Should High School Readers be Assigned Classics Originally Written for Adults?

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Should high school readers be assigned classic books that were originally written for an adult audience?

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Should High School Readers Be Assigned Classics Originally Written for Adults

Classics in the classroom are controversial for a variety of reasons, not least because of the belief some readers hold that classics are just too inherently difficult for anyone to want to read, let alone students. The complexity of the texts and the unfamiliarity of the language is good reason, many argue, for teachers to stop assigning classics altogether. Often unacknowledged in the conversations around reading material, however, is the fact that a large number of students have not acquired the reading skills deemed necessary for their grade level. This means that it is not simply classics that might be too difficult for students to read, but a large number of more recent titles, as well. If teachers were to assign modern adult books to students, many would likely still struggle for the same reasons they struggle to read classics.

Every four years, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests U. S. students in grade 12 to see where their reading levels are at. Students may score in four ranges: Below NAEP Basic, NAEP Basic, NAEP Proficient, and NAEP Advanced. A Basic score indicates that students have partial mastery of the material, Proficient means they have a solid mastery, and Advanced means they have exceptional mastery. One would hope, then, that most students would at least score on the Proficient level. The 2019 results, however, (the most recent available) show that 30% of 12th graders scored Below Basic, 33% scored at the Basic Level, 31% tested as Proficient, and 6% tested as Advanced. In other words, 63% of 12 graders, about two-thirds, have not mastered all the literary skills they ought.

Students may, at a Basic level, be able to “identify elements of meaning and form,” “make inferences, develop interpretations, make connections between texts, and draw conclusions, and “provide some support for analysis.” But they have not yet mastered “locating and integrating information using sophisticated analyses of the meaning and form of the text” or “providing specific text support for inferences, interpretative statements, and comparisons within and across texts.” 30% of 12th graders have not mastered even the Basic skills. Is it any wonder, then, that they find reading a classic book difficult? They might find reading and interpreting any book difficult.

Some have suggested that teachers replace classics with YA books. The argument made is usually that this will be more “relevant” and “relatable” to students. However, one might also consider that YA books are usually written more simply than adult books, making them easier for struggling readers to access and interpret. Yes, of course, YA books often deal with difficult content–anything from teenage pregnancy to death to the nature of humanity. However, the way YA books are written is actually usually more simplistic than adult books. Typically, sentences are easier to understand and any “message” or “theme” is spelled out for the reader. In fact, spelling out the message is so common in YA, that readers now get upset if an author does not do this, and instead expects readers to interpret something like, “This character said something sexist so he is the villain” rather than explicitly writing, “Bob is a sexist jerk who is imposing the patriarchy upon us by suggesting that we adhere to ideal body image standards, and we intend to stop him because he is wrong.” Because YA books now typically spell out any thematic messages, they actually may require less interpretive work from the reader, making it easier for struggling students to understand the main point of the story and write a paper about it.

This is not to say, of course, that students should not be expected to improve or that we should ultimately lower standards and never expect readers to be able to do the bulk of interpretive work on their own. However, there is a fine line between challenging students and making something so difficult that they simply give up. Every teacher will have to determine where their students are at academically, and what books it makes sense to connect them with. Some classics might actually work well for students who have difficulty interpreting texts and making connections because they do provide clear-cut examples of techniquess like symbolism (think The Great Gatsby) or have the characters reflect out loud on important themes. In other cases, however, YA books might be a more reasonable school assignment.

So should we keep assigning books written for adults to teens? Maybe. Many teen boys actually already read adult books because YA is primarily written by women about girls, and these books do not resonate with them as much. So teens are capable of reading these more difficult texts. On the other hand, we have the statistics showing that many teens are struggling academically. Every school, every class, and every student is going to be different. Some may find that classic books are challenging, but manageable. Others may find that different texts are more appropriate for their needs.

25 thoughts on “Should High School Readers be Assigned Classics Originally Written for Adults?

  1. Yvonne T. says:

    Very interesting topic! I do think that there needs to be a shift, especially in the 9th-11th grade level. Based on research and social media, students are now looking for more relevant stories.


