We may be living in the digital age, but reading books is still a big part of growing up. And the books that young people read – and how difficult they are – can have a massive impact on their ability to understand exam questions, tell fake news apart from real news and get informed and involved in society.
To find out what children are reading, I conducted a study of 963,678 students in 4,364 schools across the UK. I found that from 2016 to 2017, students read 18,044,078 books: it sounds like a lot, but when I dug down into the data, I found some worrying trends.
When they’re in primary school, children read books that really challenge them. But once they reach secondary school the level of difficulty doesn’t change much. Secondary school students tend to read books which are also read by upper primary students. That suggests that secondary school students are not challenging themselves enough – and their reading comprehension is probably suffering as a result.
To discover these trends, I analysed data collected by Accelerated Reader (AR) software, which quizzes pupils to check their understanding of the books they’ve chosen to read. The difficulty of the book is carefully measured and expressed as a score of average difficulty – which I call “readability” – for the year of school.
With the data from AR, I created two lists of books: one for the books that most secondary pupils – across all years – had chosen to read, and another for the books they voted as their favourites, after they’d read them.
As you’ll see from the readability scores next to each book, students’ favourite books tend to be much more advanced than the other books they chose (listed below) – but they could still understand them. The rest of the books most often chosen by secondary students were typically suitable for the average reader in year 7: only one – Animal Farm, by George Orwell – is suitable for an average year 8 pupil.
A worthy challenge
You might think that students who read harder books might make more mistakes and understand them less well. But the data actually show that students’ quality of comprehension does not depend on the difficulty of the book, no matter what year of secondary school they’re in. Motivation is the most obvious factor here – if you like the book, you try hard to really understand it.
But when it came to the harder texts, suitable for those in years 12 and 13 (or sixth form), far fewer pupils chose to read them. You can see the 20 hardest texts and their readability scores below.
If readers could manage the easiest book in the table above, they would be able to understand what’s written in The Sun. But it’s only when readers can manage the hardest books that they are able to read and understand The Economist. And while secondary students might not be expected to read The Economist, as young adults that level of comprehension might be necessary to become an informed citizen.
As children become teenagers, they listen less to advice from adults and more to advice from their peers. So, rather than trying to lecture young people on the merits of Jane Austen, teachers and librarians should try making the nature of the problem – and its likely consequences – clear to their students.
Students should challenge each other to read more difficult books, as information about book difficulty is easy to access through AR. Adults could help by setting up noticeboards or organising social media networks for young people to share their recommendations. And teachers can lend a hand by setting aside time for reading in school – though they would have to select difficult books, of course.
Young people almost certainly do not realise the problems that come when they don’t challenge themselves to read difficult books. But there’s plenty they can do to avoid these issues – with or without the help of parents and teachers.