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Students choosing books below grade level; should parents be worried?

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SALT LAKE CITY — Most students are reading books below their ability level, both at home and in the classroom, according to a national study.

In April, education software company Renaissance Learning released its annual "What Kids are Reading" study for the 2011-12 academic year. The study — which surveyed the self-reported reading habits of students participating in Renaissance's Accelerated Readers program — found that most young readers choose books below their grade level and the complexity of assigned reading has been on a downward trend.

The study also found that students' reading choices were influenced by entertainment, with books recently adapted for Hollywood films surging in popularity, such as Suzanne Collin's "Hunger Games" series, Dr. Seuss' "The Lorax" and Kathryn Stockett's "The Help."

"We’ve been doing this for five years now and one thing that’s standing out this year in particular is the role that pop culture and movies seem to play in what kids are choosing to read," said Erik Stickney, director of educational research for Renaissance Learning.

But how much, if at all, should parents be worried?

Educators say it's natural to expect students to select easier books for their independent reading, which is preferable to no reading at all. The complexity of school-assigned readings is also showing signs of recovery, due in part to the nationwide implementation of the Common Core State Standards.

Recreational reading

In this year's "What Kids are Reading" study, the top 40 books read by students in grades 9 through 12 were all below grade level, with the exception of William Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar" (grade level 10.8) and Mary Shelly's "Frankenstein" (12.4).

The top three books for high school students were Suzanne Collins' "Hunger Games" trilogy, which are rated by Renaissance Learning at a 5.3 grade level.

But Tiffany Hall, K-12 literacy coordinator for the Utah State Office of Education, said parents shouldn't be surprised or worried that their students are choosing to read books below their abilities.

She said a love of learning comes from being absorbed in a story, not tripping over unknown words and complicated sentences. Children, she said, want to read to relax in the same way adults do and difficult texts can dissuade them.

"If you really want a child to read for pleasure you have to give them an opportunity to choose," she said. "They have to enjoy it and that means they have to be able to access it."

She also said that reading anything is better than reading nothing, whether it be a popular book below their grade level, a sports magazine or a cookbook.

"When we talk about literacy and a literate environment, it’s just that they're reading," she said. "A good definition of literacy is the ability to make useful meaning out of any text that you're reading."

Stickney said parents shouldn't necessarily be worried about their children selecting books below their grade level, particularly since most of the titles on best-selling lists for adults would likely be classified for middle-grade or high school aged students.

"When you look at the books that adults read, most of the readability levels of those books is going to be in the fifth, sixth or seventh grades," he said. "I think the biggest issue is, are (children) reading enough and are they really engaged with what they're reading."

Kathy Wittke, a literacy specialist with the Jordan School District, said one way parents can incentivize their students to read more challenging literature is by providing them with books on a subject they're interested in.

"The biggest thing that is the motivator is tapping into those student interests and building some background knowledge," she said.

But she agreed with Hall that even a simple book is preferable to no book. "It’s always going to be better to be reading than not reading at all," she said.

Hall said parents can encourage literacy by reading with their children, asking their children about the books they enjoy and helping them have access to a variety of texts. She said children should read confidently at home, which may sometimes lead to them choosing simpler texts over "War and Peace" or "Ulysses."

But at school, with the help of a teacher, students should be challenged to move above and beyond their reading level, Hall said. She said the classroom setting offers an opportunity to work through difficult vocabulary or phrasing.

Classroom reading

Decisions for assigned texts are made at the local level, but Hall said teachers are trained to apply a rubric to potential readings that evaluates them on a qualitative and quantitative level.

"Will my student be interested and want to read this book? Sometimes the answer is no but they have to read it anyway," she said.

Hall said most researchers agree that the quantitative difficulty, also known as the lexile level, of high-school aged reading has declined over the last 40 years. She said that is one of the reasons states, including Utah, adopted the Common Core standards, which encourage the use of more complex texts to prepare students for higher education.

"We discovered there was a gap in complexity between grade 12 and the first year of college," Hall said. "That’s one of the reasons we adopted the standards because they bring the lexile levels back up."

Stickney said the effect of the Common Core standards is already beginning to show in what kids are reading. He gave the example of Mary Shelly's "Frankenstein," which is listed as exemplary in the common core and which rose in the "What Kids Are Reading" rankings this year.

"It does appear that Common Core is moving the needle a little bit on what kids are reading, particularly in the upper and middle grades," he said. "It is Common Core’s intent to reverse that trend and to increase the rigor and complexity of what kids are reading."

Wittke agreed, saying schools in the state and nationwide are already showing progress with the new standards.

"In the past some things did go down but currently things are moving up," she said.

Email: benwood@deseretnews.com, Twitter: bjaminwood