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June 20, 2013

A Diet of Mental Junk Food

The well intentioned but misguided campaign to "tempt" kids to read by only expecting them to read things that "interest" them is having the results one would expect:

Thanks to a steady diet of fantasy, science fiction, vampires, and magic, kids today rarely read the more complex or sophisticated literature they once did. In fact, most kids and teens today read significantly below their grade level, according to a recent story by NPR on the topic.

“[R]esearch shows that as young readers get older, they are not moving to more complex books,” reports NPR’s Lynn Neary. “High-schoolers are reading books written for younger kids, and teachers aren't assigning difficult classics as much as they once did.”

That news is backed up by a study by Renaissance Learning, a technology-based educational company that studied what books were being assigned to high school students.

“The complexity of texts students are being assigned to read has declined by about three grade levels over the past 100 years,” Eric Stickney, educational research director at Renaissance, told NPR. “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.”

In other words, while the class of 1989 and ’90 were reading works by Sophocles, Shakespeare, Dickens, Wharton, and the Brontës, kids today read novels like “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Animal Farm,” even modern hits-turned-movies like “The Help” and “The Notebook.”

According to Stickney, reading levels tend to stagnate sometime around middle school, when kids stop progressing to books of higher difficulty levels.

“Last year, almost all of the top 40 books read in grades nine through 12 were well below grade level,” reports NPR. “The most popular books, the three books in 'The Hunger Games' series, were assessed to be at the fifth-grade level."

And we wonder why so many kids aren't ready for college level work? Why they give up (or tune out) at the first sign that a task will be difficult or boring? I've lost track of how many books I started as a child that took a while to get into. Some of my favorite books are ones I started 2, 3, 4 or more times before the light bulb finally switched on. One of the times I quit blogging, I did so because I suddenly realized it had been months since I'd finished a serious book. Getting offline and re-learning lifelong habits was all it took to get back to polishing off several books a week.

For some reason, the article reminded me of a long ago post over at Jet Noise about Great Books. Looking back over my own list, I was surprised to realize that the vast majority of the classics I've read weren't assigned to me in school. But then most of my childhood was spent either outside, or with my little nose planted firmly in a book.

As a mother, I worked hard to instill a love of reading in my sons and was gratified that they also became avid readers. One of my favorite memories is of the day my youngest brought his then-girlfriend (now wife) out to our home in California. One wall of our living room was taken up with built-in bookshelves, and one of the first things they did on arriving was to make a beeline for the books: pulling one after the other off the shelves and comparing notes.

Serious reading requires effort, concentration, and perseverance. These are habits or skills that require practice and repetition. I don't understand the notion that boys (in particular) can't sit still long enough to read anything not involving Batman, farts, or butt jokes. That's such an insult to their intelligence.

When we lament falling reading scores and failing public schools, somewhere along the line we have to account for the fact that our children aren't being raised - aren't being required - to read challenging books. And that's not the job of the public schools. It's our job as parents.

I suspect that, just as kids will refuse to eat healthy food if they're allowed to substitute junk food, they will refuse to put in the effort required to master substantive books and ideas if they're allowed to substitute more enticing entertainment that requires nothing from them.

Many of you have children who do read. What has worked for you?

Posted by Cassandra at June 20, 2013 08:08 AM

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Finding good stories. A boy will read The Hobbit long before he's 'at the grade level' allegedly appropriate to it. He'll read Le Morte D'arthur even though the language is archaic. He'll read The Three Musketeers by the time he's old enough to appreciate the joys of friends and the concept of loving a woman.

After that you can get them to read whatever you want, because it's not such a chore. They've expended the effort to learn to read well quite willingly, in order to find out what happens in the story.

Posted by: Grim at June 20, 2013 11:30 AM

That's exactly how my youngest boy reacted. They were complete opposites, by the way.

My oldest (the redhead) was a little bundle of energy who never stopped moving, yet from the age of 8 months - I'm not exaggerating - he would sit quietly when read to. By 2, I would often find him sitting in his room with a book in his lap, talking aloud and turning the pages at the right time. It looked as though he could read already, but this was just his phenominal memory.

My youngest, far gentler and quieter, got bored after about 20 minutes of reading (I'd been in the habit of reading to his older brother for about 45 minutes before bedtime, as this helped him quiet down and go to sleep). He showed far less interest in books until about 3rd grade. I'd started reading them the Lord of the Rings at night and he got impatient and finished the whole thing by himself!

