What Bay State Teachers Could Do about our High School Reading Problem*

By: Sandra Stotsky – June, 2016

There has been a long, slow decline in the reading level of American high school graduates. Our kids are not reading much at the secondary level, and what they do read may not develop college-level reading and vocabulary skills. Perhaps Bay State English teachers should consider research evidence as well as their own personal experience. 

 A recent decline in reading level was suggested by the results of the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) grade 8 reading test. 


Is the decline related to changes in the school curriculum? Yes, according to Tom Loveless at the Brookings Institution.  He analyzed both the plateau in grade 4 NAEP reading and the decline in grade 8 NAEP reading by examining teacher-reported changes in the content of the English Language Arts (ELA) curriculum in the past six years


As Loveless points out, teachers report a shift away from literary texts to nonfiction or informational texts. While this shift may not be the cause (or even a cause) of the decline in grade 8 reading, it raises questions that need to be explored. What is “informational” reading?  Is it useful in addressing the low level of what many American high school students are reading.

We learn about what our kids are reading from recent editions of an annual report issued by Renaissance Learning, a Wisconsin-based company that sells Accelerated Reader 360. Used in thousands of school libraries or individual classrooms, AR 360 collects information on what K–12 students in the program read, as well as results on a short comprehension quiz for the books and “nonfiction articles” they read. It is, so far, the largest and only database we have. 

The 2015 edition notes that “the number of students reading books [at their grade level] falls precipitously as grade level increases.” As it suggests, one reason for the decline may be that students simply read less challenging works than they once read, whether assigned or self-selected.  Beyond grade 5, few students read books at or above grade level.

According to the 2015 report, the average reading difficulty level of books read peaked at 5.2 in grade 12.9.   Using the same readability formula the company developed years ago, the 2013 edition notes that the average reading level of texts assigned in high school English classes in a 1907 study was 9.0, followed by 9.1 in a 1923 study. The average reading level declined in all subsequent studies: from 8.2 in 1964, to 7.2 in 1989, 6.7 in 2010, and 6.2 in its own 2012 edition.

According to the 2016 edition, the average reading level of the top 25 books and articles read by eleventh and twelfth graders in the AR 360 database is between 5.6 and 6.5.  While this is better than 5.2, students exiting our high schools are on average still reading books far below the average level of college textbooks (13.8).

What does a reading level at or above grade 13 look like?  Here are passages from the best book available on the topic of text difficulty and complexity—Qualitative Assessment of Text Difficulty: A Practical Guide for Teachers and Writers—by reading researcher Jeanne Chall and three of her graduate students: Glenda Bissex, Sue Conard, and Susan Harris-Sharples, published by Brookline Books in 1996.

 For Reading Level 13–15 in the Literature Scale, we find this passage from Herman Melville’s Billy Budd:

It would have been in consonance with the spirit of Captain Vere should he on this occasion have concealed nothing from the condemned one; should he indeed have frankly disclosed to him the part he himself had played in bringing about the decision, at the same time revealing his actuating motives….The austere devotee of military duty, letting himself melt back into what remains primeval in our formalized humanity, may in the end have caught Billy to his heart even as Abraham may have caught young Isaac on the brink of resolutely offering him up in obedience to the exacting behest.

Reading Level 13–15 on the Life Sciences Scale features this exemplary passage from Charles K. Levy’s Elements of Biology:

The beginning of neurulation, or the formation of the nervous system in vertebrates, is marked by the appearance of a flattened plate of ectoderm that runs along the back of the embryo….The fishlike tail is reabsorbed, small fore-and hind limbs form, and the organism begins to look more like an adult frog.

 As one can see in just this one non-literary passage, the discipline-based vocabulary is staggering for a college student reading at a grade 6 level. Nevertheless, Melville’s philosophical thinking and psychological analysis of his characters in the literary passage—at the same reading level as the life sciences passage—more than equal the density of the concepts in the life sciences passage. English instructors know that they must teach students how to interpret such passages (which constitutes the development of analytical reading), something science teachers are not trying to do with the textbooks they use in high school.

What is the quality of the informational or nonfiction articles now entering the high school English curriculum?  Again, the best sources of information are the lists for grades 9-12 in AR’s recent editions. The articles are short and contemporary, and contain key words that differ from article to article because they address a variety of topics. Their reading levels are about those of Dickens novels, once staples in the literature curriculum (mostly at or above 9.0), because these short articles must quickly present a heavy load of key words related to their topic. But these articles tend to have critical drawbacks.

First, many are examples of journalism (and this seems to be the case in other sources of “informational” reading for high school English classes).  Second, their structure tends to fit a journalistic mode of writing; they lack the kind of paragraphing that English teachers desperately encourage high school students to write: paragraphs with a controlling idea, as well as complete sentences related to that idea, not quotations from interviewees. Third, the key vocabulary of these informational articles is likely difficult to retain over time. This is because it is difficult to retain the meaning of constantly changing key words over a long period of time—changing because the topics are completely unrelated.

An incoherent literature curriculum is only one of the educational problems our high schools face today and may not seem as serious as the low reading level of the fiction students are assigned or read on their own. Dickens and Austen novels are seldom read in high schools in the AR 360 program. In fact, the only literary texts now in the top 50 titles for grades 9 to 12 with a rating of 9.0 or higher are rarely assigned or read, to judge by their raw frequencies, and were all written before World War II (e.g., works by Conrad, Dickens, Hawthorne, Austen, and Shakespeare). The only European writers with high school-level ratings in the top 50 titles are Kafka and Verne. In other words, the most frequently assigned or read titles in many high schools today (however infrequently they are assigned or read) were written after WWII and were generally not composed with the literate English vocabulary, foreign words, literary or historical allusions, or complex sentence structures that can be found in pre-WWII works.

 Because of their vocabulary, the informational articles that students read or are assigned may be more difficult reading than the fictional books now in the English curriculum. But these harder words and the scattered topics they are related to do not seem to contribute to better preparation for college and career, to judge by NAEP scores.

We know from a century of reading research that knowledge of the meanings of words is the key element in reading comprehension. A crucial condition for learning new words may be continuous prose reading.  Continuous prose reading involves reading about the same people or events across a long series of pages written at about the same level of vocabulary and sentence structure. This kind of reading is very different from the stop-and-start reading of a series of short nonfiction articles, each with a different style.  

Since neither NAEP nor Common Core mandates “informational text” quotas for the high school English curriculum (NAEP simply recommends the percentage of types of passages to be used for assessment purposes), English teachers could “scaffold” literary works with authentic informational readings. For example, teachers might pair The Odyssey with short passages about ancient Greek history and social life, and A Tale of Two Cities with readings by several French encyclopedists or Edmund Burke’s post-French Revolution comments.

It is unlikely that large numbers of unrelated informational articles can help to prepare students for college and career.  Until evidence is provided to the contrary, Bay State high school English teachers could stress what the state’s pre-Common Core standards stressed during the years that student scores rose to first place on NAEP tests and stayed there—high school-level literary texts. 

*A much longer and fully documented version of this essay appears in Academic Questions, Summer 2016, Volume 30, No. 2.

Initially posted on newpostboston.com