Even if we can decide on must-read books, not all students will be ready to read them at the same grade level

Many factors to consider in determining whether we should have a list of “required” books for U.S. students.

A journalism educator colleague who also teaches high school English has joined in the discussion.

In his blog and in comments to my post, he raises an important issue related to any assigned reading:

Are students “ready” at the same time to read the same works? And the answer is no.

One of the challenges that even national standards and testing will never accomplish is getting everyone to read on grade level, meaning that at a certain age, a student should read at a certain level. (Fry’s Readability Level is one way to measure the text’s reading level.) Boys often can be slower in their reading skills in elementary school than girls. A student’s home environment can impact reading level, with those who have more language experiences at home (parents talking and reading to them) tend to be better readers. Those reading level differences expand as students reach high school.  A book that would work for some 10th graders wouldn’t work for others. So a key part of a book’s “success” as required reading is to match the book to the reading level of the student.

I’d also say that waiting to introduce the books that we consider to be the must-reads until students are old enough and mature enough (let’s say 12th graders) will mean that many students will miss those readings, as more than 20 percent of U.S. students drop out of school before graduating from high school. In some urban areas, the dropout rate is 50 percent.

Discussion of dropout rates make me think of my first year of teaching high school English and my Sophomore English class. That group would now be called “at risk” students. At the time, they were labeled Phase 1, on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being college prep. Of the 32 students in that Sophomore English class, only one went on to graduate from that high school. (Some may have moved away and graduated elsewhere. But most dropped out.)

About 15 of the students regularly attended class. Some of the others I never met. They were counting the days until they turned 16 and could drop out of high school. And at least a part of their lack of academic success was their poor reading ability.

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