Your family doesn't watch much TV, do you? I remember having to limit TV time strictly. If I didn't, my boys would veg out in front of the tube instead of playing outside or reading.

Posted by: Cassandra at June 20, 2013 11:49 AM

The devolutionary trend was made apparent when a 1999 Library Journal poll chose To Kill A Mockingbird as best novel of the century - that's right! - the entire frickin' one hundred years of American literature CENTURY!

Posted by: George Pal at June 20, 2013 12:40 PM

I'd have to agree with you - I wouldn't have chosen that particular novel either :p

Oh, and my last comment should have been "phenomenal". I swear that I really do know how to spell.


What are some of your favorite novels, George? I almost linked to another old post we did about books you'd take with you to a desert island. That was fun!

Posted by: Cassandra at June 20, 2013 12:50 PM

I eliminated television from our lives entirely in 2006. It was one of the wisest decisions I ever made, in retrospect, although at the time I was just trying to save money on cable bills.

Posted by: Grim at June 20, 2013 12:50 PM

As a young parent, I was one of those people who thought the idea that TV might affect behavior was ridiculous :p

I got rid of cable because I noticed that my already rambunctious boys were imitating things they saw on TV and I was having to intervene too often when they played. Before cable they were fine, after a month of cable things changed. And cable was NOTHING like it is these days, back when my kids were little!

Got rid of it, and they still played all the same games but there was far less fighting. I was surprised at the difference it made, having dimly suspected the problem was cable but also feeling at the time like maybe I was overreacting.

Posted by: Cassandra at June 20, 2013 01:28 PM

Perhaps my take is unique. I read very little growing up. You practically had to drag me inside. This fat little white boy would shoot basketball for hours for no better reason than to not be indoors. My parents encouraged me to read (by contrast you couldn't get my older siblings noses out of a book). The problem was that, at that time, all the books written "at a 4th/5th/6th grade level" were peices of junk and so I learned to hate reading.

When I read, I read to gain information only. When assigned [snobby accent]literature[/accent] I read with the specific focus on how to write the book report: What information do I need to relay to the teacher? It was like doing math problems, you did it because it was assigned to you. You were expected to not enjoy it. Great Expectations and The Jungle were just any another text book to me.

So I wouldn't go so far as to call these modern books written at a 5th grade level "mental junk food". It isn't that these books are unhealthy anymore than a 1/4 mile run is unhealthy. For a 10 year old, that's a nice long run. It's just that if that's all you are doing at 18 that it's a problem. I wish that when I was 10 years old there were books like Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, and Percy Jackson. I likely would not have had the loathing of books that I did.

It wasn't until after college that I learned to read for enjoyment. And yes, starting with the "junk food" of, say, Terry Pratchett before going back and reading The Hobbit, LOTR, Dracula, Frankenstien, The Invisible Man, 1001 Arabian Nights (jeez is that book long), Moby Dick, and other "classics". One of the great things about my Kindle is that I can plug it into my Truck's radio and it'll "read" to me. Many of the "classics" are public domain and can be had for free: Robin Hood, Sherlock Holmes, War of the Worlds, Swiss Family Robinson, Treasure Island, etc.

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at June 20, 2013 01:50 PM

So I wouldn't go so far as to call these modern books written at a 5th grade level "mental junk food". It isn't that these books are unhealthy anymore than a 1/4 mile run is unhealthy. For a 10 year old, that's a nice long run. It's just that if that's all you are doing at 18 that it's a problem. I wish that when I was 10 years old there were books like Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, and Percy Jackson. I likely would not have had the loathing of books that I did.

There are an awful lot of very good books for kids, but there's a lot of junk too. When I was little, my Aunt always sent books for Christmas and birthdays. That's how I was introduced to LOTR.

My Mom subscribed to Reader's Digest abridged classics for children, so every month I received these WONDERFUL classics with some of the boring bits cropped out. I devoured them (and also the grownup versions!).

I didn't ever think about plugging my Kindle into my radio during commutes. We used to listen to classics during road trips (I got through the Wealth of Nations that way, and many other classics). What a great idea!

Posted by: Cassandra at June 20, 2013 02:33 PM

I made a deal with my son that worked well for both of us. He wanted to stay up later than his bedtime, and I wanted him to read more, so we let him stay up in bed with a book. Some of the time he reads for an hour, other times, I have to pull the book off his face after he passes out.

A steady diet of fantasy & science fiction does not make you read below grade level, by the way. I am not sure why the author wanted to pick on that genre.

