How to Make American Teens Smarter

Americans may be reading more words today than ever before, but the content is less challenging. Dana Goldstein on kids' dismal reading scores—and a movement to get them to put down Twilight and pick up nonfiction.

What do American kids read? From middle school through 12th grade, the answer is consistent: the Twilight and Harry Potter series, with a little bit of Romeo and Juliet and Holocaust literature sprinkled in. The average reading level of the top 20 books read by U.S. high school students is 5.3—two and a half grade levels easier than a front-page article in The New York Times or Washington Post. In no grade do students typically read nonfiction, beyond memoirs like the The Diary of Anne Frank and Elie Wiesel's Night—even though success on standardized tests, in college, and in many jobs requires the ability to comprehend dense nonfiction texts.

Those findings are from one of the only surveys available of the reading habits of American young people, conducted by the educational technology firm Renaissance Learning. The survey includes both books read for pleasure and those assigned in class, tracking which e-books 4.6 million students downloaded from Renaissance's Accelerated Reader software during the 2008-09 academic year. The reading lists—in many ways unimpressive—are significant in light of the release last week of the nation's fourth- and eighth-grade reading scores, which were dismal.

The overall picture of literacy in America is bleak—a decades-long achievement plateau that leaves most young adults unprepared for higher-level work.

According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the federal test known as "the nation's report card," only one-third of American kids can read at the "proficient" level. Over the past two years, no national gains have been made in closing the achievement gaps between rich and poor, white and black, white and Hispanic, or girls and boys. And though some individual states did better than others on the assessment, the overall picture of literacy in America is bleak—a decades-long achievement plateau that leaves most young adults unprepared for higher-level work.

With the White House preparing to reauthorize and tweak the No Child Left Behind Act, many pundits say the bad test results discredit the Bush administration's testing and accountability-based education agenda and prove Obama should make a far more radical departure from those policies than he plans. But other experts are focused not only on how we measure what students learn but on what they learn, in large part through what they read.

Although Americans are reading more words today than they ever have, there is evidence that the content of that reading—much of it now done on the Internet—has become less and less challenging, and that student reading lists made up mostly of "fun," lightweight fiction are accelerating the trend.

"People don't really understand the nature of reading. They feel that reading is a skill, that it's transferable, so once you're a good reader, you can read anything that's put in front of you," says Daniel Willingham, a University of Virginia cognitive psychologist who focuses on K-12 education. "But that's only true for decoding—what you learn until grade three or four. After that, when you see good readers versus poor readers, what you're looking at is mostly differences in the knowledge that kids bring to the reading. It's easy to read something when you already know something about the topic. And if you don't know about the topic, it's utterly opaque to you."

That's why children should read newspapers and magazines, texts about nature and technology, and biographies—genres that increase real-world knowledge. This is especially important for poor children, who may not be exposed to as much "background" information at home: the random vocabulary, facts, and associations that make it easier to do well on tests like the NAEP and SAT, and to succeed in the workplace.

But for the most part, kids aren't reading this kind of material. "One of my big gripes is the imperialism of literature, of trivial fictions and poetry," says E.D. Hirsch, a literature professor and advocate of "cultural literacy." Hirsch rejects the idea that storybooks are the only books that appeal to children. "Fiction doesn't have a monopoly on narrative," he says. "Take, for example, biographies. They have the form of fiction. It isn't whether kids can read it or not, it's whether it is taught or not. And boys tend to be more interested in nonfiction than fiction. It's one of the reasons… that boys do less well and are turned off from reading."

To solve the problem, many experts are looking toward the National Governors Association, which is working with 48 states and the District of Columbia to draft common K-12 curriculum standards for English and math. The NGA recommends that 11th-graders read George Orwell's classic essay "Politics and the English Language"—not just Animal Farm or 1984. Authors like Gogol, Ionesco, Austen, and Fitzgerald are mainstays of the NGA standards, though their books and plays are not among the top 10 works now read by students at any grade level.

Contemporary writers such as Toni Morrison and Jhumpa Lahiri are also included, as are historical presidential addresses and even works of journalism, including Atul Gawande's New Yorker feature from last year, "The Cost Conundrum: Health Care Costs in McAllen, Texas," which played a major role in the health-care reform debate.

Twilight, however, is not included.

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Dana Goldstein is an associate editor and writer at The Daily Beast. Her work on politics, women's issues, and education has appeared in The American Prospect, Slate, BusinessWeek, The New Republic, and The Nation.