Do kids today shy away from challenging books?

Today's teens are buried in books, but what are they reading? Nothing very challenging, worry some adults – including Stephen King.

Matt Sayles/Invision/AP
Fans of the 'Twilight' series by Stephenie Meyer set up tents to camp out before the premiere of the last film in the movie series, 'The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2.'

Thanks to a bevy of modern hits like the "Harry Potter," "Hunger Games," and "Twilight" series, young adult and teen literature is thriving today, leaving parents, teachers, and librarians happy to see kids eagerly reading.

But there’s a downside that’s often overlooked. Thanks to a steady diet of fantasy, science fiction, vampires, and magic, kids today rarely read the more complex or sophisticated literature they once did. In fact, most kids and teens today read significantly below their grade level, according to a recent story by NPR on the topic.

“[R]esearch shows that as young readers get older, they are not moving to more complex books,” reports NPR’s Lynn Neary. “High-schoolers are reading books written for younger kids, and teachers aren't assigning difficult classics as much as they once did.”

That news is backed up by a study by Renaissance Learning, a technology-based educational company that studied what books were being assigned to high school students.

“The complexity of texts students are being assigned to read has declined by about three grade levels over the past 100 years,” Eric Stickney, educational research director at Renaissance, told NPR. “A century ago, students were being assigned books with the complexity of around the ninth- or 10th-grade level. But in 2012, the average was around the sixth-grade level.”

In other words, while the class of 1989 and ’90 were reading works by Sophocles, Shakespeare, Dickens, Wharton, and the Brontës, kids today read novels like “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Animal Farm,” even modern hits-turned-movies like “The Help” and “The Notebook.”

According to Stickney, reading levels tend to stagnate sometime around middle school, when kids stop progressing to books of higher difficulty levels.

“Last year, almost all of the top 40 books read in grades nine through 12 were well below grade level,” reports NPR. “The most popular books, the three books in 'The Hunger Games' series, were assessed to be at the fifth-grade level."

It’s a trend Stephen King pointed out in a recent interview with Parade Magazine. Remembering his own books-infused childhood, King said reading fails to occupy the same importance for kids today.

“I think it’s because they’re so screen-oriented,” he told Parade. “They do read – girls in particular read a lot. They have a tendency to go toward the paranormal, romances, 'Twilight' and stuff like that. And then it starts to taper off because other things take precedence, like the Kardashian sisters.... there are so many other byways for the consciousness to go down now; it makes me uneasy.”

And for those who might suggest that deep reading habits don't matter as much in an age of spell-check, 140-character tweets, and SMS shorthand, King has a rebuttal.

The books you read will teach you to write, King says he stressed to some Canadian students he recently worked with. “If you can read in the 21st century," he told them, "you own the world.”

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.