If you have attended a Common Core professional development session, you’ve heard someone talk about what today’s students are reading compared to earlier generations. A frequently quoted National Public Radio broadcast (Lynn Neary, June 11, 2013) cited research by Renaissance Learning (Accelerated Reading) that confirmed, “the complexity of texts students are being assigned to read has declined by about three grade levels over the past 100 years. A century ago, students were being assigned books with the complexity of around the ninth- or 10th-grade level. But in 2012, the average was around the sixth-grade level.” I heard that broadcast in June, and again, recently, at a conference. At first I was just angry (not for a reason that you can predict), but then I came to an understanding that matters for all of us.
Angry, why? Later in the broadcast a retired professor insisted that high school students need to read challenging fiction because, “You wouldn’t find words like ‘malevolent,’ ‘malicious’ or ‘incorrigible’ in science or history materials.” Really? Why not? Good nonfiction is full of demanding vocabulary. I could easily imagine anything from a biology book to character studies of dark, complex historical figures that would use precisely those words. But perhaps the key was in her choice of terms. She did not say “science or history books,” she said “materials.” Perhaps she was thinking of textbooks. And when I realized that, the heavens opened.
Friends, when we look at the decline in reading levels everyone jumps to fiction–the shift from Greek tragedy to The Diary of Anne Frank (the play) and from Charles Dickens to Suzanne Collins. But the assumption is that history, for example, was always taught by textbooks. It wasn’t. At one time a young person studying history would be introduced to the sequence of Herodotus to Thucydides to Pliny to Edward Gibbon to Thomas Babington Macaulay, to possibly, Winston Churchill. Of course, I am speaking about elite boys in English prep schools exposed to a very limited understanding of both history in general, and Western Civilization in particular. Anyone reading this column understands what was biased and limited about that education. But, and this is the crucial point, in reading about the past those students were not reading a textbook, or snippets; indeed, their introduction to history was through magisterial texts. Immersed in that rich language, the passage to the past was, equally, a path to writing, speaking, and thinking.
Today we have split the world. History and science are too often introduced through “materials,” e.g., textbooks that have no authors. Granted, a team of experts is named, but there is no voice, depth, style, or passion. Words are chosen to facilitate a lesson, not communicate “the best that has been thought and said.” The structure of the textbook is the scope and sequence of a year. There is no narrative–no beginning, middle, or end. Students are deprived of history as epic, as operatic, as tragic or triumphant. History has become ONE event after another, with sidebars.
Of course students forced to digest this intellectual mush every day eagerly rush to pleasure reading that is as far removed from the textbook as possible. Thus, while our history is about the rise and fall of empires, who would want to read more soulless facts and dates and causes? So students eagerly consume huge fantasy trilogies about–guess what–the rise and fall of empires, but these come with no lesson plans.
We need to recognize that core content subjects–social studies, science, and math included–are written about by real authors in real books. If students were introduced to information in titles that they loved reading, they would naturally be curious about the people that populate them, and the art and ideas they explore. Pleasure reading wouldn’t necessarily be a flight from challenging content, but a leap from one spirited, magnificent, eye-popping narrative to another.
The elephant in the reading room is the textbook. Sucking the life out of content has insured that pleasure reading levels decline. Want our kids to choose more challenging independent reading? Give them better required reading.
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