AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.
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And I'm Melissa Block.
Walk into any bookstore or library and you'll find shelves and shelves of novels and series of book for kids. But what happens to those readers as they get older? Research shows that today's young readers do not move on to more complex books as they grow. High schoolers are reading books written for younger kids, and teachers aren't assigning as many difficult classics as they once did.
NPR's Lynn Neary has that story as part of our month-long focus on media for young people.
LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: At Woodrow Wilson High School in Washington, D.C. students are making their way into English class with copies of "The Kite Runner" tucked under their arms.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Alright. So, class, let me have your attention for a second.
NEARY: This is an 11th grade honors English class, so it is not so surprising that students like Megan Bell are reading some heavy duty books in their spare time.
MEGAN BELL: I like a lot of like old-fashioned type historical dramas, like I just read "Anna Karenina." I plowed through it and it was a really good book.
NEARY: Most teens are not forging their way through Russian novels, says Walter Dean Myers who is currently serving as National Ambassador for Young People's Literature. A popular author of young adult novels that are often set in the inner city, Myers wants his readers to see themselves in his books. But sometimes he is surprised by his own fan mail.
WALTER DEAN MYERS: I'm glad they wrote.
MYERS: But it is not very heartening to see what they are reading as juniors and seniors.
NEARY: What do you mean? What are they telling you they're reading?
MYERS: Oh, they're reading books which I had initially written for fifth and sixth grade kids.
NEARY: And a lot kids who like to read in their spare time are more likely to be reading the latest vampire novel than the classics, says Anita Silvey, author of "500 Great Books for Teens." Silvey teaches graduate students in a children's literature program. At the beginning of the class, she asked her students, who grew up in the age of Harry Potter, what kinds of books they like.
ANITA SILVEY: Every single person in the class said: I don't like realism, I don't like historical fiction. What I like is fantasy, science fiction, horror and fairy tales.
NEARY: Those anecdotal observations are reflected in a study of kids' reading habits by Renaissance Learning. For the fifth year in a row, the educational company used its Accelerated Reader Program to track what kids are reading in grades 1-through-12.
ERIC STICKNEY: Last year, we had more than 8.6 million students from across the country who read a total of 283 million books.
NEARY: Eric Stickney is the educational research director for Renaissance Learning. Students participate in the Accelerated Reader Program through their schools. When they read a book, they take a brief comprehension quiz and the book is then recorded in the system. The books are assigned a grade level based on vocabulary and the complexity of sentences.
STICKNEY: Actually, by the time they hit late middle school, we don't see a lot improvement or increase in the complexity or the difficulty of books that children are either choosing to read or being assigned to read.
NEARY: Last year, almost all of the top 40 books read in grades 9-through-12 were well below grade level. The most popular books, "The Hunger Games" series, were assessed to be at the fifth grade level. And last year, for the first time Stickney says, Renaissance did a separate study to find out what books were being assigned to high school students.
STICKNEY: The complexity of texts students are being assigned to read has gradually declined by about three grade levels, over the past 100 years. A century ago, students were being assigned books with the complexity of around the 9 through 10th grade level. But in 2012 the average was around the 6th grade level.
NEARY: Most 37 the assigned books are novels like "To Kill a Mockingbird," "Of Mice and Men" or "Animal Farm;" even such recent works as "The Help" and "The Notebook." In 1989, works by Sophocles, Shakespeare, Dickens, George Bernard Shaw, Emily Bronte, and Edith Wharton were still being assigned in high school. Now, with the exception of Shakespeare, most classics have dropped off the list.
Back at Woodrow Wilson High School, classes are changing. A 10th grade English class is getting underway. This is a regular English class and a lot of these kids say they don't read much outside of school. But Tyler Jefferson and Adriel Miller are eager to talk. Adriel likes books about sports, Tyler likes history. Both say their teachers have assigned books that they would not have chosen on their own.
TYLER JEFFERSON: I read "The Odyssey." I read "Romeo and Juliet." I didn't read "Hamlet."
NEARY: What did you think of those books?
JEFFERSON: It was very different because how the language was back then. Yeah, the dialogue that they had and...
NEARY: Was it harder to read than...
JEFFERSON: Yes, it was. It was harder to comprehend, also.
NEARY: You agree? I mean, that when you get those kinds of books that they're harder to read?
ADRIEL MILLER: Most definitely. You know, that's why we have great teachers that actually make us understand.
NEARY: So you think it is a good thing to be assigned those kinds of books.
MILLER: Yes, ma'am. It gives us a harder challenge of our brain, you know? It gives us a challenge.
JEFFERSON: It gives us a new view on things.
NEARY: Sandra Stotsky would be heartened to hear that. Professor emirita of education at the University of Arkansas, Stotsky firmly believes that high school students should be reading challenging fiction to get ready for the reading they will have to do in college.
SANDRA STOTSKY: You wouldn't find words like malevolent, malicious or incorrigible in science or history materials.
NEARY: Stotsky says in the '60s and '70s, schools began introducing more accessible books in order to motivate kids to read. That trend has continued, she says. And the result is that kids get stuck at a low level of reading.
STOTSKY: Kids were never pulled out of that particular mode to realize that in order read more difficult works, you really have to work at it a little bit more. You've got to broaden your vocabulary. You may have to use a dictionary occasionally. You've got to do a lot more reading altogether.
SILVEY: There's something wonderful about the language, the thinking, the intelligence of the classics.
NEARY: Children's book expert Anita Silvey. Silvey says schools and parents may need to work a little harder to get kids to read the classics these days. But that doesn't mean kids shouldn't continue to read the popular contemporary novels they love. Both have value.
SILVEY: There's an emotional, psychological attraction to books for readers. And I think some of, particularly these dark dystopic novels that predict a future where, in fact, the teenager is going to have to find the answers, I think these are very compelling reads for these young people right now.
NEARY: Reading leads to reading, says Silvey. It's when kids stop reading, or never get started in the first place, that there's no chance of ever getting them hooked on more complex books.
Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.
BLOCK: And this month, we're focusing on one particular book for readers ages 9-to-14 in NPR's Backseat Book Club. The novel is called "The One and Only Ivan." And tonight is the deadline to send in you questions for the author, Catherine Applegate. You can email them to Backseat Book Club@NPR.org. Or you can send a tweet to nprbackseat.
CORNISH: And a quick reminder that we are both on Twitter. I'm @npraudie.
BLOCK: And I'm @nprmelissablock. And you can find more tweets about our program @npratc.
CORNISH: This is NPR News.
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