A friend of mine recently told me that her family was having a discussion when a particular word was used. Her two teenage daughters looked confused and asked, “What does that mean?” Without missing a beat, her younger son, still in middle school, looked up from where he was reading on the sofa and calmly gave the definition. 

As he silently went back to his book, his mother realized something. Her older daughters weren’t reading that much. Her younger son was, and he was the one who had a broad vocabulary, and in all likelihood, a more knowledgeable view of the world even though he was just the “little brother.”

But while such a situation – that the younger would be more knowledgeable than the older – seems strange, a recent study suggests that such might actually be more realistic than we realize when it comes to literacy. According to Renaissance Learning, students in Great Britain often read more challenging texts in middle school. This difficulty levels off and even declines by the time students reach the end of their secondary schooling.

Reporting on the findings, The Bookseller explains:

“First year secondary students were reading one year less than their chronological age and by the third, fourth and fifth years of secondary school pupils were reading at least three years below their chronological age – suggesting that many sitting their GCSEs at age 16 have the reading ability of a 13-year-old or lower.”

A similar thing happens in the United States. According to the reading report from the U.S. branch of Renaissance Learning, reading levels rapidly progress according to grade level until around 5th grade. After that, reading rates continue to rise, but much more slowly. By the time students hit high school, reading rates are in a stagnation pattern and waffling around a fifth to sixth grade level.

When these levels are compared to the levels students need to be reading at in order to succeed in college and adulthood, it quickly becomes apparent that schools are giving inadequate instruction (see chart).

Teen Reading Levels

The fact is, simply instilling basic literacy in students is not enough. Unless schools are raising students to ever greater heights in their ability and comprehension, they’ll simply float along in aimless ignorance.

Albert Jay Nock recognized this notion in his book The Theory of Education in the United States. He noted:

“We may observe, however, without at all disparaging literacy, that in general the mere ability to read raises no very extravagant presumptions upon the person who has it. Surely everything depends upon what he reads, and upon the purpose that guides him in reading it.

For evidence of this one has but to look at our large literate population, to remark its intellectual interests, the general furniture of its mind, as these are revealed by what it reads: by the colossal, the unconscionable volume of garbage annually shot upon the public from the presses of the country, largely in the form of newspapers and periodicals. On the other hand, too, we may regard the negative testimony furnished by the extremely exiguous existence among us of anything like a serious literature, especially a serious periodical literature. It must be clear, I think, that any expectations put upon the saving grace of literacy are illusory.”

Today, only one third of high school seniors are proficient in reading. What’s even more alarming, however, is that only 6 percent of those high school seniors are able to read at an advanced level.

If we expect the next generation to take over and lead the nation in a thoughtful, well-informed manner, then perhaps it’s time we started raising expectations for high schoolers by challenging them to engage reading materials  beyond the middle school level.

[Image Credit: U.S. Air Force photo illustration/Senior Airman Natasha E. Stannard]