Classics

Kids Read the Wrongest Things

teen readingI wonder what would happen if, for just one moment, everybody stopped worrying about the books that kids are or aren’t reading and what these habits mean for the future of books, reading, intelligence, and joy across the land. Don’t worry; we’re never going to find out.

Last week, NPR’s Monkey See Blog ran a piece fraught with furrowed brows and chewed nails, the major conceits of which are that (A) kids are not reading more complex books as they get older, and (B) teachers are not assigning as many (what the article calls) “difficult classics” as they once did. This all adds up, they worry, to a potential lack of college-level reading skills and a general lowering of expectations for high schools students.

I brought the article to the attention of some fellow Rioters in hopes that someone would work through this potentially thorny question about what young people should read. Thankfully, Jill Guccini agreed to do just that. What follows is our conversation.

Jill Guccini: 

I feel generally grumpy about pieces that complain about “what our kids are reading these days!,” but the fact that Walter Dean Myers was involved in this one gave a lot more credence to it. And I think there is perhaps truth to the fact that we might not be teaching “tough” books as much as we used to in secondary schools (although how to actually survey the truth of that seems difficult). And if we are, we have to ask how much of that has to do with popular YA series, and how much has to do with an increased emphasis on testing, which doesn’t really test how well you know Great Writers over your reading comprehension of three random paragraphs, the latter of which teachers are being much more pressured to teach.

Josh Corman:

Myers’ comments are interesting. He says he’s discouraged that high school seniors and juniors are reading books he intended for fifth- and sixth-graders, which is fair, except that when I see kids at my school reading Myers’ books, they tend to be kids who have struggled with reading in the past. Myers’ books are often used as “hooks” to get kids who may be several grade-levels behind in reading comprehension abilities to engage with any book as a kind of stepping stone. So your questions about how we determine the “toughness” of the books we teach are highly pertinent. In years past, those kids might’ve gotten handed Crime and Punishment, along with everyone else, because we weren’t recognizing various needs and adapting to put kids in a position to succeed. We were just giving them the same “classic” as everybody else and then clucking our tongues as they struggled.

Jill:

Yes! Exactly.

Josh:

As for what kids choose to read on their own, I largely agree with the article’s claim that YA titles have proven to be a kind of ceiling, even for kids capable of tackling the linguistic challenges of more complex books. What I don’t necessarily agree with is the ipso facto horribleness of this habit. As they say near the article’s end, “Reading leads to reading…”, right?

Jill:

True. Almost every study I can recall seems to say that kids who read anything for pleasure during their formative years will more likely than not be turned into “lifelong readers.” But if YA is all they continue to read at the moment, for me it links back to the fact that a large portion of adults who are capable of higher reading are reading a lot of YA right now! There have also been a million and one articles over the last few years dissecting the reason behind that, again usually leading to the conclusion that we’re all getting dumber, but the reality may actually just be that there are a lot of really damn good YA books out there right now, and no one can be faulted for that.

Along this vein, my biggest thought about the NPR piece is that while I do think we have to continue challenging kids to read difficult texts, I wonder what the numbers are in terms of how many kids are now reading at all. Like you said, it’s not like students three decades ago were inherently smarter or inherently better readers. They were forced to read higher level books more consistently, perhaps, but that doesn’t mean they were well comprehended, or liked (or even read), by the majority of students then, or now, or in the future. Whereas with the boom of YA today, I’d venture to believe that there are more kids finding books that speak to them, that in turn lead to them thinking that reading maybe isn’t evil and boring, than ever before. I don’t know how to get those kinds of numbers, but those are the stats I want to see.

Josh:

From a teaching perspective, I feel like YA is this tremendous gift that, as you suggest, might allow more kids to find books they love and develop a lifelong habit of reading. We teachers should use that to our advantage. However, I want to help kids develop the ability to move on to more complex works (“classics” and otherwise), even if they only occasionally dip their toes back into that pool. The article uses The Hunger Games as evidence for its concern, citing the trilogy as the most popular books among high school students, and then complaining that it’s written at a fifth-grade level. Cue doom and gloom. This is, of course, ridiculous. First of all, a lack of linguistic complexity has no relationship to a book’s thematic complexity (of which I would argue there’s a fair amount in THG), and second of all, The Hunger Games’ popularity  (as with many other YA books) is as much the result of word of mouth recommendations and cultural excitement as anything. All that their data tells me is that kids are able to read The Hunger Games and that they like it, not that they can’t or won’t read anything more complex.

Jill:

Right. Is it even possible to get data on whether kids graduate to higher texts on their own, even if it’s outside the classroom/later on in life? The article assumes that kids are never doing that, but I find it doubtful. But as for the classroom, I feel like language arts teachers these days need to read the popular YA their kids are reading, or at least know what the things are about, so that they can suggest other books for them to move on to. A Hunger Games fan could move on to Orwell or Bradbury, among other things, easy, if someone tells them they should. Maybe they’ll take our advice; maybe they won’t. But that’s the whole chance we take with everything in education.

Josh:

You’ve hit the nail on the head. It’s ridiculous to fret over what kids aren’t reading while simultaneously ignoring or disparaging what they are reading. Teachers who take the time to engage with that stuff might find ways to incorporate it into their classrooms and lead students to more challenging books through the kinds of connections you mention. We can’t just stand back shaking our heads and whining that kids should be pushing themselves harder in reading if we’re unwilling to become a part of the process.

What about you, readers? Do you buy what the NPR article is selling? Jump into our conversation here and let us know.

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About Josh Corman

Josh Corman splits his slivers of free time between his incredibly patient wife, his wildly energetic son, the Kentucky Wildcats, and a tall stack of books. He also teaches high school English to about 120 gifted lunatics. His novels, short stories, and a memoir have been featured on his computer screen and in various desk drawers.