Are Classics Actually Too Hard for Students to Read?

A common complaint among readers ande bloggers is that classics are “too hard” for people to read and thus should not be taught in school. I am not in favor of removing items from the curriculum solely because they are difficult. Being challenged, after all, is how people learn. If students were only assigned works with which they are already intimately familiar and comfortable, they arguably might not need to be in school at all–they already know what is being taught. Why would they need to sit in class to have a trained professional guide them through the material? However, I think there is an argument to be made that perhaps some teachers are teaching some books too soon.

Classics are admittedly difficult for many students to read. Usually readers ascribe this to the fact that the books are classics. “Classic” is synonymous with “difficult.” No more need be said. Some might elaborate and suggest that it is because classics are older and the old timey language is indecipherable to the average modern reader. This can be true in some cases, though it is important to remember that classics actually encompass multiple time periods and genres. Reading Hemingway is different from reading Shakespeare. Reading Hurston is different from reading Austen.

One reason classics may be particularly difficult for students, however, is a reason I have yet to see anyone acknowledge. And that is that the classic books typically assigned in U.S. high schools (and middle schools) are typically books that were written for adults. Those who argue that the answer to student struggles is replacing classics with modern writers overlook the fact that, if teachers were to continue to choose adult books, students might be see F. Scott Fitzgerald replaced with Toni Morrison. Morrison is a wonderful, beloved, and celebrated author whose books have already found their way onto university syllabi; she will likely be one of the “classic” authors of the future. However, Morrison’s books are arguably not easy for the average high schooler to understand and digest, either. Those who want the classics thrown out are, implicitly, asking that the classics be thrown out in favor of children’s and YA authors–writers who are writing with a younger audience in mind.

Teachers are well aware that students need to be challenged enough to learn, but not enough that they simply give up. There is some evidence suggesting that reading just above one’s level promotes more learning. A 2010 study with second graders indicated that those reading books two levels above learned more than those students who read only on their designated reading level.

Choosing books “on grade level” or just above to teach may not be so simple, however. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reported that, in 2017, only 32% of eighth graders were proficient in reading. In 2015, 31% of twelfth graders were proficient in reading. If only about one third of students are proficient in reading, then, yes, asking them to read adult books might actually be too much of a challenge. But asking them to read a book for eighth graders or twelfth graders might be a challenge, too.

I read and learned to love many classic books in school. However, I think that there are some teachers who are introducing some books too soon. To Kill a Mockingbird is not a book for sixth graders. The Hunchback of Notre Dame is not a book for eighth graders. If teachers want to introduce a few of the classics into the curriculum, we might ask ourselves why more do not turn to children’s classics–books like The Watsons Go to Birmingham or Peter Pan or Anne of Green Gables? Why do they turn to adult books?

Classics were some of my favorite books growing up and classics are still some of the books I most enjoy today. However, I think we need to take a hard look at the nation’s reading scores. A student who is not proficient in reading on grade level is likely going to struggle with most books. Assigning adult classics to students will indeed result in frustration. Maybe the problem is not really the classics. Maybe it is the assumption that students are reading at grade level and thus ready to be challenged with more difficult books. Maybe it is time to reevaluate why reading scores are so low and time to be proactive about changing them.

35 thoughts on “Are Classics Actually Too Hard for Students to Read?

  1. Miri ♪ Book Dragoness ♪ says:

    Hmm I’ve been homeschooled so I have zero experience about reading an assigned book in “English class” but I remember my mom assigning me children’s classics to read in my younger years. I remember reading books like Anne of Green Gables for my assigned reading (I am SO lucky in that aspect) and picking things like The Little Princess up on my own. It certainly helped develop my ability to read harder, more complex language. So I think I agree with you about how assigning children’s classics would be good idea!

    But then again I was a book dragoness from my elementary school years (I remember my mom removing the Prydain chronicles from assigned reading after I started binging the books, lol! 😂) so maybe my own experience is skewed.

