Top 10 Most Taught Books in High School

According to the Center for Learning and Teaching of Literature, these are the most often taught books in high school:

  1. Romeo and Juliet by Shakespeare
  2. Macbeth by Shakespeare
  3. Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
  4. Julius Caesar by Shakespeare
  5. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  6. The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
  7. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
  8. Hamlet by Shakespeare
  9. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  10. Lord of the Flies by William Golding

You know I love reading, but this list makes me sort of understand why kids don’t like to read. It would be nice to see a title which is more recent and something teenagers would enjoy reading better.

Do you agree (or not)?

ps. Then again, if we get to read more recent titles for English class, I wouldn’t have read books like Macbeth and Hamlet, and also Jane Eyre (which I did for class). So… maybe there’s some good in forcing classics on students. 😛


33 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Cat
    Nov 28, 2008 @ 00:47:38

    When I went to school I was readng A LOT, maybe five or more big books a week [I’m also a fast reader] and I ALWAYS had to force myself to read the books for school.

    Of the above list we didn’t read any of them though, I personally have read 3, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 and apart from The Lord of the flies think they’re overrated. I mean they’re good, but I don’t see why they’re classics.

    In year 10 our English teacher [remember, I’m German] had to make a decision as about half our class were still extremely bad in English even though they’d learnt it for five years. She gave us a very long list of books and basically said she wants us to pick three of them and read them over the course of the year and of course tell her our choices so she could provide us with the assignements specifically catered for the books.

    In retrospect I realise that she was taking a huge risk as it was off curriculum, but I thought it was a brilliant idea. I remmeber I read ‘A handmaiden’s tale’ and ‘1984’ and ‘Jane Eyre’. Of course, some were exploiting it and picked some really simple books, I think one picked a book by the Famous Five!

    Regardless, one of the things that mostly annoys me about classroom reading is that I’ve never had interest in the books I was forced to read. For example in German we read ‘Buddenbrooks’ by Thomas Mann which is one of the if not the most boring book I’ve ever read.

    Or we read this book which is sort of about another dystopian/tribe world and very much 1984.

    I never understood why we couldnt just read what we wanted [within limits].

    Anyways, this comment was all over the place, sorry!

    nylusmilk: haha, no worries, i don’t get lengthy comments often and i like them! 🙂 no, don’t tell me you thought to kill a mockingbird is overrated?? i love that book! hey, i love your teacher for that! true, some of your classmates copped out, but at least by giving students a choice they can’t exactly say they were forced into reading something. 😀 yeah, that’s the most common complaint about reading in class!

    i agree, it would be nice to be able to choose what we want as students. problem is, the teacher would have a hard time marking the assignments that way, i think. and also, if the students get to pick one book as a consensus, it’ll probably never be picked that way too! 😆


  2. coolerdirt
    Dec 29, 2008 @ 11:14:27

    It’s interesting that so many examples of a single author’s work (Shakespeare’s) on the list. I’d be curious to know if students are exposed to all of these or if they are only exposed to one or two. An average student may only read one or two of Shakespeare’s works in high school (not the four that are on the list), but because different schools might use different works, that would explain why there are 4 on the list. (I hope that made sense. If not, I think I may need remedial English classes. I wonder what works are most commonly taught in those?)

    nylusmilk: i guess they’re only exposed to one or two. yeah, you made very good sense. 😉 maybe repeat shows of mind your language? 😆


    • Christian
      Apr 28, 2011 @ 20:44:22

      I am in 1oth grde and I have read three of Shakesphere’s works. I don’t know if they read different works in other states, but in Georgia we are rquired to read all four. So far I have done Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar (my favorite), and Macbeth. Our teacher also gave us four book porjects, and I am currently doing the Scarlet Letter with annotations. I think that it was a great idea to let her students choose what books to use, but I do love classics.


