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Grade reading level doesn’t equal one’s literacy level

There seemed to be a lot of doom and gloom last week in the coverage of a new survey on reading in American schools. But it seems like a number of people, including at least one individual who contributed a piece for the publication, may need to look beyond the bare numbers.

Admittedly, the results seemed appalling on the surface. Fifth graders were reading books with an overall reading level of 5.1 (first month of the fifth grade school year), with 5.0 for boys, and 5.2 for girls. But those in grades 9 though 12 are reading at roughly the same level; 5.3 overall, 5.4 for boys and 5.1 for girls. But this isn’t an assessment of literacy or comprehension. Rather, this study looks at what kids were actually reading during the 2010-2011 school year, both as assigned reading and and what they chose to read.

To put those numbers in perspective, Steig Larsson’s The Girl Who Played With Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest — longtime residents of numerous adult bestseller lists — each have a ranking of 6.2. Both The Great Gatsby and George Orwell’s Animal Farm have a rating of 7.3. Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and Julius Caesar came in at 8.6 and 10.8, respectively. Now I would prefer Larsson or Orwell over Shakespeare any day. But that doesn’t mean I have only a sixth or seventh grade reading level.

As these adult bestsellers indicate, books that have broad appeal, including such popular YA series as The Hunger Games or Twilight, aren’t written to the same level as a high school or college textbook. In fact, if you look at the top 25 books librarians recommend for grades 9-12 in the study, the average grade level is 5.2.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t issues raised by the study.

First, should students be challenged more? Sure, I may not choose to read Shakespeare today but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be read as part of the process of learning about literature. The academic setting is the only place many of us encountered such works.

Second, do we emphasize reading enough as students grow older? First graders read 31.1 million books last school year, 66 percent of which were read independently, while second graders read 58.6 million books, 81 percent of which were read independently. But those numbers drop each year thereafter. Thus, grades 9-12 combined read a total of 2.3 million books last school year — an average of less than 575,000 per grade — and nearly one-third fewer pages than sixth graders read (119.4 billion versus 337.2 billion).

Given the statistics, the study asked what should kids be reading? There are a variety of suggestios. The ones that struck me as most logical, particularly to address the amount of reading, have a common theme. Jeff Kinney, author of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series: “Whatever captures their interest, in whatever format.” Librarian Terri Kirk: “The basic tenet of getting all students to read is to let them choose what they are interested in.”

I’m not a fan of the Twilight series and have not read all the Harry Potter books (the latter of which appalls my children). And I don’t really care where those books rank in terms of reading level. What’s important is that they get kids and young adults to read. Encouraging kids to read makes it more likely post-secondary bound students will have the ability to read at the appropriate levels, regardless of what they may choose to read on their own. And those who never set foot in a classroom after high school may just read because they like to. And there’s certainly nothing wrong with that.

By the way, based on a variety of tests, this post has an average grade level of 6.8 and only a 5.8 under the widely recognized Flesch–Kincaid Grade Level, according to Readability-Score.com. Clearly, I am not college material.


The existence of good bad literature — the fact that one can be amused or excited or even moved by a book that one’s intellect simply refuses to take seriously — is a reminder that art is not the same thing as cerebration.

George Orwell, “Good Bad Books

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1 comment to Grade reading level doesn’t equal one’s literacy level

  • D.E. Bishop

    I love reading!

    I remember as a child, mom read lots of books. Dad wasn’t much of a book reader, but he always had farm magazines at hand. In the evening, after the day’s work, we sat in the living room, with the tv on. We watched some, but just as much everyone was reading. I just love reading.

    I learned so much from books. I often read something a little too high for my level, and I learned words that way. I learned how to figure out meanings from context, though I got it wrong sometimes. I remember Black Beauty taught me about ignorance. I was fascinated and thrilled with that word and concept.

    Reading is simply golden. All the things that people say about reading, all the superlatives, the cliches about opening new worlds — it’s all true!

    Thanks for your blog and your support of literature. Good for you, keep it up.