Friday Reads: “The ‘down-grading’ of American Reading?” by Bufo Calvin

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Over at I Love My Kindle, Bufo Calvin has a fascinating analysis of a recent study that shows American students are reading simpler books. Here’s an excerpt from the study:

“…the complexity of assigned texts has sharply declined, from about [grade] 9.0 in the early 20th century to just over 6.0 in the early 21st century. This finding echoes other studies that have concerned policy makers about whether students are presented with sufficiently challenging material to help them prepare for college and career.”

Scary, right? American students are reading at a sixth grade level and are not leaving school ready for college. No doubt this issue must be addressed in our schools.

True, but Calvin points out an interesting flaw in the reports methods: it relies on grade-level assessment tests like the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level Test. Calvin points out why this is an issue:

More syllables and longer sentences are judged to be at a higher grade level.

For example, this sentence

“The quick red fox jumped over the lazy brown dog.”

is assessed at grade level 2.4.

Changing it to this:

“The rapidly moving scarlet fox jumped over the unmotivated brown canine.”

ups it to grade level 11.2.

Looking at that, though, which one seems like the better sentence to you?

Clear prose, written simply, is the most powerful. Good writers learn to simplify their prose. In some ways, the simpler sentences are harder to write and convey more than complex ones.

There are exceptions, though. Reading in college requires close reading and sustained attention. Most students will encounter difficult prose that might register at a higher level on a grade-level test. We need to prepare students for this type of writing.

But scoring at a lower level on a grade-level test doesn’t mean students are less prepared. Calvin suggests the same in his article:

Why would this have changed over time, though? Why would there have been harder books assigned decades ago?

There may be several reasons involved in that.

One is that many more people are going to school (especially higher grades) than did a hundred years ago. I’m not suggesting that there is a difference in capability, but there may be a difference in situation. It could be that people who went to high school in the 1910s (and the Renaissance Learning data goes back beyond that) were people who were going to be able to concentrate on reading, even outside of class. Would I have been as much of a reader in elementary school if I was also spending several hours a day in a field doing manual labor? If I’m being honest, I’d have to say no.

So, high schoolers today may have less experience, less practice, reading than high schoolers a hundred years ago.

This is one explanation, but it also means students are reading in different ways. Students are surrounded by text more than ever before. Whether it’s on smartphones, tablets, television, or books, students are always reading something. The difference is what they’re reading. No, they’re not reading as many long-form books, but they’re reading quick bursts of text (messages in social media, etc.). Ideally, educators should figure out how to reach students so they prepare them for reading at both levels: long-form and short-form reading.

Even though this study suggests a need for reform in our school systems, it also shows how technology affects literacy. The democratization of books and text means more readers. Accessibility means more diversity of reading abilities.

I’m not advocating for less emphasis on long-form reading. However, I don’t think this study suggests enough to declare our students are less literate than they were in the past.

Calvin suggests the same in his article:

I guess I’m a reading athlete: I like complex works. I also do like simple ones, no question…and I think it’s a good thing that (as I believe) more people are reading books. Perhaps assigning simpler books is actually a sign of a democratization of literature.

Readers: What do you think? Is the issue the quality of the prose or the quality of…something else? Let’s discuss.

Source: I Love My Kindle

Original report: Renaissance Learning

About Kevin Eagan

Kevin Eagan (@criticalmargins) is a freelance editor, writer, and teacher who lives in Central Florida. He edits book manuscripts and articles for local and national publications. In addition to writing about book technology and teaching college students how to write, Kevin works as an associate editor for punctum books. Previously, he was the books editor for Blogcritics. You can also follow him on Google+ or check out his professional website,

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  • desertdweller29

    Fascinating post. I agree — clean, simple prose are more difficult to write and have now become the norm. On the one hand, it engages more younger readers. On the other, wait until college and they are assigned Shakespeare.

    • desertdweller29

      *young* not younger… yikes.

    • Kevin Eagan

      Yes, or when they have to read an academic article or philosophy essay! Otherwise, I’ve met a lot of engaged young readers who read way more than I did in High School and have a broader range of choices. So it’s not all doom and gloom.

    • Ensis

      Case in point: “…wait until college and they are assigned Shakespeare.” I had to read a couple of his plays in high school.
      I’m not a teacher, I’m a mental health worker, but I’ve had children on my caseload in their senior year of high school, whom I had to teach to read.
      The study may not have been entirely valid, but something is very wrong with public schools.

      • Kevin Eagan

        Oh, no doubt. I’ve had students in college who struggled with reading and writing, only to find out later they couldn’t read. Sometimes this is an undiagnosed reading disorder, but other times it’s because these students weren’t assessed correctly.

        • Ensis

          My kids just didn’t get taught. When I sat down with them adn worked with him a bit he started getting it.
          On a related note–can you beleive they’re still teaching whole-word reading in some schools?
          I find it outrageous, but funny to hear my little cousin read.
          Way to mentally cripple a generation, school system.

  • Peter Licari

    My first book was just awash in superfluously high vocabulary. Every reader came back with: “It was great! When I understood it.” If there’s a way to say something simply, then I feel a writer should do so. There are times when we need to eschew simplicity and aggrandize our prose with lush, vibrant, multisyllabic words. At others, we need to stay simple. I think the gift of a truly great writer is to fluctuate between the two, use complex words for the simple ideas when they need to be augmented and use simple words for the complex thoughts when they need to be absorbed easily.

    That being said, I do think that kids aren’t being taught to read well. I have to pull teeth with friends who ask me to tutor them in literature because they were never taught to read deeply. I was fortunate to have teachers who valued true comprehension. Others aren’t so lucky.

    • Kevin Eagan

      There are times when writing more compexly works. For most non-fiction magazine writing or blogging, and for most fiction, simple language takes you farther.

      Thanks for the comment. Are you working on a second novel right now?

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