  3. spinninglists
    Jan 12, 2009 @ 12:13:00

    I just graduated high school and I read all but one – Macbeth. I didn’t mind the Shakespeare (being a theatre junkie) but I am aware (as should public school teachers) that that man is the quickest way to have a teenager stop reading. He’s like the plague. I would say, my english education was – pretty good. I had two solid years of “the classics”, one year of poetry (a.k.a Robert Frost 101), and my senior year was a great course of existential literature (taught by a very “new age” teacher). So I do think that – the list is a little dry (I read much better stuff than that) , but I wouldn’t have read half of them unless it was assigned to me – and I can say the same for a majority of the students. And I don’t know, but I think if someone mentions in passing, Atticus – you should know! That man is a saint!
    *great blog by the way*

    nylusmilk: thanks! 🙂 i suppose since people in general don’t read much, when teachers have the opportunity to choose what they have to read they pick the ones they feel are the best, just in case they don’t read ever again! 😆 i mean, there’s no guarantee picking a lowbrow book will ignite their reading passion, you know? i read a lot, and even i wouldn’t read the classics!


  4. Julie
    Jan 23, 2009 @ 05:01:30

    As a mid-career “corporate type” who has FINALLY decided to chuck it all, go back to school, and get my Masters of Ed so I can (finally, because I should have years and years ago) become a HS ENglish teacher….this blog has done one important thing for me, 🙂

    Made me realize that – even though it isn’t required – I really do need to take the “Teaching Shakespeare’ class that’s offered over the summers at my university. I never hated Shakespeare, but I didn’t love him either. And if there is anything I can learn about how to make it more interesting, I should.

    PS My mom was a HS English teacher, so even the ones that weren’t required in school (Of Mice and Men, The Scarlet Letter, and Lord of the Flies), I’ve read because they were always around the house. My favorite is Gatsby.
    I will always have a soft spot in my heart for that book, because it was while reading that when I finally had a teacher who really understood, and appreciated, symbolism.

    nylusmilk: wow, didn’t know my blog could make such an impact! 🙂 all the best in your teaching career. i think it’s great that you dare to take the plunge to live your dream out – not many people have that courage. and speaking from personal experience, having learnt macbeth and hamlet, those shakespeare books that offer modern english translation side-by-side with the original text is a great tool to help students who don’t like shakespeare to like him a little bit more. 🙂


  5. Kingstaf
    Mar 07, 2009 @ 06:37:07

    I am currently teachin as an eng teacher. Honestly, it took many years for me to appreciate a book throigh analysis n not just reading for pleasure. I read most of those books when i was in higj school and my students read all of those within the first 3 years. Shakespeare is a drag but how can people not appreciate of mice and men? Steinbeck was a genius. Lord of the flies and to kill a mockingbird are good too. Scarlet letter is MUCH better as an adult. My theory is that kids must read classics because then they can see the possibilities and excellent structure necessary to create such intricately linked novels. If they just reaf what they want they wouldnt challenge themselves to grow as readers. Also most books are horrible to read bc teachers dont know how to introduce them. It can make a huge difference.


    • Roxanne
      Feb 27, 2010 @ 14:05:50

      As a university professor of English (a position I had to attend college and graduate school for seven years to attain) I am stunned that a fellow “eng teacher” would be so indiscriminately careless in their proofreading of simple words like “through” and “high school.” You further degrade our profession by devolving into “textspeak” — “throigh [sic] anaysis n [sic] not just reading for pleasure.”

      “Shakespeare is a drag?” Really? Perhaps when a functional iliterate teaches him. And yet, every single university curriculum I know REQUIRES an entire seminar in Shakespeare for students who wish to be English majors.

      Do I even have to point out that titles of books and plays are not only supposed to be capitalized (though you even seem to have troube capitaizing “I”) but underlined or in italics. I know you can’t do that formatting here, but quotation marks would have at least been a start.

      Oh, and this is my favorite: “Also most books are horribe to read bc [sic] teachers dont [sic] know how to introduce them.” Wow. Please, Mr. Chips, explain to me, an alumna of the best teaching university on the Eastern Seaboard, how to introduce books so they’re not “horrible to read.”

      I have no idea where you went to college, but I’ll bet they’re just popping their buttons over the fact they produced you. Final analysis? Education is a JOB for you. It is not what you LOVE.


