Rigorous young adult literature or “dumbed down” classics?

Working on my book, now titled, Whole Novels for the Whole Class: A Student Centered Approach, I found myself explaining why most of the literature I assign my 8th graders to read are works written for young adults–the YA genre.

The Whole Novels method is predicated on the notion that students have an authentic experience reading and responding to an entire book. That experience becomes the basis for critical analysis of the literature as well as their own creative writing. I select quality literary works that

  • deal with developmentally meaningful themes
  • speak to my students’ interests and questions about the world
  • are accessible for students to read without huge amounts of teacher help

If not through young adult literature, the other option seems to be for teachers to select books that are above their students’ reading capabilities or outside of the realm of relevance for their age group. This is where many (but not all) of the “classics” fall. The result? The majority of students are unable to have an authentic reading experience with these works.

What happens next?  Teachers are stuck in the position of compensating by dumbing down the work, so that students don’t really have to read or think about the story to complete the work. (This matches my own experience “reading” literature in much of middle school and some of high school.)

I do think my students can benefit from reading excerpts of classics that are above their reading levels for the exposure and for guidance on how to meet the challenge. (I do this when I have students read bits of literary criticism relevant to the books they are reading.)  And I’ve seen great response from students to reading the No Fear Shakespeare books, which pair Shakespeare’s original language alongside a modern translation so students can go between the two.  So I’m not arguing that teachers should never give students texts above their reading level or use an easier rewritten version of a classic.

But when it comes to students reading novels, would you rather…

a. students do high level, student-driven, intellectual work in response to well-written, age-appropriate texts?


b. students do low level, teacher-directed work in response to classic texts written for adults?

If you find yourself wanting to answer, Neither: students need to read and analyze adult level texts on their own, then I would ask you two things:

1. Have you read any of the acclaimed works of YA literature?  If not, doing so will probably change your mind about the literary merit and rigor of these novels.

2. If the end goal is for students to read and analyze adult-level books at high levels independently, but at this point they are not able to… then which approach is more likely to help them get there, building both reading skills and motivation:  a or b?


[image credit: teachersnetwork.org]

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  • Katie Whitley


    I completely agree with this point when it comes to middle school text selection.  When middle school students are pushed through classics that are above their reading level, like Shakespeare’s works, To Kill a Mockingbird, or Lord of the Flies, it often ends up fostering a dislike of reading.  However, as students move closer to adulthood throughout high school, we should not underestimate their ability to evaluate more complex texts and ideas. YA is wonderful and can often act as a bridge to adult texts. I hope we don’t have to always choose one or the other. What about both?