When it comes to reading, does anything go?

I have always been an avid reader and am a huge believer in the power of the written word.  One of my earliest memories, when I was maybe four years old, is of sitting on my family’s couch, literally surrounded by massive piles of books, all of which I was sure I was going to read that very day.  I know that I owe part of my passion for reading to my mom who modeled good reading habits for me and always seemed to have an Agatha Christie or other such mystery in her hands.

As a parent, I have always tried to instill this love for reading in my two daughters with, admittedly, mixed results. While I read to them both from babyhood until beyond the time they could read for themselves, and while I continued to model good reading habits with my own reading, my older daughter really never adopted a passion for pleasure-reading, but merely read what she had to for school. My younger daughter, on the other hand, does enjoy reading and has always reserved time in her schedule to do so, but as the burden of school-reading increases, I can see that this passion could cool over time, if we’re not careful to continue modeling and encouraging.

Given this passion for reading, I’ve always believed that “any reading is good reading”.  While I want my kids to read challenging works, classic stories and thoughtful literature, I’ve never discouraged them from picking up less intellectually demanding material like The Clique series or Pretty Little Liars books. These books serve a purpose, as well – they provide great escapism, simply story lines and again, they count as reading time (and time spent away from the computer and phone).

But I recently read some disturbing news that made me question whether any reading is good reading. A recent article in the Huffington Post about the results of a Renaissance Learning report, revealed that American high school students are primarily reading books that are designed for a fifth-grade reading level.  The most popular book among high schoolers last year was The Hunger Games – a book that is ranked at a 5.3 level, meaning it is just above a fifth grade level.

While The Hunger Games is a great story that both teens and adults have embraced (see my previous blog post on this topic; in short, I loved it), the repercussions of the study’s results are clear: if kids aren’t reading material that is challenging enough for high school – much less college – how are they to improve their reading and writing skills enough to think critically and to synthesize and analyze higher-level curriculum?   Unfortunately, the article points out, this study reflects trends in national reading scores which remain low and have dropped significantly between 1992 and 2009.

So do we let our kids read whatever they want – comic books, tween “chick lit”, Seventeen magazine?  Or do we push them to read books that are indicated for their grade level and challenge them?

I admit, I’m of two minds about this. On the one hand, since students are and should be expected to read works of literature in the classroom that are “at grade level”, I’m inclined to let mine choose what they read for pleasure. On the other hand, I’m cognizant of the fact that a steady diet of Pretty Little Liars is certainly not going to expand their horizons (much less their vocabulary) substantially. In a perfect world, they would choose to read much more challenging works during their free time, but even I am tempted to pick up the occasional People Magazine at the hairdresser’s or the latest pop culture phenomenon, Fifty Shades of Grey because it gives me a respite from some of the deeper and more thoughtful works I usually read (side note: don’t bother with “Grey” or at least, don’t spend any money on it. My take: it’s poorly written, the plot is old and tired, and the dominant/submissive thing was done so much better by Anne Rice in The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty and Exit to Eden years ago. Sorry, but poor writing, no matter how sexually explicit, turns me off).

So, should we try to encourage our kids to reach more intelligent and stimulating works? Should schools do more to encourage the reading of classics and weightier modern-day works?  Or should we just focus on encouraging the act of reading – regardless of the material? What do you think?

4 thoughts on “When it comes to reading, does anything go?

  1. From working in a library, I do always cringe when I see *that* kid who never reads anything other than Diary of a Wimpy Kid. But on the other hand, I grew up with a generation of people where the vast majority never read at all. I tend to agree with the “all reading is good reading.”

    A good thing to remember is that the “grade level” of a book isn’t really a great indicator of quality. It’s only a calculation based on the number of words in the average sentence, and the number of letters in the average word. By those standards, something The Great Gatsby isn’t an especially difficult book, while even the most tawdry 18th century novel is.

    While Hunger Games may be written in relatively simple language, I think the true measure of its complexity is the issues it forces readers to consider. A book’s true difficulty shouldn’t be measured in whether you need a dictionary or not, but in the ideas it presents. True, Pretty Little Liars isn’t grand literature, but it does bring up interesting points about the relationship between good and evil.

    I would argue that kids learn more from reading a simpler book that makes them think than a book with High and Mighty language where they don’t grasp the themes.


    1. You raise some great points and I completely agree with you that we should look closely at how “grade level’ is being calculated. To your point (and something I really should have brought up in the post), while The Hunger Games is assigned a 5.3 level because of the relatively simple vocabulary and sentence structure, it does address some very complex issues. In fact, I’d say that no one younger than a fifth grader should probably read that book unless they are very mature or have parents willing to sit and discuss the issues the book raises at length with them, as the themes are difficult and include a substantial amount of violence. Really good points – thanks for commenting!


  2. I loved your post! I think that encouragement at any level is good. After all, everyone needs a starting point. Then, once people are acclimated, I think it would be good to challenge them by suggesting (and even buying) books for them.


  3. Thanks, George and thank you for commenting. And you’re right – I’ve tried to do just that with my younger daughter. I frequently suggest and buy books for her that I think she’ll like, but that will be more challenging for her. Sometimes it works and sometimes, well…it’s kind of like getting her to eat a particular food she has previously decided she doesn’t like. I figure I’ll keep trying and trying and one day, she’ll actually eat, er, read it! ; )


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