    • Krysta says:

      I guess the conundrum then becomes, “What is relevant?” Sometimes people seem to suggest “relevance” is a “a character exactly your own age who looks like you and has your exact life.” But, of course, readers don’t really read that way. I found The Hobbit relevant when I was in middle school and I’m not a 50-year old male Hobbit. I found Little Women relevant when I was 10, but I wasn’t a teen growing up in the 1860s. Sometimes it’s more the themes that are relevant, or the character’s personality, or something else.

      There’s also, of course, the issue that, in a class, of say 20, no one’s going to find a book relevant to all 20. So teaching is often a real balancing act where I think teachers try to find something that will appeal to MOST of their students. But you never really know if it will, in the end.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Izabel Brekilien says:

    This is an interesting topic. I have two daughters, 19 and 17. They recently read classics for school that they absolutely hated (Mme Bovary, for instance, or La princesse de Clèves – French here 😉 and that I read as a teenager and loved. To be able to discuss these with them, I re-read them… and didn’t like them. At all. It’s not that they were written in a classic language too difficult to understand, it just felt… boring. If I still loved them, I would have put our diferences of opinion on a basic generation gap, but that I changed my opinion on them ? Did I move on with their generation to a different frame of mind or did I simply read a lot in between (and I mean a lot, classics and others) and have found much better books ? I’m still puzzled over this. But I think that there should be a mix of books studied in class.


    • Krysta says:

      I sadly admit I have not read Mme Bovary OR La princesse de Cleves. It’s really interesting, though, that your tastes have changed over time! And totally awesome that you reread the books so you could connect with your daughters! I guess at least you could commiserate together over how you didn’t enjoy them! XD

      I totally agree, too, that a mix of books sounds right! Not every book will connect to every reader. Why not choose a bunch of different books and see what resonates with students? And give them a sampling of the wide variety out there at the same time.


  3. Siena says:

    This is a very interesting discussion, and I completely agree with your thoughts. I’ve heard quite a bit over the past few years about having more YA books, and it doesn’t make much sense in
    my opinion. I’ve always thought that the point of reading classics was to challenge students to read and analyze more complex works, and I agree with why you think that YA novels wouldn’t work as a replacement.


  4. booksandmate says:

    this is such an interesting topic, and I completely agree (even though the us education system is a very different landscape from mine). there should be a strive to look for fresh, new books that are not stuck with the ideals, vocab and forms of the past, or maybe a mix, so as to keep evolving


    • Krysta says:

      I think a mix could be fun! For some, school will be the main period in their lives where they are exposed to books and do a lot of reading. Why not show them all the different types of books out there? Maybe The Great Gatsby won’t resonate with them, but The Hunger Games will. Or vice versa!


  5. Ella says:

    I think that classics have a love to teach us, regardless of the day and age. They tend to stay relevant, especially when they explore themes of human nature and social issues. There are many ways to read a text so maybe instead of changing the books we should change the way they are taught so that the student feels more engage. That said, there is nothing wrong in also including newer texts, this can also add to the depth of the discussion as they can seek the similarities and differences between the themes that are explored and the way they are explored.


    • Krysta says:

      Yes, I agree! I think many classics remain relevant and that some will undoubtedly speak to students today. And how they are taught plays a big part in how they are received.

      I also like the idea of pairing classics with newer texts or doing a mix, so students get exposed to a variety of literature.


  6. Norwich Linguist says:

    I’ve been thinking about this and still don’t know the answer! I think that there is a problem with declaring texts as ‘classic’ and worry that it leaves some readers behind. On the other hand, there are some classics that we are certainly richer for having read.


  7. Anna says:

    I read more classic on my own then what I read in school. In school I was assign plays, essay, and some modern fiction. In 10th I had to read a graphic novel.

    Some kids might benefit from reading below grade level for a while. However, they’re not going to get better if they’re not challenge enough. Plus, another thing is there are kids that want to improve their reading. The only is there are teachers that are holding them back. The quickest way to turn a kid in to a non-reader is to tell them that a book is too hard for them. It way I didn’t become a reader until my teen years.


    • Krysta says:

      I read a lot of classics on my own, as well! They were many of my favorite books growing up.

      And I agree. The trick is to find that balance. You want to challenge students, but not so much they give up. But you don’t want to not challenge them at all.


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