Reading Beyond Grade Level

I was an avid reader growing up. I consistently tested several grade-levels above my age bracket, and left teachers puzzled as to what to hand me next. In fact, my first exposure to Dickens came from a ninth grade teacher who was running out of books to challenge me with and resorted to raiding the “bookroom” in my high school where the class sets were kept. As a strong reader, my mom had to be particularly diligent in checking the content of whatever books I brought home, checking to make sure that the subject wasn’t beyond my understanding. Not to say that reading about teen experiences as a kid would cause me specific harm, but my mom firmly believed that there was plenty of time for me to read about those experiences when they were closer at hand, and I could fully understand what I was reading about. In other words, just because your seven-year-old can read Forever, do you really want her to? As someone who was a pretty sheltered and innocent kid, I can tell you that I definitely wouldn’t have gotten the book’s true message, eventhough I certainly would have been able to tell you what it was about.

In fact, the ability to discern meaning from text is a skill that teachers are placing a growing emphasis on, and they are realizing that many kids, while able to read the words on the page, and recite the plot doesn’t actually reflect whether or not they truly comprehended what they are reading. (This is personally why I object to any kind of test that involves quizzing kids on minute details that even I don’t remember after I’ve read the book.)

So how do you solve the problem of finding material for the advanced reader? One way is by reading up.

It is a generally understood that kids like to read about characters who are older then themselves. When I started bookselling, a seasoned indsutry vetran explained the three year rule, which works well for advanced readers. A three year gap is a small-enough gap that the situations (more so in realistic fiction) don’t too far exceed the experience of the reader, and the content isn’t too mature. When I make shelving decisions for my teen novels, I usually go by the three year rule to make the divide. Characters 16+ go in the true teen, while characters 15- go in the tween area. There are obvious exceptions to this and it isn’t a hard and fast rule, but it’s a guidline.

Another suggestion is to look for what I call, “Books that Make You Go Hmm….” Size can be deceiving. Skinny doesn’t mean fluffy or easy necessarily. It’s taken me longer to read some 100 page books than some 500 page books when the content was more challenging. A couple of years ago I read a fabulous dystopian novel called Genesis by New Zealand author Bernard Beckett. It’s a philisophical discussion about thought, consciousness, and intelligence that will keep you guessing and give you lots to think about. It’s an adult book that works for sophisticated teen readers, and it’s only 144 pages long!

Lastly, when in doubt, go for a classic! Some of you may think that classics are old and boring books that teachers assign in school, but they endure for a reason! Not all of them do resonate with modern readers, but the language and the writing style can challenge a reader, and won’t be as content heavy as some of their modern contemporaries. Love fantasy? Try Edward Eager or E. Nesbit- both of whom are credited by J.K. Rowling as influences. Several of Charles Dickens’ books featured children as main characters, and while I found some of the description a bit tedious at 14 when I was reading them, (he did afterall get paid by the word) I was engaged by his characters, and found the challenge I needed.

How many of you are or know an advanced reader? What kinds of solutions have you come up with to challenge yourself in your reading?

11 Responses to Reading Beyond Grade Level

  1. Kim (YA Asylum) Mar 6 2013 at 4:06 am #

    My little was an advanced reader, like you. He was one of those kids that the teachers didn’t know what to do with. It’s dangerous not to challenge advanced readers (or students in general) because, no matter how smart they are, if school isn’t something that can stir at least a few brain cells and make them ponder then it becomes boring and they’ll put their effort forth on other things (for my little brother, video games).

    My mom and I came up with the plan to give him non-fiction books. It worked well for him, he was always into that type of thing (more science and math than fantasy and magic). With non-fiction you don’t really have to worry about the content or the age gap (well, for the most part). Now he’s double majoring in Neuroscience Science & The History & Philosophy of Science with a couple minors. I do often wonder what would have happened if I could have gotten him into the classics or something more along fiction line.

    Great post!