No mention that 100 years ago, only ~50% of the school age population went to school.

One other comment. You should not need a doctorate to read a book. Even Thomas Sowell toned down the level of his writing after "The Vision of the Anointed." I read it with a dictionary in one hand.

Posted by: Russ at June 20, 2013 03:09 PM

Here's the thing, having read Moby Dick as an adult, I don't know that it would have appealed to my 10 year old self, even in abridged form. It proceedes incredibly slowly. Chopping out "the boring bits" would leave about 20 pages.

A book that retells all the heroic stories out of Greek Mythology*? That, I think I would have read. And then, having gotten a taste for it, would have moved on to more sophisticated stuff.

*I read the 5 book Percy Jackson series in 3.5 days and immediately downloaded The Iliad, and The Odyssey.

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at June 20, 2013 03:21 PM

A steady diet of fantasy & science fiction does not make you read below grade level, by the way. I am not sure why the author wanted to pick on that genre.

Me either, Russ. I grew up reading sci-fi and fantasy, and a large portion of the excellent fiction my sons read (and loved) was fantasy books I picked out for them after reading them myself.

I think we need a favorite childhood books thread!

Yu-Ain, you bring up a point I wanted to: something I call 'gateway books' - books that introduce you to a subject, and make you want to read more challenging and in-depth books on the same topic.

That worked really well with my sons, and also on me. Civil war history is a great example - I had exactly zero interest in military history until I saw the movie Gettysburg. I went on to read The Killer Angels by Shara and was so fascinated that I devoured everything I could find on the subject. We now have a small Civil War section in the library in my office: Lee's Lieutenants, biographies of Lee, Longstreet, and Grant, Bruce Catton...

I got interested in Welsh and English history the same way - by reading a gripping story that made history come to life for me. That was all I needed.

Posted by: Cassandra at June 20, 2013 03:42 PM

I would never have finished Moby Dick, were it not for my unforgettable English teacher, Mr. Babcock.

He was a tall, rather Ichabod Crane looking gentleman; soft spoken but someone I instinctively liked and trusted. Somehow, that man brought a book I was not inclined to like (on a subject that did not particularly interest me) to life and I saw so much that I would have missed, had I read it on my own.

Truly amazing man. I hope if he's in heaven he knows how much his tutelage affected a young, rebellious lass who needed a mental challenge to grow up.

Posted by: Cassandra at June 20, 2013 03:45 PM

I made a deal with my son that worked well for both of us. He wanted to stay up later than his bedtime, and I wanted him to read more, so we let him stay up in bed with a book. Some of the time he reads for an hour, other times, I have to pull the book off his face after he passes out.

I love this idea.

I can remember waiting for my parents to go back downstairs after tucking me in and kissing me goodnight to turn the light on and read. My Dad was forever coming back in to tell me to GO TO BED!

Posted by: Cassandra at June 20, 2013 03:48 PM

Reading is one of those strange things that sort of defies analysis. My son preferred athletic endeavors while growing up, and didn't read an entire book until 3rd year of high school. It was a biography of Jim Morrison, and the subject interested him. He maybe read a couple more books while in high school.

Then during the summer between his 1st and 2nd years at the Naval Academy, he was on the YP cruise ("YP" stands for "Yard Patrol" boat), which had to put into port regularly as they cruised from Annapolis up to Halifax and back. When not standing watch, there is absolutely nothing to do, so he started reading for fun. I think it was Nelson DeMille that caught his interest.

But given how little free time he has now, he chiefly reads history and military history books. He'll have even less free time come the second week in July when he takes command of his battalion.

My daughter, on the other hand, started reading for fun early on, following mine and my wife's example. I should note that my wife didn't seriously read for fun until after she met me, but now she's as hooked as I am on reading. I'm sure my daughter has read "literature", because reading "literature" is unavoidable when getting a major in English in college, even if the major was English Writing, but she prefers fiction for reading fun--science fiction, fantasy, romance, and combinations of all three.

I didn't start reading in earnest until about 6th grade, because I never encountered any interesting books. As I recall, I discovered Freddy the Pig adventure stories, and in Junior High discovered Albert Peyson Terhune, Robert Heinlein, Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys, the Black Stallion series, etc. After consuming the available fiction in the school library, I started getting most of my reading material from the public library, which carried a wide range of adult science fiction not available through the school library.