      • Hars Harper
        May 10, 2010 @ 02:44:01


        Perhaps those seven years of academia haved blinded you to a simple truth: On the internet, people often claim to be what they’re not.

        In the process of criticizing the alleged teacher’s illiteracy, you demonstrated a bit of your own naivete.

      • englishteacherman
        Jun 10, 2010 @ 09:39:23

        I agree with you, Roxanne (though, in all fairness, you yourself misspelled “trouble” as “troube”…:)). But seriously, those English teachers who claim that “Shakespeare is a drag” were never taught how to read one of his plays. It’s frightening [to me] that there are “English teachers” being unleashed upon impressionable young minds with no notion of how to teach Shakespeare. You simply cannot read a Shakespearean play the same way you can read, say, a John Grisham novel or a Sandra Cisneros…um, book [ugh]. In order to read Shakespeare, a student needs to learn (a) the antiquated diction, (b) the historical contexts (both Shakespeare’s and those of his plays), (c) how to pronounce the text aloud and with appropriate action (as it was intended–this is generally what ends up hooking my kids), and (d) patience. PLUS, the teacher him- or herself needs to have been taught this, and, of course, he or she must be PASSIONATE about the plays. (This naturally follows from having a good educational experience with the Bard.) Thus, the most excruciatingly ironic aspect of “Kingstaf”‘s post is the comment, “Also most books are horrible to read bc teachers dont know how to introduce them. It can make a huge difference;” alas! poor Kingstaf: if only you knew how to introduce Shakespeare! Perhaps then you wouldn’t find him to be such a “drag.”

        I’m sorry to say that I’ve known plenty of English teachers like Kingstaf who dread teaching plays like ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and ‘Hamlet’; and while I would probably eventually find myself too restricted with a Shakespeare-only curriculum, I think I could be pretty happy teaching such a course as an elective (alongside other classes where I can teach other authors, that is). For the reality is that all English writing after Shakespeare comes from Shakespeare; as Harold Bloom’s critical study suggests, Shakespeare “invented the human,” meaning he wrote characters who we can all relate to because we see them each day in our lives. How many ever-moaning Romeos have we known? How many indecisive, angst-ridden Hamlets have we known? How many jolly, foul-mouthed (and cowardly) Falstaffs have we known? How many scheming, self-serving, backstabbing Iagos have we known? How many proud but senile Lears have we known? And so on.

        In closing, let me stress that, as English teachers, we must teach students that these classics MATTER because they depict US–human beings; they wouldn’t have lasted so long otherwise. This line of thinking always leads me to consider which currently-successful works of fiction will stand the test of time alongside Shakespeare, Joyce, Dickens, Twain, et al, and which will end up in the trash bin. (I’m guessing John Grisham, Sandra Cisneros, et al, will be names remembered only by certain obscure cultural historians in the centuries to come…)

      • Iris
        Nov 07, 2011 @ 13:29:43

        I am stunned that a fellow “eng teacher” would be so indiscriminately careless in their proofreading of simple words like “through” and “high school.”

        I wouldn’t get so sassy with a fellow English teacher over some misspellings. In fact, you have some grammatical errors of your own–your sentence should read: “I am stunned that a fellow “eng teacher” would be so indiscriminately careless in her proofreading of simple words like “through” and “high school.” Nobody’s perfect, babe. 😉

      • Carla Baxley
        Mar 01, 2013 @ 23:38:11

        My sentiments exactly! Well said.

