,’ It’s, “If that’s all the speaker knows about the requirement and it makes him want to ‘puke’, or if that’s all he believes he needs to share to get others to agree with his sentiment, his statement suggests that he does not have a good understanding of how kids learn to read.”

  3. Mark Roulo says:

    Not sure where Shaughnessy gets his reading level on Hunger Games (, I’m guessing), but tagging a novel with a grade-equivalent reading level, then attacking it for being “too low” is a problem that must be overcome in education, if we are to get kids to love reading, which will ultimately lead them to more difficult texts.

    Shaughnessy is probably using Lexile. Lexile pegs The Hunger Games at 810L, which they consider roughly 5th grade (for reference, the first Harry Potter book comes in at 880L … a little bit harder).

    Note, however, that the concern here is very specific: Shaughnessy considers the grammar and vocabulary of the text to be too easy for high school students. The allusions, etc may well be high school specific (I don’t know … I haven’t read the book). As a clear example of this, The Grapes of Wrath comes in at 680L … the grammar and vocabulary are pretty simple … but I wouldn’t assign the book before high school because I wouldn’t expect the kids to “get” it. Also, Shaughnessy is making two more assumptions:
        (a) These kids can’t read texts much harder in grammar and vocabulary, and
        (a) It takes a lot of time to ramp up to texts with harder grammar and vocabulary … you just don’t skip from Hunger Game to The Iliad in a summer.

    So … how important is it for high school kids to learn to read texts with more difficult grammar and vocabulary?

    I think that it really depends on whether they expect to go to college (or maybe a vocational school) or not. I’ll illustrate the problem using Harry Potter instead of The Hunger Games because I’ve got some data on Harry Potter.

    Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone has an average sentence length of 13 words and a Hayes’ LEX score of -21. LEX measures only vocabulary difficulty … 0 is an average Wall Street Journal editorial, smaller numbers are easier and bigger numbers are harder.

    On average, longer sentences correlate well with grammatically more complex sentences.

    So HP is 13 and -21.

    The Fagles translation of the Illiad has an average sentence length of 27 and a LEX score of -2. The sentences are twice as long (which tends to mean *lots* more clauses …) and the vocabulary is much tougher. To get a sense of what 20 points of LEX can mean, going 20 points easier than Harry Potter gets you into Berenstain Bears territory (it also gets you into Narnia territory … but the Narnia books have surprisingly simple vocabulary. The books appear harder because the sentences are longer). You do *NOT* want to be making this big a jump between your senior year of high school and your first year of college.

    College non-fiction is also harder, too … I’ve got a non-fiction freshman year physics text that has an average sentence length of 21 and a LEX score of -3.

    If everyone is fine with kids graduating high school with a love of reading, but an inability to read college level texts, I think there is no problem. The problem comes when these kids graduate high school thinking that they are ready for college level texts and they aren’t. And if the kids are still working on 5th grade grammar/vocabulary in 10th and 11th grade time is running short.

  4. Joanne, that first link doesn’t work for me.

  5. Mark Roulo says:


    At the 404 page you get with the broken link there is a search field in the upper right.

    Search for: sandra stotsky

    The first hit will be the article.

    I’d post the link directly, but posts with links get quarantined for 1+ hours …

  6. Mark Roulo says:
  7. The interview link wouldn’t pull up when I tried, so I haven’t read it.

    In my own observation the problem is not that the kids are reading the Hunger Games; it’s that not enough teachers push the kids to read text with greater complexity or straight up difficulty in addition to Hunger Games type works. In my experience, it’s because teachers are unable to hold kids accountable for reading independently either inside or outside of class in regular college prep classes. If all the kids fail enough of the reading check quizzes or assignments, then the teacher looks bad for the low grades. If teachers don’t give reading check quizzes or assignments (or enough of them to affect overall grades), then the kids know they don’t really have to do the reading. So teachers end up having to spoon feed or read aloud all texts that aren’t low reading level/high interest. And I’m not talking about kids who are low readers; I’m just talking about kids who won’t persevere with anything that’s not immediately as interesting as facebook. If you can do literary analysis of Hunger Games-type books and the kids will read them on their own, would you still teach Hawthorne if it meant reading aloud and summarizing everything for the class? Or would you build your own Hunger Game-ish curriculum and focus on skills rather than cultural content? Especially if you are in a state that doesn’t require much high-level reading on AYP tests, it seems like a reasonable way not to go insane, but clearly has long-term drawbacks for other people or the culture generally. And short-term, the kids will probably be happier; their parents happier, and your principal probably doesn’t know the difference. If everyone is happy and your test scores are okay, you’re a great teacher.

    Theoretically, some of the implementation recommendations for Common Core should address some of this. But I’m skeptical because unless teachers can assess whether kids understood a complex text after cold reading and the kids are held in large part responsible for their own outcomes, we’ll be back in the same spoon feeding loop in no time.

