Students choosing books below grade level; should parents be worried?

Published: Saturday, July 27 2013 4:00 p.m. MDT

Adan Hunter, 4, of Salt Lake City, chooses books at the Salt Lake City Library on Thursday, July 25, 2013. Adan is already reading even though he hasn't started kindergarten.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Most students are reading books below their ability level, both at home and in the classroom, according to a national study.

In April, education software company Renaissance Learning released its annual "What Kids are Reading" study for the 2011-12 academic year. The study — which surveyed the self-reported reading habits of students participating in Renaissance's Accelerated Readers program — found that most young readers choose books below their grade level and the complexity of assigned reading has been on a downward trend.

The study also found that students' reading choices were influenced by entertainment, with books recently adapted for Hollywood films surging in popularity, such as Suzanne Collin's "Hunger Games" series, Dr. Seuss' "The Lorax" and Kathryn Stockett's "The Help."

"We’ve been doing this for five years now and one thing that’s standing out this year in particular is the role that pop culture and movies seem to play in what kids are choosing to read," said Erik Stickney, director of educational research for Renaissance Learning.

But how much, if at all, should parents be worried?

Educators say it's natural to expect students to select easier books for their independent reading, which is preferable to no reading at all. The complexity of school-assigned readings is also showing signs of recovery, due in part to the nationwide implementation of the Common Core State Standards.

Recreational reading

In this year's "What Kids are Reading" study, the top 40 books read by students in grades 9 through 12 were all below grade level, with the exception of William Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar" (grade level 10.8) and Mary Shelly's "Frankenstein" (12.4).

The top three books for high school students were Suzanne Collins' "Hunger Games" trilogy, which are rated by Renaissance Learning at a 5.3 grade level.

But Tiffany Hall, K-12 literacy coordinator for the Utah State Office of Education, said parents shouldn't be surprised or worried that their students are choosing to read books below their abilities.

She said a love of learning comes from being absorbed in a story, not tripping over unknown words and complicated sentences. Children, she said, want to read to relax in the same way adults do and difficult texts can dissuade them.

"If you really want a child to read for pleasure you have to give them an opportunity to choose," she said. "They have to enjoy it and that means they have to be able to access it."

She also said that reading anything is better than reading nothing, whether it be a popular book below their grade level, a sports magazine or a cookbook.

"When we talk about literacy and a literate environment, it’s just that they're reading," she said. "A good definition of literacy is the ability to make useful meaning out of any text that you're reading."

Stickney said parents shouldn't necessarily be worried about their children selecting books below their grade level, particularly since most of the titles on best-selling lists for adults would likely be classified for middle-grade or high school aged students.

"When you look at the books that adults read, most of the readability levels of those books is going to be in the fifth, sixth or seventh grades," he said. "I think the biggest issue is, are (children) reading enough and are they really engaged with what they're reading."

Kathy Wittke, a literacy specialist with the Jordan School District, said one way parents can incentivize their students to read more challenging literature is by providing them with books on a subject they're interested in.

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