  6. natasha
    Sep 15, 2009 @ 22:19:19

    The ‘Scarlet Letter’, written by Nathanial Hawthorne is an all time favourite classic amongst American literature. Not only does is express such a substantial mix of themes such as; sin, experience, human condition and the nature of evil, but exemplifies perfect symbolism. Up until 1820, previous novels would be considerate to not disrupt the high standards of society. However, ‘The Scarlet Letter’s tale that explores sexuality, adultery and sin, has raised many eyebrows from different social groups to this present day. Although currently, due to tabloids, people have become numb and cynical to such scandal as presented in the plot, Hawthorne revives these senses by writing with a realistic approach and does so by incorporating historical context with elements of patriotism and politics. This gives students an illustrated definition of life at that time. Although acknowledged for exceeding such standards in its day and age, being constantly placed on a pedestal for aspiring novelists and students, promotes people to overestimate its value, and install an overrated initiative. With new generations of teachers, evolves new generations of teaching styles, and it is being considered that the ‘Scarlet Letter’ is restricting more ‘modern’ and ‘contemporary’ ranges for students to discover. However, classics like this novel are the foundation of literature and serve as stepping stones that recent texts have built upon. Hawthorne’s original masterpiece has paved the way and unlocked the true brilliance of future classic American texts. Thus, it is no wonder to have reached number one in the mainstream of high school English curriculums. Tracing back the famous writing of Nathanial Hawthorne of 189 years, allow students to retrieve the first source of the unique American genre.


  7. robinson
    Jan 14, 2010 @ 05:03:49

    Be careful here… the only study I could find by the Center for Learning and Teaching of Literature about high school English classes is 20 years old!

    It’s by Arthur Applebee and you can find it here.

    Does anyone know of a more recent study?


  8. Kaiah
    Aug 02, 2011 @ 04:17:23

    I am going to be a junior in high school, and we have to read “The Scarlet Letter” (notice the quotation marks) and “Huck Finn” (because I like calling him Huck better than Huckleberry) as summer reading. The Scarlet Letter was the most boring book I’ve ever read. But, I have to say, I love Huck. We read Tom Sawyer last year, and I loved it too, so Huck is not that bad.
    Someone tell me why we can’t read more modern books? Something we like and would understand? Because I would bet that if we can relate to it, we’d do better with it. No one can relate to Hester anymore. No one. We can’t relate to Huck, or Scout, or Pip, or anyone in these books! The best book I’ve read in any English class would have to be “A Separate Peace” because it was realtable. It was about teenagers and dealing with not knowing your identity, and friendship troubles and it was just a good book.
    Maybe I feel this way because my brain is 100% math, and I don’t have an English brain at all, but I’ve talked to my friends and they dislike it just as much as I do.


    • Michael Kneeland
      Aug 02, 2011 @ 06:08:12

      To answer your question as to why you don’t read “modern” books in school: well, you should, but it’s important to read the foundational literature, too, because that is where your modern literature comes from. Great contemporary writers like Cormac McCarthy, Ian McEwan, Zadie Smith, Jonathan Safran Foer, etc., did not come out of the woodwork, to use the cliche. Each of them writes in response to one of the great foundational writers, chief among them Shakespeare. Whether or not they recognize this response is moot; their writer bears unmistakable traces of earlier writers. (For example, Ian McEwan’s novels, like the famous ‘Atonement’, owe much to Jane Austen.)

      Also, and more importantly, these great writers illustrate for us how real humans think and feel. I am quite troubled by the fact that you say you can’t relate to Hester, Huck (!), Scout, or Pip, because each of these personages all undergo experiences that YOU are going through right now; for instance:

      *Hester: alienation (ever been deliberately left out? Ostracized?)

      *Huck: figuring out what’s right and what’s wrong, regardless of what society says (do young people even realize that the nonstop stream of pop culture is always telling them how to live their lives, and the consequences of not doing so?)

      *Scout: learning compassion for others — even the most despicable members of society

      *Pip: learning not to “plant an expectation,” lest you “reap a disappointment” (and that’s just the tip of the iceberg for what Dickens tells us in ‘Great Expectations’)

      These characters are infinitely engaging to young people (and adults, too) of any time or place simply because their experiences are universal. Frankly, they are much more engaging than most characters in modern literature, leastways in anything that appears in the dregs of what passes as “YA” these days.

      A good English teacher will tell you that we don’t read to like reading, or read to engage with characters even, or — I may be shot by the English Teacher Commissary Guild for this — read to get better at reading. We read to learn how to THINK. The literature assigned to you in high school does just this if you let it to. It doesn’t matter if you are a math person or an English person; you are a human, and that is precisely the target audience for these books.