  8. Thanks, Mark.

    Sandra Stotsky always seems to be writing about an alternate reality.I taught English one year, and am extremely familiar with what my math students read, adn the idea that they are reading fifth grade pap is utter horse-pucky. Now,there’s lots of multi-culti nonsense I’d cut from their reading,but it’s not fifth grade level and the kids are definitely getting a wide range of literature.

    Is it coherent? No, of course not, but that’s not a function of Common Core (which I dislike tremendously) but a function of the “anti-dead-white-guys” curriculum choices that have been in vogue for decades.

    So will students be hurt by moving from literature only to a 50-50 split? I keep hearing that Stotsky is ignoring the fact that the 50-50 split is for all subjects, but I tend to agree with her that if the subject is English, then they should live by what they write. But even if it’s English only, I think the reading selections are so haphazard anyway that there won’t be any big deal if they move to 50-50.

    However, the real issue is that Stotsky is either flatly wrong or talking about a situation that is not common for all states. Because she talks about America in general, I tend to assume she’s just flatly wrong. So even though I agree with her general goals, I find her hyperventilating both inaccurate and unconvincing.

  9. I’m a supporter of reading. Not just “The Hunger Games”, as I believe that reading can help a student gain a college worth vocabulary and also enables them to better analyze the mandatory texts.

  10. SuperSub says:

    Well. what exactly is the purpose of high school English classes? It seems that we have shifted over completely to literary analysis and have completely abandoned language development.

    Unless the class is designed for remedial readers, the Hunger Games (or Harry Potter) should not even appear on HS required reading lists. The Hunger Games does not develop high school-level language capability, fails to expose students to ideas and culture they are unfamiliar with, and completely rips off its theme from numerous other literary works. Its not far removed from Danielle Steele novels.

    Also, to those who repeatedly refer to the need to understand college-level reading… how about we address taxpayer-level reading? I haven’t seen one, but has anyone ever done a difficulty score on IRS instructions? How about on credit card applications? Heck, what about the forms to sign up for a supermarket saver’s card?

  11. Interesting how this post talks about how bad Hunger Games is and Joanne’s next post talks about how Hunger Games saved Shakespeare.

    • SuperSub says:

      I wouldn’t say it saved Shakespeare… just that it illustrates how shallow teens’ literary exposure is and that they do judge books by their covers. This is exactly why The Hunger Games is not fit for school… it furthers their narcissistic focus on self-indulgent fiction.

  12. Cranberry says:

    On the 2011 NAEP reading exam, only 37% of kids scored “proficient” or “advanced.” Only 3% scored “advanced.”

    63% of students scored “basic,” or “below basic.”

    Should high schools expect students to make sudden leaps in comprehension? I don’t know. I certainly could see a teacher choosing to assign a book her students could read on their own, in order to promote interesting classroom discussions and thoughtful papers.

    Cliff Notes are always out there. Now there’s Google. Even if students pass in papers on a topic, they haven’t necessarily read the book.

  13. BadaBing says:

    Students should be required to read stuff they can handle, e.g., Of Mice and Men or The Hunger Games–I teach sophomores and juniors. You don’t want to demoralize them or make them hate reading any more than they already hate it. But they should also be required to read tougher material, e.g., Poe short stories, Wolff short stories, Hawthorne short stories, Gatsby. You can’t teach kids to read, but you can coax them into improving their competency level by requiring them to read difficult material. No one taught me to read outside of teaching me SQ3R for reading textbooks. Before college I spent four years in the USAF, the last year of them in Vietnam, and sixteen days after DEROS I was taking sixteen college credits. Can you say “culture shock?” I had to read; therefore, I did. In class I will sometimes play the audio for them as they read along with it. At other times they are on their own, but I never assign reading for homework. They won’t do it. Assign the reading in class, walk the aisles, give points for appearing to be reading, answer individual questions when someone raises his hand, and keep pushing pushing pushing. Wringing our hands over methodology doesn’t help. Bottom line is that It’s a messy business, and there is no magic bullet. You’ve got to commit yourself to seeing it gets done because it can be done for most students if you require it. On a side-note, I do not require the reading of multi-culti pabulum, and I keep chick-lit to a minimum. You alienate the young men in your class by having them read girly books, and they are already substantially more at-risk than the girls.

    • lightly seasoned says:

      Do you minimize the sexist Hemingway shit so the girls don’t have to read it?

      • BadaBing says:

        I don’t see Hemingway mentioned in my post. The only Hemingway I use is”Ten Indians.” Today young men are continually exposed to the anti-male bias in popular culture. I don’t try to shield them from it, nor do I try to shield girls from testosterone. Since most English teachers are women, and most books now on our reading lists are written by women, I try to make boys’ reading experience more balanced by providing them with stuff they find interesting, stuff that speaks to them as the testosterone-driven beings that they are. There are not enough male English teachers in our schools, but I’m not about to become another whiny advocate because of it. I just do what I can in my little corner of the world. I’m sorry if you have a problem with that. Ciao.