Why do students read under their grade level?

Renaissance Learning’s annual look at what books students choose when they read for pleasure found high school students reading “far fewer words” than younger students and middle and high school students choosing books that are below grade level.

That first finding might well be troubling, but it will surprise no one who interacts with adolescents (or who has ever been one themselves)—the thinner, bigger-font book seems to reach out and grab us rather than the other way around.

But students may unwittingly be getting help from their teachers when it comes to picking below grade-level books.

In a national survey of English, language arts, and reading teachers released last year by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, the subgroup of teachers who said they do not assign novels for the whole class to read were asked, “When you help individual students pick a novel to read, which of these are you more likely to consider: a student’s reading level or the grade level of the class?” The vast majority of elementary school teachers (83 percent), a majority of middle school teachers (57 percent), and more than one-third of high school teachers (36 percent) picked the former; barely handfuls (between 3 and 7 percent) said they mostly rely on “the grade level of the class.”

This is not to say that teachers don’t care about grade level. Larger numbers of middle and high school teachers chose the “something else” category, which included a combination of both ability and appropriate grade level, as well as things like student interest or chosen theme (35 percent of middle school teachers and 46 percent of high school teachers, compared with 11 percent of elementary school teachers).

This survey took place in early 2012, purposely timed to coincide with the rollout of the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts. When the survey is administered again in 2015—which Fordham has committed to doing—we hypothesize a shift to a greater reliance on grade level rather than individual reading level when teachers recommend books to their students for pleasure reading.

Ann M. Duffett, PhD, is a public-opinion researcher with the FDR Group and the primary researcher for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s Common Core in the Schools: A First Look at Reading Assignments report.