One-Minute Book Reviews

March 26, 2012

Are School Reading Assignments Making Your Child Dumber?

Filed under: News,Reading — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:50 am
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High school students are reading books appropriate for fifth graders, often assigned by teachers

By Janice Harayda

Schools are supposed to make you make you smarter. Are American teachers routinely assigning books that make kids dumber? You might think so after reading a major new report by Renaissance Learning, which develops hardware and software that helps schools measure students’ educational progress.

The top 40 books read by teenagers in grades 9–12 have an average of reading level of grade 5.3, appropriate for the third month of fifth grade, the report said. And the picture wasn’t much prettier for younger students. The book most read by seventh graders is Diary of a Wimpy Kid (reading level: grade 5.5). For eighth grade, it’s The Outsiders (grade 4.7). And students often read these books because their teachers assign them.

Students sometimes can benefit from reading books that are below their level. Easy books can build confidence, keep reading fun, and reinforce educational gains. But a steady diet of too-simple books won’t prepare students for the demands of life after high school. David Coleman, a contributor to the Renaissance Learning report, notes that the most important predictor of success in college is the ability to read and understand challenging material. And many books on the top 40 lists aren’t “complex enough to prepare them for the rigors of college and career.” Students may also lose interest in reading for pleasure if they find easy books boring.

That’s why parents need to fight back when schools frequently require children to read books that are below their reading level. Here are three ways to do that:

Check the reading levels of books that seem too easy. You can find the levels of many books used in schools by entering their titles in the search box on the AR BookFinder site. You can find the levels of others by pasting text from them into the box at The Renaissance Learning report “What Kids Are Reading, 2012” has the reading levels of the top 40 books read by grades K-12.

Talk to teachers who assign too-easy books. Find out why they thought your child would benefit from the books. If the reasons aren’t convincing, ask teachers to substitute others suited to your child’s level.

Let the principal know. Don’t quit if teachers won’t assign books at your child’s level or if your concerns go beyond one assignment – for example, if an entire summer reading list is too easy. In some schools or districts, most lists are dumbed-down, and the problem requires action at a higher level.

Some children will find their way to harder books if you do nothing. But most won’t, Coleman says. Children, he says, “need to be challenged  and supported to build  their strength as readers by stretching to the next level.”

For more information: Read the Huffington Post summary of the Renaissance Learning report. You may also want to read this One-Minute Book Reviews post on how Mitch Albom is writing at a third-grade reading level, which compares his level to that of other bestselling authors.

You can follow Jan on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar.

© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.


  1. Growing up in India, we were encouraged to read Call of The Wild in 4th Grade, and Prisoner of Zenda in 6th Grade. So yeah, this does look like dumbing down…
    Children who have a reading habit will eventually get bored with this sort of a reading list, and those who haven’t developed a habit yet will never see reading as a fun hobby.

    Comment by Amritorupa Kanjilal — March 26, 2012 @ 5:50 am | Reply

  2. Thank you for your post! As I read, I felt a twinge of guilt on two accounts. I teach college level English, and always work one “easy” book into the syllabus for a class. (Last class, it was The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, a wonderful book). Can you guess which book is always the favorite? The “easy”, middle grade one! Why? It’s “more enjoyable,” or “I could understand it better.” Second guilty confession: since having children, I’ve can hardly read an “adult” novel.I’m just too tired at the end of the day. Seems the only thing I can read these days are picture books and middle grade/ YA fiction. Do adults who love children’s literature fall into the same category of dumbing down? Of course there’s lots to love in a clever novel written for a ten year-old, such as Alexie’s, but I wonder if the same principle applies. It’s something I’ve thought of again and again, so thank you for your post on this!
    I’m blogging about children’s lit at:

    Comment by Julie Hakim Azzam — March 26, 2012 @ 11:20 am | Reply

  3. Julie: Ah, those college students, how they love easy assignments! Can you tell I’ve taught them, too? Colleges today are in a difficult situation because so many students haven’t been prepared for the challenging books they will have there. And your students’ comment that they “could understand” the easy books better rings true to me. Should professors acknowledge their reading deficiencies and assign some easier books so students won’t feel defeated? It must be a tough call in many cases, and I appreciate your spelling out the issues. Thanks for your comment. Jan

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — March 26, 2012 @ 11:42 am | Reply

  4. Wow, this makes me so sad. I’ve been a huge reader since I was a kid, and while I probably chose mostly ‘easy’ books for my ‘fun’ reading (anyone remember the Baby-Sitters Club?) I did enjoy the harder school stuff eventually – and now I choose some of those for myself – even if I do on occasion reach for something light and easy. But at least I feel like I have the choice to enjoy either, because I’ve been prepared for it. Sure, you have to slog through some dense prose and it’s not as much fun in the beginning, but how do you ever get past that if no one is making you do it while you’re still young and in school?

    Comment by nora — August 28, 2012 @ 11:49 am | Reply

    • “How do you ever get past that if no one is making you do it?” Exactly. Series books like the Baby-Sitters Club are fine for fun, but students also need deeper ones. B-C Club author Ann Martin once told me she’d like to see kids have one of her books in one hand and a more challenging one in the other hand. Perfect.

      Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — August 28, 2012 @ 12:59 pm | Reply

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