High School Reading Becoming Simpler: Surprised?

readingsWe’ve all heard it—life is far easier now than “back in the day” when our grandparents were young. I admit, those words may contain some degree of truth; at school, research no longer requires laborious pilgrimages to musty library crypts, and I shall never relinquish my laptop for a Remington typewriter. Rejoice! Life is improving with time, and we are the fortunate beneficiaries.

However, this trend toward ease is apparently not confined to the technological realm. A recent study by Renaissance Learning has compared high school required readings from 19o7 to 2012, claiming that such texts have steadily lost complexity and become simpler over time.

Although our analysis is restricted to the period of 1907 to 2012, there is evidence that writing has become less complex … Complexity is impacted in part by average sentence length; books with longer sentences tend to be more difficult to comprehend than books with shorter sentences … Our point in presenting this overview is not to imply that the books students are assigned today are less valuable than those assigned decades ago. That being said, there exists a legitimate debate among educators regarding whether or not students are being adequately prepared for the challenges of college and career.

I found this somewhat concerning, so I examined the study’s book lists. To my dismay, I discovered that such books as The Hunger Games and Twilight have made the top 40 assigned readings of today, yet my beloved David Copperfield is nowhere to be seen. Classics have become less common, and the contemporary texts appear to be less challenging reads.

Needless to say, I went through a minor depression last night. Do some high schools actually believe that Twilight is more valuable than Antigone? On the other hand, had I been needlessly tortured by reading The Vicar of Wakefield? After comforting myself with ice cream and an episode of Psych, I was reassured that my efforts had not been wholly in vain. Rather, some high schools may need to reassess.

Some may argue that a given book’s style does not dictate its inherent literary worth. This is true in many cases; for instance, Pope Francis has become well-known for his succinctly accessible theological remarks. Additionally, while The Help may be written in simpler language than that used by Dickens, its moral weight is nonetheless undiminished.

That being said, if formation is indeed the purpose of education, to stretch limits and stimulate intellectual growth, then students must be genuinely challenged. How can we fairly expect high school graduates to possess the sharpened reading and writing skills necessary for collegiate success if their literary experience has been characterized by books made popular through movie-adaptations? The Lightning Thief will not sufficiently prepare one to read (much less appreciate) Homer or Dante in a college-level humanities classes, nor should it.

Hope is certainly not lost, course corrections can still be made. There are several private schools adopting classical texts within their curricula, producing very interesting results. Yet until such changes are made on a large scale, many high schools will continue watering down education at students’ expense.

  • Amanda Achtman

    Good post, Samuel. I generally say of my high school education that it consisted mainly of good books, not great books.

  • Seth Brodbeck

    I think there are two things to keep in mind when parsing this data:

    First, the historical context. The data on reading complexity charts the shift in the purpose of secondary education. In the early 20th century, high schools had competitive entrance exams and were intended to help a wealthy few prepare for college, much like our modern private schools. As high school became mandatory and the assumption that every student was college-bound weakened, reading complexity naturally declined as well. Even today, I think there is general confusion and debate about whether every high school student needs to go to college, and whether every high school student should be prepared to go to college, especially as the cost of higher education increases.

    Second, there is a distinction to be made between what students are being assigned (and even what classes they are being assigned in) and what they are reading of their own accord. The Hunger Games may be the most read book by high school students, but it is only ranked #21 on the list of required readings, below Frankenstein, below Macbeth, and below Animal Farm. This shows that popular culture texts are supplementing classics, rather than replacing them.

    I think the larger problem here is not that high schools are assigning books that are too easy, but that educators are at a loss on how to motivate students to read older, more complex texts compared with modern texts that are both easier to read and easier to relate to.

    And that’s without getting into the distinction between assigned readings in compulsory English courses and readings in optional English courses. I read great books at my public high school, but I took an honors-level English course and then followed it up with AP Literature.

    • Samuel Klee

      Seth, thank you for your input! You definitely have some valid points.

      I didn’t explain the study’s rating system in the article, but the numbers are quite interesting. I think one of the larger issues at hand is that, even though there *are* classics being read, the overall difficulty of such books has certainly diminished (and that this *may* have a negative effect on students in the long term). Look at the top ten books from 1907 and 2012, for instance.

      In the study’s ATOS scale (score of 5 = 5th grade comprehension level, 8.5 = middle of 8th grade, etc.), the top ten 1907 texts had an average score of 9.53, whereas the top ten from 2012 had an average of 6.24.

      Now, this is a fairly significant drop! Even though there are classics among today’s top books, they are (as a group) simpler/easier books in regards to sentence structure and length. They may be relatable and contain priceless gems of truth, but how will comprehension and writing skills affected? Are students being sufficiently challenged? Granted, students will (hopefully) be more challenged through AP or honors-level classes, but I think these are still valid questions.

      • Seth Brodbeck

        That just brings me back to my point about historical context. In 1907, high schools were mainly directed at an elite few students who were headed to college while the majority of students ended their formal education after junior high for other pursuits. In 2012, high school serves both the college-bound and the vocationally-inclined, and so we need to consider what students need to know as opposed to what they should know if they are pursuing a particular area of interest. This is the same conversation which is happening with regards to math and the sciences. Should every student have to learn pre-calculus? Does every student need to read Dostoevsky?

        In addition, we have to keep in mind the limitations of quantitative readability metrics. The ATOS scale rates “The Hunger Games” at a higher level than both “Of Mice and Men” and “The Crucible,” (and at about the same level as “Fahrenheit 451”) but I doubt that most students would have more trouble reading the former than the latter.

  • Nate G.

    Twilight is completely bereft of any literary worth so I can understand your umbrage there. But is the complexity of a text the only measure of whether or not it is a good educational tool? Are “classics” complex because of superiority in construction or antiquated and unfamiliar language?

    Writing like Shakespeare, for instance, is actually a very inefficient style for most everyday or vocational applications. Long-winded sentences and big words have been done away with by more recent greats like Hemingway and Vonnegut in favor of more direct, readable styles. In today’s society, the ability to write clearly and succinctly is simply more valuable for literary layman than knowing iambic pentameter. That’s not to say that the classics have no place in education (far from it), but what books are culturally relevant enough to be assigned in class most often (ie for core curriculum) are going to change with the times. So is language. So are a society’s needs in terms of what their young work force must know to function. With that in mind, this trend toward simplicity in the written structure of assigned texts shouldn’t necessarily be surprising nor alarming.

    On a slightly different note I think that the generation growing up on these simpler texts will probably be a bit dumber for it but in many ways education has only itself to blame for driving the Bard and his ilk out of the realm of popular consumption and into stuffy classrooms (and promptly, as this study shows, out of them again). An intellectual elitism has risen up around classic texts that turns off common readers (especially those forced to read them). This unfortunate stigma has made many classic writers synonymous with boredom, and a bored mind is not an open mind.

  • Ken Larson

    Within your original post you write, “… if formation is indeed the purpose of education, to stretch limits and stimulate intellectual growth, then students must be genuinely challenged.”

    That word formation is broad and larger than just equipping a student to sort out phrases in sentences of past notable writers. It also means the teaching of what is good and evil and some of the best of the classics have plot lines that show a character’s coming to grips with their choices, and plodding through them. That’s one reason they are so great.

    I take issue with the thought that assigned summer reading by a school is the end all of a kid’s summer. Don’t parents have something to say in the matter? You seem to neglect that point and concede a whiny child’s complaint, “it’s not on the assigned list mom.” That’s a concession that needs to tossed in the trash with most of what we call adolescent books.

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