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    • Krysta says:

      Homeschool students also tend to perform better academically. In contrast, I once volunteered at an elementary school where the library had basically thirty chapter books. The whole room was otherwise picture books. Fifth graders couldn’t read more than Dr. Seuss. Imagine handing them a book written for adults!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Xandra @ Starry Sky Books says:

    I love this discussion! I personally have not enjoyed many adult classics while reading them, but I was able to gain a lot more appreciation for them during our class lectures after reading the book.

    For me, I think the problem is that I’m often not given enough context or information to put myself into the mindset of the book and understand what it’s telling me before I finish. I wish that I could read a few chapters, then get a small lecture, and then read some more chapters, so that everything would be broken in a better way for me to understand and grasp the themes from the beginning. In many classics, there’s often a lot of social context I don’t fully pick up on unless I am given that kind of information.

    However, I did enjoy reading children’s classics as a kid! The Secret Garden and The Little Princess were some of the first chapter books I ever read out loud with my parents, and that’s still special to me ❤️

    Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      The English classes I’ve been in or seen always start with background information and break up the book into chunks. It can take classes four months to read a short novel. I think it’s just basic good pedagogy to provide context, so it’s a shame your teachers didn’t do that!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Xandra @ Starry Sky Books says:

        I would love to take a class like that! In all of my university English classes so far, we only spend 1-2 weeks talking about a book, but we’re expected to read it before the first lecture, which only gives us about 4 days to complete it. We can read up to 11 full-length novels in one semester, for one class alone!

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        • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

          I think that’s true in most college classes, vs. high school where there’s a lot more time taken to explain the novel. I was reading a book a week for most of my college courses. I do think the expectation is that people will do more work on their own to get context or historical background for the text, if they need it.

          Liked by 1 person

  3. Grab the Lapels says:

    When I was in high school we would read classics. The setting and/or writing was so foreign to me that I literally did not comprehend what I just read. Each day, I would wait for the teacher to tell me during the lecture what I had read. When I started teaching freshmen in college, I would give them a heads up on what would be challenging in their next reading assignment, giving some pointers or context as needed. No need to waste people’s time just to confirm how little they understood AFTER they read.

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    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      I think this is a good point. If I remember correctly, my high school English teacher would lecture a bit about the book before we started reading it, which was helpful. These days, of course, someone could just go on SparkNotes or Wikipedia or something if they wanted context for what they’re reading, but my experience is that most students will not do this because it’s “extra work.” People will even skip over chapter or scene summaries that are IN the assigned text and then come to class and say they have no idea what’s happening. “Well, that paragraph on page 10 before the scene starts tells you….”

      And I could go on about when I had to TA “The Canterbury Tales” for undergrads and “no one knew what was happening.” Yes, the assigned reading was in Middle English, but a few weeks into the class I begged them to at least read it in Modern English online or read the Wikipedia summary so they had something to say when they came to class.

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      • Grab the Lapels says:

        I took an entire class on Chaucer and am pretty sure I learned nothing expect that he could write a cracking good fart joke. I later learned why I was so behind my classmates: I was actually struggling to read every assignment in Middle English from the textbook we were assigned, and they were all reading the modernized versions. Cheaters. I did realize that classes are not pleasure reading, so it was imperative to “spoil” everything by reading the entire Wikipedia plot and understand how things go together so I could get more out of one read.

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        • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

          The quizzes for this class were in Middle English and involved some translation, and you had to quote the Middle English in your essays, so there was good reason to figure it out! But as I was trying to lead discussion sections where it became clear that like three people had ever done the reading…I was fine with them reading a modern translation if it would get them to participate!

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  4. lindaswritingblog says:

    Great post! When I was in school, I wasn’t a big fan of classics mostly because of the way they were taught. It was just too much close reading without discussing the broader relevance these books have today. In retrospect, I think I would’ve enjoyed them much more if teachers dared to introduced them in more creative ways.

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  5. Stephanie says:

    I really love this perspective. I’ve never thought of it this way before. I was homeschooled and my curriculum included assigned classics but I never had difficulty understanding them, I just thought the ones assigned were boring. But I have also picked up classics on my own and loved them.