We always read at least one book aloud in English class, which was supremely boring, so I would obtain the unabridged version from the library and read that to myself while my classmates were struggling reading aloud from the abridged version. Fortunately, the teacher would warn me when it was my turn to read so I could pick up the abridged version and find the proper place. It would usually take the class about 2 weeks to finish a book which I would read in a day or two.

I would hear about books or authors and read them on my own. I read so many books that only once did I have to read a book for a book report--an autobiography, as I had not read an autobiography. For all the other assignments for book reports during high school I would simply pick a book I had already read and write a book report on it.

Freshman English cured me of reading broadly different types of literature. Had to read The Great Gatsby and analyze it in class. What a stupid exercise! How on Earth can people spend an entire class discussing the meaning of the green light on the buoy? Gack.

So after that, I concentrated on mystery, adventure, spy novels, and science fiction & fantasy. I don't read much mystery anymore, but I'm still going strong in the other categories. I'll also read some romance novels, especially if they are humorous. I have tough standards, though, and the book must be well-written and understandable. Sorry, James Joyce, but your books meet neither standard!

So--no magic bullet for reading. Expose the kids to books, and ensure they have the skills to read and make up their own mind as to what and how much they want to read. If they learn to read for fun, they'll be able to read for knowledge when they have to.

Posted by: Rex at June 20, 2013 03:55 PM

Had to read The Great Gatsby and analyze it in class. What a stupid exercise! How on Earth can people spend an entire class discussing the meaning of the green light on the buoy? Gack.

I truly hated that book. I couldn't bring myself to care what happened to any of the characters, and the green light thing made me want to slit my own wrists :p

I love trashy mysteries. They're my "junk food" when I can't sleep because I'm worried about some idiotic thing at work, but I have to be careful because when I get to the parts where they're about to solve the mystery I can easily stay up all night.

Posted by: Cassandra at June 20, 2013 04:02 PM

I never understood the attraction of The Great Gatsby, either. I didn't care what happened to any of the characters, and I didn't care what perspective the author might have on it. Not my cup of tea at all. Social-climbing anxiety and post-War ennui, feh.

I've always read more fun trash than serious literature. My father got me interested in science fiction and fantasy quite young. He used to read to us from Alice in Wonderland every evening. His bookcase was full of science fiction. I could always expect another two or three books in the Tarzan series for Christmas or in my Easter basket. I spent many vacations reading, especially animal adventures. I remember checking out every collection of myths and fairy tales I could find at the school or public library. Later, a friend introduced me to C.S. Lewis and Tolkien: I was transported.

To this day I'm more likely to re-read Lewis or Tolkien or Heinlein than to pick up anything new and challenging.
Now and then I get swept away by a work of non-fiction, especially if it's a really competent popularization of a technical subject. In fiction, the closest I get to something serious is usually George Eliot or Jane Austen -- maybe Faulkner. Stretching a point, maybe some Patrick O'Brian. Or something funny, like P.G. Wodehouse or Saki. There are many, many classics I've never touched, or, having touched, have never been inspired to finish. If I'm not consciously "trying to improve myself," I have to admit I'd enjoy an old Travis McGee thriller more.

Posted by: Texan99 at June 20, 2013 05:43 PM

John D. McDonald was a prolific writer, but his Travis McGee books were his best. Most of the rest were interesting to read, but not worth re-reading. Except for The Girl, The Gold Watch, and Everything. That one was maybe even better than the Travis McGee books.

Posted by: Rex at June 20, 2013 05:57 PM

I picked up my love of reading from my dad. He only had a GED after quitting school in the 8th grade, but I do not remember a time when he didn't have a book in either his hand or his pocket.

One of my favorite gifts from my parents was 600 Sci-fi / Fantasy books found in a roll-top trunk that they had bought at a garage sell.

Posted by: Russ at June 20, 2013 06:04 PM

One of the questions I've always had in things like this, is how does one measure "written at Grade Level X"?

Growing up as someone who viewed reading as inherently not enjoyable (if it were why do teachers have to *make* you do it?) I've never understood the metric.

It has always seemed to me that higher grade stuff means "archaic vocabulary and syntax". Is Shakespeare "12th grade" material today, but was written at what was then a "5th grade" level?

Or is it about the complexity of the plot, the depth and progression of character development throughout the story.

Or is it about being the type of book that makes people feel superior to the riff-raff reading their pulp novels?

If you "translated" Frankenstein into modern English (that is you took out the "Hark"s and "Alas"s and replaced them with their modern couterparts, do you convert it from high-brow Literature to junk-food horror?

