Sixth form reading list – our book recommendations for pupils aged 16-18 in KS5
Ever wondered why the American students on University Challenge seem to have a wider general knowledge than the Brits?
Neilson highlighted a dip in reading amongst mid-teens in the UK, with mid and older teens more likely to be ‘anti’ books.
In 2016, the Guardian reported the UK was only 17th in a world literacy league table, and behind other English-speaking nations including the United States, Australia and Canada.
The average reading age in the United States – across the population post-education – is grade 7 – ie: 12-13 years old, whereas the average reading age across the population post-education in the UK is, according to the gov.uk website, year 5 – ie: 9-10 years old.
So where does this two-year gap come from? It’s less likely to develop in primary school, since schools in other English-speaking nations often begin formal education later, particularly in the US and Canada. There’s a strong argument that this gap develops between the ages of 16-18.
It could be argued that UK students, by the age of 18, typically have a two-year reading gap compared to their US counterparts, simply due to the differences in curricula offered by schools.
In England, 8.4% of pupils study English at AS or A level, whereas in the United States, 100% of students in grades 11 & 12 (aged 16-18) will study ELA English language arts, which include reading lists, analysing texts and writing classes. In 2019 the high school graduation rate in the US (students who completed grade 12 (year 13) at age 18 was 88%. In England, only 85% of pupils even remain in education after GCSEs, of that group 50% of pupils remain in academic post-16 education, and of that cohort, only 8.4% studied English at any post-16 (A, AS, A2) level.
Put simply, in the USA 88% of all 16-18-year-olds pass English at the age of 18, and in England, only 8.4% study English up to the age of 18.
That’s over 90% of 16-18-year-olds here who are likely not receiving any formal guidance with reading choices, not receiving opportunities to tackle or discuss challenging fiction and nonfiction, and not being encouraged to read for pleasure. It’s not surprising that many older teenagers stop reading widely.
Perhaps you are a parent or grandparent despairing that your teens don’t want to or don’t seem able to read the books you did at their age. Or perhaps you are an educator wondering why your sixth-form students’ results don’t tally with early secondary predictors. Either way, it’s worth checking how often, and what, your older teenager, class or school cohort is reading.
There are wider implications for this reading gap. Older teens who are not exposed to a wider range of literature will become less adventurous and more inhibited with their creative and essay writing. Their potential writing ability may be curtailed, and shaped into a formulaic A-level essay response style. Continuing to read widely will improve a student’s ability to read quickly, remember quotes and develop their general knowledge. Critical thinking, cultural awareness, the use of analogy, the ability to construct an argument, follow logic, spot flaws, and draw conclusions are all helped more by reading for pleasure than reading for regurgitation.
So, to have an advantage in the UK job market, confidence with university interviews and courses, and simply achieve parity with our neighbours across the pond and around the world, teens in the UK must be encouraged to read widely between the ages of 16 and 18 and develop a reading for pleasure culture that lasts into their adulthood and propagates to their children and grandchildren.
Sixth form books – the following book list contains titles to appeal to teens and young adults in Year 12 and Year 13 aged 16-18 in sixth forms in secondary school, FE colleges or post-16 training. We’ve tried to pick a selection that is wide-ranging, enjoyable, challenging and diverse. The lists contain page-turning fiction to encourage reading for pleasure, novels and nonfiction to interest students following specific career paths, self-help guides to prepare for university and life, and provocative and debate-worthy material to discuss at interviews, in book clubs or socially in conversation.
Books for Year 12 – our sixth form reading list recommendations
Eve out of her Ruins by Ananda Devi
This complex love story will draw older teen readers into an atmospheric and stark world that tourists don’t get to see when holidaying in Mauritius. Told through monologues and descriptive narrations, the lives of four teens are explored through pain, love, sexuality and control in a searing and memorable account of modern alienation. This would be a good novel to contrast with Catcher in the Rye in sixth-form book clubs.