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    • Krysta says:

      Homeschooled students tend to perform better academically, which perhaps isn’t surprising as the biggest factor in student success tends to be parental involvement. Schools in areas where students are in lower socioeconomic classes and don’t see their parents much because they’re working to make ends meet tend to have far lower reading scores.

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  6. Alana from Dream Come Review says:

    I was just thinking about this last week! There are a handful of books that I wish I had read when older so I could appreciate the full impact (like Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad). I still have my high school copy and plan to reread it this year! I still think it’s important to read adult classics to challenge young readers but I know I could have used more guidance during the classes. Public school student here 🤷🏻‍♀️

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    • Krysta says:

      There is some indication students grow when they read books a level or two above their reading level. If only a third of students are on grade level, then that does make it more challenging to assign adult classics because they’re likely several levels too high. Students need to be challenged enough to learn, but not so much they give up.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Nicole (Read. Eat. Sleep. Repeat.) says:

    This is such a good point that I hadn’t thought of before! Looking back on the classics I read in high school, the ones I wound up hating were those way above my reading level that were also summer reading. They just wouldn’t stick in my brain, which I couldn’t understand because I was such a big reader! Now it makes sense. Thanks for the great discussion.

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  8. Jackie B @ Death by Tsundoku says:

    I agree that this can be problematic — I read many books which were far beyond my reading or comprehension level when I was in school. However, I think the lack of context is truly what makes these difficult to learn from. I read Animal Farm in 9th grade. Orwell’s writing itself wasn’t too difficult for me. But I hadn’t studied Russian history yet. Ever. At all. I didn’t really know what the Soviet Union was, let alone who the major players were of the Russian Revolution and why it mattered. Sure, my English teacher told us who they all were, but without the context of the rest of history… I was so lost. I just couldn’t care.

    This is an extreme example, but I’m certain this applies to other books as well. .Why is Shakespeare the only one who gets to also have lessons about writing style and history and the current events of the time which led to his plays? We need this for all texts we are teaching in school!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Kay | Hammock of Books says:

    I think that part of the reason so many students don’t like required reading is definitely because it’s too hard! My freshman year of high school we had to read To Kill A Mockingbird, which was pretty easy to understand and a lot of students enjoyed it, and also A Tale Of Two Cities, which was absolutely impossible and literally nobody I knew enjoyed it or even remotely understood it and thus everybody just stopped trying, didn’t even bother doing the reading and just sparknoted it, and mindlessly hated it

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    • Krysta says:

      Nooo! A Tale of Two Cities is my favorite Dickens book, lol! We read it in school and I was so excited! And…I was probably the only one. XD

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  10. alilovesbooks says:

    Great post and you definitely raise an interesting point about how reading level may not match grade. I’m in the UK and when I was around 9 or 10 they gave us a reading comprehension test (essentially do you know what these words mean). They then moved people to a group suitable for their level which in theory is a great idea. Unfortunately my parents had to fight to get me into the right level as the school decided it was too big a jump to move me into a class with older kids. I also doubt it encouraged reluctant readers to be moved into a class with mostly younger kids.

    In high school the whole system was largely abandoned so needless to say I found myself bored in 1st year and in 2nd year the teacher was so bad that I didn’t learn a thing and slipped backwards.

    There definitely needs to be some way to challenge all students in a way appropriate to their reading ability.

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    • Krysta says:

      I find reading comprehension tests odd when they only measure vocabulary. We had those, too. But knowing vocab doesn’t mean you are good at reading complex sentences, does it?

      There is also the issue that, when you divide up classes, everyone knows who the “smart” group is and who the “dumb” group is, even when schools try to obscure what’s happening by giving the groups random names like “Team Blue” and “Team Green.”

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  11. Eustacia | Eustea Reads says:

    I wonder if it could just be unfamiliarity with the style of older books (rather than difficulty or old-timey language). I once did a readalong of Chesterton with some friends but I was pretty much the only one who loved the language. I think it’s because I’ve already read a few of his works before that but for most of my friends, that was their first exposure to his style of writing and the unfamiliarity presented itself as being “difficult” to read.