  9. Kimberly
    Aug 05, 2011 @ 07:53:52

    Hi, I’m currently a Junior in High School and I have read most of those books on the list. My least favorite was Lord of the Flies. I actually fell asleep in class… Even though I thought they were boring, I now understand how great the are. If only my teachers had taught me to appriciate them at the time rather than later on.


  10. Nicole Parker
    Aug 06, 2011 @ 13:32:53

    I’m in tenth grade and I’ve read about half that list in class already. We will read most of the list by the time I graduate. The thing is most of my class enjoyed Of Mice and Men. In fact, the only people who didn’t like it were the people who read often. I really hated the book. The other things I was actually pretty into. The books that I haven’t read on that list I actually planned on reading anyways.


  11. Drama Teacher
    Aug 28, 2011 @ 08:04:20

    It breaks my to hear even English teachers saying what a drag Shakespeare is. I went to school to be a drama teacher and studied abroad a whole summer just to focus on Shakespeare! It is so wonderful! Now, of course, I can’t find a job teaching theatre full time, so I am back to school to become an English teacher. I am so looking forward to teaching these plays. There is a reason it the bard still taught today! If you understand what the words really mean the words can truly come to life as timeless stories. Another thing to remember is that Shakespeare was writing for actors to perform his works. He never intended for people to sit around and read his plays as many do today. I would encourage any English teacher to take a course in teaching Shakespeare. I didn’t fall in love with Shakespeare until college when I had someone who actually understood it teaching me. Go see a good production of some of these plays (or even Netflix it!) and you will change your mind!


  12. linzbear423
    Apr 29, 2012 @ 12:30:38

    One lacks worldly sense when questioning the taste or classics quality of these works. Just to keep things simple, they’ve obviously been around for centuries for SOME reason; they must be of some worth. It’s true to say not everyone likes all the intricacies of symbolism or character complexities just because it may not be interesting or appealing to him/her personally, but once you really immerse yourself into the grasp of literature a thousand colors can be discovered that you didn’t even know existed! I am a teen but I’m into oldies already (with music and movies to start) so it’s not really a problem for me to get into the “boring” stuff. It’s a matter of narrow-mindedness and a lack of context for other people. The world could probably learn so many things from Shakespeare, Lee, Steinbeck…etc. Stories are metaphors for life. I’m not saying I worship these guys down on my knees 24/7 with such passionate obsession, but it’s somewhat easy to realize why they are great beings and better yet why their work is significant. Are people really so heartless and stony? Must the only fascination now come from sci-fi paranormal vampire stories??

    These are all opinions, but part of the reason reading seems so scarce among the younger generation may be due to society, social media, etc. Values have changed and many grow up “without knowing” (vague, hope that makes sense!). If someone hasn’t heard of something, walls are immediately put up instead of questioning or wondering. I dunno. Especially with literature, I just find it really cool how all these human beings (HUMAN!! :)) left their mark on the world with such art, and how most of them hardly knew or were aware of their potential immortal fame!

    ANNND the point is, what “good” recent stuff is there? Well I mean, in inevitable comparison to the list….


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  14. Andrew
    Jul 31, 2013 @ 02:02:41

    As a student I would just like to say it would be nice to get more of your educated opinions on what novels should be in a syllabus , rather than focus on each others grammar.


  15. Andrew
    Jul 31, 2013 @ 02:03:59

    Just saying out of interest, not trying to be smart.


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  18. Kenneth R. Morefield
    Oct 22, 2014 @ 22:46:51

    Looks to me like the date on that study is 1989.


  19. Haie Zelle
    Nov 10, 2014 @ 20:32:39

    Is this the literary works? Cause i don`t know whats literary works?


  20. ♥ Belle ♥
    Nov 10, 2014 @ 20:34:50

    Yah! I agree with her i have no idea whats letirary work? T^T


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  23. Trackback: Goodbye to Gatsby; Let’s get our students truly reading again – Off the Cuff

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