    • Rachel Seigel Mar 6 2013 at 6:41 pm #

      Non-fiction is a great idea! My brother, who is extremely smart, but never got much into fiction as a kid also ended up really liking non-fiction, and it kept him challenged and interested!

  2. Michelle Roberts Mar 6 2013 at 10:31 am #

    I was always an advanced reader. I devoured books in school. Finding something new to read was always a challenge. I also remember getting tired of “kid” books very quickly. They weren’t hard enough or long enough. Between the ages of 11-13 I read the adult Left Behind books (usually finishing a book in 3-4 days). I moved on to fantasy pretty quickly after that. My mom encouraged me to read Narnia, and when I finished that series in less than two weeks she gave me The Hobbit. 🙂

    Since then I’ve read almost exclusively in the fantasy genre, and I still believe the bigger the book, the better. My love of books has been good for one thing, though. After finishing reading Lord of the Rings, I started writing stories.

    • Rachel Seigel Mar 6 2013 at 6:42 pm #

      I used to feel the same way- the bigger the book, the better. I’d go through periods of not wanting to read certain books because they weren’t thick enough! I turned to adult fiction quickly as well, and right around the same age. I”ve always written stories, but maybe one day that will expand into a novel!

  3. Alexa Y. Mar 6 2013 at 11:31 am #

    My teachers never knew what to do with me either, if I’m being honest. I went to school in a small town in the Philippines, and we just did not have access to as many books back in my high school days. I would often resort to bringing my own books from home (supplied by my mother and grandfather when they would go on trips out of town), and just read those instead. I was never really restricted from reading anything, except perhaps romances (for obvious reasons).

    My mom was the kind of person who would research or check what was a bestseller or a classic book for me, and that’s how I ended up reading a lot of books, including Harry Potter. While I still have work to do on catching up with the classics, I do think that my mom was a fabulous influence on my reading when I was way above my skill level.

    • Rachel Seigel Mar 6 2013 at 6:43 pm #

      You’re really lucky to have a mom who put so much effort into keeping you reading! My Mom’s big restrictions were with topics that were more teen appropriate when I was too young, or really violent/scary books!

  4. Carrie-Anne Mar 6 2013 at 1:00 pm #

    I had hyperlexia at age three, and my first book was the adult, uncensored version of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. I always read like two-three grade levels above me, and had pretty much graduated full-time to adult novels by the time I was fourteen and discovered Hermann Hesse. It’s not that I never read books intended for my approximate age or grade level, just that they were only a small part of what I read growing up. Even today, I never choose or snub a book just because the characters aren’t in my same age range. If the writing is good, and I like the storyline, I’ve never cared if the characters are children, preteens, teens, college-aged, adults, or senior citizens. OF course, when I was a young person, there wasn’t such pigeonholing of books based on age ranges.

    • Rachel Seigel Mar 6 2013 at 6:47 pm #

      I don’t remember thinking about the age of the characters so much when I was a kid either- I liked a lot of things that featured kids younger than me and older, and didn’t really care. Now I like teen novels more than I liked them as a teen- it’s somehow easier to read about it looking back sometimes than living it! 😉

  5. Stormy Mar 6 2013 at 6:00 pm #

    I don’t think my parents OR my teachers knew what to do with me. I just inhaled books so quickly! I think part of the challenge with me is that it wasn’t so much having trouble finding books that hit the right spot for challenging/still understandable, but when I was young I had very few genres I liked. I remember reading the Lord of the Rings in 6th grade, which I think was good for everyone because it was a genre I liked, books that took me a little longer to get through, and a bit challenging with all the description but not a struggle.

    • Rachel Seigel Mar 6 2013 at 6:45 pm #

      Someone else mentioned fantasy as well- and they are definitely great for challenging readers who like thick books! I was given LOTR when I was in 8th grade by a teacher who felt I needed to read them. I didn’t find them too hard, but found that fantasy wasn’t my genre at the time!

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