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    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      I think style is definitely a factor. I took a Milton class in college that was only open to upperclassmen (mostly English majors), and apparently my roommate and I were basically the only ones who even understood what the text was saying. Each class opened with a detailed summary of the assigned reading, which I found excruciatingly boring.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Stephanie says:

    I’ve never thought of this before but I think that you’ve made a really great and valid point. I think part of the problem is definitely reading level. Of course, this is one of those things that has a lot of factors into, one of the biggest of which I think is personal taste. I didn’t like any of the classics that were assigned to me in high school (Huck Finn, Red Badge of Courage, Scarlet Letter, and Tale of Two Cities). But there are other classics that I’ve loved since (and during high school) and I’m open to trying others.

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    • Krysta says:

      And, then, of course, I think some students would hate ANY book they HAVE to read. Maybe if they picked a book up on their own, they’d enjoy it more and not see it as a chore.

      Like

  13. theorangutanlibrarian says:

    Yeah I really don’t think things should be removed from any syllabus because they’re difficult! That said, I do agree that some books are taught to the wrong age group. I personally see a lot of books which are in the wrong age category at GCSE right now- especially since they narrowed the focus to British books only, which meant they had fewer books to choose from (and also just not enough consideration that Christmas Carol and Pride and Prejudice aren’t really suitable for the same age category- so why are they two options for GCSE? I mean, this is partly just going off my own experience, but I’ve seen younger kids respond better to Christmas Carol and older kids prefer Austen)

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    • Krysta says:

      I think people who argue books are too difficult for school do a disservice to teachers who presumably generally know what is appropriate for their class to tackle and intend to guide that class through the book. It’s not like they drop P&P on some unsuspecting class and just tell them to have fun and figure it out, right? Usually, you work up to a hard work, just like you work up to calculus from algebra and arithmetic and all that.

      Still, when you look at the reading levels, it’s very concerning. In past months, I interacted with a few middle schoolers and it became apparent to me they weren’t able to read. I had to read a piece of paper to them and write down their answers for them. Upon further investigation, it seemed their familiarity with literature was limited to Dr. Seuss. They were probably in sixth grade.

      Liked by 1 person

      • theorangutanlibrarian says:

        Oh yeah I agree with you (and don’t get me wrong, I think P&P should be taught in high school- it’s just a question of tackling it too young- the problem I find with Austen and younger teens isn’t the language so much as they have a hard time connecting with the humour- whereas if you wait till late teens it clicks better. To me, it’s a bit like giving someone who knows nothing about Roman satire Horace- sure, you can explain it, but then it’s like dissecting a frog and it’s no longer funny). So yeah, definitely think it’s a case of working up to it.

        Oh yeah that is *definitely* a massive issue in the UK. The problem here is that people in the education system are often so concerned about results later on that they don’t pay enough attention to younger kids.

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        • Krysta says:

          That’s also a really good point! Schools in the U.S. often used different leveled reading systems to recommend “appropriate” books to different ages, but the levels are often based on knowledge of vocabulary and syntax. I remember being tested when I was eighth and my recommended list included books like Gone with the Wind! Now, maybe 8yo me could read the words in Gone with the Wind, but I certainly wouldn’t have understood the book!

          I kind of wonder what’s going to happen with all the standards testing/accountability after the pandemic. I think we’re just going to have to move everyone on to the next grade, but many of them probably will not have required the skills they should have, and this could cause problems for potentially the rest of their school careers.

          Liked by 1 person

          • theorangutanlibrarian says:

            Yeah that’s something I’ve noticed in the UK as well (with some consideration for subject matter). But there are other issues that arise. Exactly! Sometimes you just need to be a bit older to get some concepts/nuances and I don’t think that gets considered (it can also go in the opposite direction- older teens can be less interested in simpler allegories like animal farm and Christmas carol).

            Oh I don’t know- but I really worry about it. So many kids (especially from poorer backgrounds) are really falling behind right now.

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