The Free Press, Mankato, MN

June 17, 2013

Our View: Summer books shouldn't be all light fare

Why it matters: Challenging reading during the summer can help bring students up to the level they should be.

The Mankato Free Press

---- — About this time of year, mysteries, thrillers, romances, and short-story collections are among the books being packed into bags and backpacks to take to the cabin or the park or the beach. Light reading for the summer.

Summer reading often means choosing selections that can be interrupted easily — after all we’ve been waiting months to get outside and do things and go places without checking on road conditions beforehand. Picking up a book and putting it down easily becomes the rhythm of warm days.

In the same vein, many kids are relieved to put down the textbooks (and shut down the online textbooks) and pick up books (and eBooks) that become their escape from the school year’s routine. Area libraries, including the North Mankato Taylor Library and Blue Earth County Library, have started their summer reading programs already with prizes as incentives for kids to keep reading during summer break. (Participants may still sign up.)

The programs are an important part of helping stop kids’ reading skills from regressing during vacation. But here’s a challenge to kids and parents for the summer: Make this a time to explore reading beyond the normal comfort zone. Yes, “The Hunger Game” series is popular and compelling to all ages from pre-teens to adults. But consider this: The series is assessed to be at the fifth-grade reading level.

Apparently, that’s not an isolated case of kids generally reading below level. The educational research director for Renaissance Learning, Eric Stickney, told NPR that almost all of the top 40 books read in grades nine through 12 were well below grade level.

When Renaissance studied which books are were being assigned to high school students, they found that the complexity of assigned texts declined by about three grade levels during the past 100 years. A century ago, students were being assigned books with the complexity of around the ninth- or 10th-grade level. Even in 1989, high school students were being assigned works by Sophocles, Shakespeare, Dickens, George Bernard Shaw, Emily Bronte and Edith Wharton. But by 2012, the average reading level has dropped to around sixth grade.

This doesn’t mean requiring your teen to tackle Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” and the complete works of William Shakespeare this month. But it does mean encouraging kids to try something that’s beyond their typical selection. Maybe try a Jack London vocabulary-packed adventure novel with the iPad nearby and the dictionary app up and ready for action. Maybe it means downloading “Moby-Dick” with permission to skip the chapter on cetology or measurement of a whale’s skleton.

Educators have a good point when they say they are concerned about how prepared students will be for college-level reading when they aren’t tackling challenging material before they get to college. It’s a great idea to feed kids books that motivate them to read, even if it’s magazines and computer game manuals, but they need to step beyond that comfort level to grow their comprehension and analytical skills. Teachers and parents all need to take that into consideration when helping kids select reading materials for class or for leisure reading.

All of this doesn’t have to be a serious, heavy task. Reading Homer’s Greek epic, “The Odyssey,” can be followed by watching the movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” with plenty of opportunity between laughs to find the allusions to the classic.

And after that, it’s to the pool — with a variety of books packed in the beach bag.