I hope that it's more about plot and characters, but then A Song of Ice and Fire is orders of magniture more complex than Moby Dick, but I don't imagine it breaking in to many "Great Books" college courses the way Moby Dick would.

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at June 20, 2013 06:14 PM

I haven't read A Song of Ice and Fire, but I'm surprised to hear that you think it is even as complex as Moby Dick. I read it in China, and was really impressed by its depth.

My wife read the Song book, but didn't continue with the series because she found it harsh and depressing. I didn't read it because her reaction to it was so negative, but perhaps I should if you think it compares.

Posted by: Grim at June 20, 2013 07:05 PM

There are different types of complexity. Martin's books have very complex plots and characters. I wouldn't say they are terribly complex in terms of major themes or ideas, but they're a great read.

Moby Dick is more complex in terms of the philosophical themes and metaphors employed throughout, but the plot is actually pretty simple.

I find the biggest difference between classical lit and more modern stuff is the way older literature weaves big ideas into the story. Characters don't stand on their own so much as they represent some larger concept. It's not as though I read classics all the time - it's more a mix. But when I was growing up, what I loved about classic literature is that it made really big ideas accessible.

I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have thought or cared about a lot of that stuff, "but for" some of the books I read.

Posted by: Cassandra at June 20, 2013 07:56 PM

I picked up my love of reading from my dad. He only had a GED after quitting school in the 8th grade, but I do not remember a time when he didn't have a book in either his hand or his pocket.

One of the things that surprised me most about the Marine Corps was how well read a lot of Marines are, regardless of how much formal schooling they have. Many certainly don't come across that way, but at parties I would often find myself talking to a Marine and discover that he was an avid history buff :)

I felt dumb and ignorant a lot of the time, but learned a lot from conversing with them.

Posted by: Cassandra at June 20, 2013 08:01 PM

Your wife isn't wrong. A tale of heroics where the noble hero ushers in an era of prosperity it is not. It's a backroom, alliance and betrayal political machinations story: schemes within schemes within schemes with a cast of several hundred. Characters grow and shrink or are revealed to be very different than their reputations suggest. About all that can be said foe certain is that the existential threat to the world will be defeated, but it is not at all clear that the good guys will be in charge at the end of it (if, in fact, you can tell who the good guys even are).

Moby Dick, on the other hand is: man seeks adventure upon the sea, signs up with an obsessive maniac captain. Excitement, danger, and tragedy ensue. The morality tale of the perils of obsession could have been told in about 20 pages. If there were more metaphors than that I missed them. There were great depictions of both the excitement and boredom aboard a vessel. But it all impressed me as pretty straight forward tale.

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at June 20, 2013 09:31 PM

You're overlooking race. Nearly everyone commenting here is white (or East Asian), has a an average to well above average IQ and is reasonably well-educated. The children in question are black and brown and generally have low IQs (85 or lower). Of course they will read below grade level, a level established by white students.

People often complain about the US's PISA scores, how low they are compared to Europe and East Asian. But as Steve Sailer pointed out a few years ago, if you break down our PISA scores by race, America's whites score as well as Europe's (and better than many), America's Asians score as well as the Japanese and Chinese, and America's blacks score like Caribbean blacks.

So, the real problem is the changing race/ethnicity of our school children. The deeper problem is whether they will be able to sustain an advanced civilization.

Posted by: bob sykes at June 21, 2013 08:59 AM

Controlling for socio-economic factors and other academic performance is a valid concern and must be taken into consideration. If poor performing students make up a larger percentage of the population you would expect average performance to decrease because you now observe said bad performance where it was unobserved before.

That said, I see no evidence that the researchers did not do this. I should also mention that I see no evidence that they did either. I looked briefly through the company's website, but I didn't find a link to their research paper.

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at June 21, 2013 11:05 AM

Have to add to the chorus that SciFi is not a wasteland. While there are many 'Space Westerns' (Star Trek, early Heinlein & many others), there also a lot of very interesting stuff probing interesting issues and ideas.

Al in on the bandwagon that reading is an (perhaps the single most important) essential component of intellectual and professional success.

Best Regards,

Posted by: CAPT Mike at June 21, 2013 09:21 PM

BTW, Moby Dick may be dense and turgid, but Melville did really good work in Billy Budd and White Jacket.

Best Regards,

Posted by: CAPT Mike at June 22, 2013 06:30 PM


Two decades ago 40% of Marine officers had a college degree in history.

Posted by: Rex at June 23, 2013 11:11 AM