Witch Light by Susan Fletcher
When Charles Leslie hears of a young woman who has been locked up, accused of being a witch and due to be burned at the stake, he decides to delve deeper into her story. Uncovering details of a wicked and brutal crime, both of them are faced with an unenviable dilemma in this gripping tale of broken loyalties, superstition and resilience against all the odds. A powerful and atmospheric page-turner.
Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Caught in the middle of the Nigerian Civil War three disparate characters find their lives inextricably intertwined in this visceral study of race, class, privilege and love. Told through a unique and startling narration, this novel creates a searingly powerful image of African politics and the catastrophic and enduring effects of war. A memorable novel, and one that is ideal for book club discussions.
Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones by James Clear
The ultimate guide to building lasting good habits that can apply to study, learning, life and work. The accessible writing style makes this a useful book for sixth-formers, with narrative life lessons and manageable efficiency hacks that will work well for young people who want to plan how to achieve their goals.
The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson
While everyone else is gearing up for Allan Karlsson’s milestone 100th birthday, he isn’t remotely interested and decides to sneak out. So begins the story of his compelling and surprising journey through life at the centre of key historical events. This is a novel of spectacular ambition and scope, and one which will provide endless talking points.
Fake Law: The Truth About Justice in an Age of Lies by The Secret Barrister
The revealing non-fiction series of anecdotes and essays uncover how justice really works in 21st-century Britain. Cutting through fake news, media tropes and even common sense, The Secret Barrister reveals how ignorance of the law is not only not a defence but also presents an insidious danger that threatens us all. A useful and challenging book for older teenagers to read, and one which will debunk many commonly held urban myths.
City of Glass by Paul Auster
Adapted from Paul Auster’s novel by artists Paul Karasik and David Mazzucchelli, this revered graphic novel is a must-read. In a postmodernist metafiction mystery, the reader is toyed with by a private investigator who instigates a case that may involve a writer who turns out to be the author of his own story. Ideal for book groups, since it is highly likely everyone will have their own interpretation of the story.
Ultra: The Underworld of Italian Football by Tobias Jones
A gripping account of what happens when football fandom goes too far and becomes an obsessive, criminal and organised counter-culture. This non-fiction investigation is a fascinating insight into both Italian culture and how a common cause can radicalise people in unexpected ways. An award-winning book, Ultra is highly recommended for teens interested in social anthropology, sport, criminology and philosophy.
The Midnight Library by Matt Haig
When Nora finds herself in a supernatural library where she can choose to change her life for a different one, she is presented with the chance to right wrongs, correct mistakes and live out her dreams. But, the book asks the reader, what defines a good life? A warm-hearted and compelling bestseller that’s a guaranteed good read.
The Seven Sisters by Lucinda Riley
When Pa Salt – a rich but mysterious patriarch dies, six of his adopted daughters convene at the family castle on Lake Geneva. There, each of them is given a clue to their backgrounds, setting in motion an epic tale of ambition, love and sacrifice that spans generations and crosses continents. A cracking story – the first of seven – that may well be responsible for getting older teens hooked on reading again.
Grapefruit: A Book of Instructions and Drawings by Yoko Ono
This collection of poetic lines, instructions and drawings conceptualise the profound, absurd, intellectually seditious and fun. Over fifty years have passed since this book was first published, yet the ideas retain a sharp and lingering focus. Still fresh and prescient, each piece of art will provide a springboard for debate, conversation and creative writing.
The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks
This fascinating work of narrative nonfiction explores the lives of patients with brain disorders and is based on case history studies by neurologist Oliver Sacks. Memory, perception, and the idea of self are challenged in ways that will provide many discussion opportunities in book clubs. A must-read for students interested in careers in nursing, social care or medicine.
Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta
A startlingly fresh and original novel about the power of love in a desperate and dangerous world. Set in the Biafran war, Ijeoma finds herself on her own in Nigeria, without family or friends, until she meets another lost soul, Amina, and the pair seek refuge in each other’s company, becoming first friends and falling in love – a difficult situation in West Africa, where LGBT couples are not tolerated. With daring and impassioned prose, Under the Udala Trees is ideal for book club discussion.
Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie
Set on the day of the Nagasaki atomic bomb detonation in August 1945, this story follows Hiroko as her life changes in an instant, how she moves to Delhi and how her life moves again, to New York, with an astonishing turn of events. This moving novel combines a sweeping narrative with absorbing characters set to a backdrop of history, politics and social comment.
Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Tell You Everything You Need to Know About Global Politics by Tim Marshall
A great book to help broaden sixth-formers’ geopolitical horizons and perceptions of the world we live in. Chronicling past and current thinking on foreign affairs through 10 infographic maps, this is an ideal book to appeal to students interested in international relations and world history.
Running Upon The Wires by Kae Tempest
This verse collection by poet, songwriter and singer Kae Tempest dissects the theme of love, from blossoming romance, familiarity, division, and break-up to new flames. The direct imagery and unflinching style will linger in the memory. Ideal for reading, performing and using as impetus, Running Upon The Wires will appeal to teens interested in drama and creative writing.
Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell
In this unputdownable and award-winning historical novel, Maggie O’Farrell tells the story of Hamnet, the son of a revered playwright. Using pieces of real history, Shakespeare’s culture, and a richly imaginative storytelling style, a fascinating plot of loss and love in plague-ridden England is spun.
Shtum by Jem Lester
An unforgettable novel that marries a child’s autism, family life struggles and the many faces of human relationships into a darkly funny and emotionally moving story. Both compelling and powerful, there’s a lot of subject matter for sixth-form book club discussion and this is a good pick for students interested in careers in education or law.
Mother Tongue: The Story of the English Language by Bill Bryson
An entertaining read, Mother Tongue sweeps through the history of the English Language, from its starting point as a hybrid of ancient dialects, through to the impact of invader languages, and the nuances of modern grammar, spelling and pronunciation conventions. A great read for students interested in languages, linguistics and English.
The Ballad of Jacob Peck by Debra Komar
When Mercy Hall is murdered in the cold wilds of New Brunswick in Canada, Amos Bradley is quickly accused and hanged for the crime. Over 200 years later, Debra Komar re-investigates the case and reveals that without the influence of preacher Jacob Peck, the murder might never have happened. This cold and clinical treatment challenges the reader’s ideas of truth, facts and evidence. A visceral read for fans of true crime podcasts.
Many Different Kinds of Love: A story of life, death and the NHS by Michael Rosen
Poems, diary entries, doctor’s notes and nurses’ observations make up this moving account of Michael Rosen’s six weeks in a Covid-induced coma. An antidote to anti-vaxxers and Covid denial, Many Different Kinds of Love is a warm expression of hope, strength and positivity and it’s a compelling read for all sixth-formers.
Uncle Petros and Goldbach’s Conjecture by Apostolos Doxiadis
Uncle Petros is the family misfit, a reclusive figure who isn’t understood and has become a figure of fun. But his intrepid nephew digs deeper and finds out that he’s a former mathematician who is tantalizingly within reach of solving a famous unsolved problem – the Goldback Conjecture. Infectious reading for Mathematicians, this novel will also appeal to those who enjoy complex plots and mysteries.
A Boy’s Own Story by Edmund White
Based on the author’s own life, this groundbreaking coming-of-age story follows the narrator’s difficult upbringing, how he deals with bullies and how he copes with being gay in a conservative and homophobic 1950s world. The writer’s deft turns of phrase and use of irony make this surprising story both sharply focused and uplifting as it creeps towards an unexpected ending.
Born to Run: The Hidden Tribe, the Ultra-Runners, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen by Christopher McDougall
This part collection of motivational stories and part guide to how to run and push yourself is more gripping than a running shoe sole. When a group of committed endurance athletes seeks out the obscure Tarahumara, a people with mythical distance running abilities, two cultures collide in this exposition of sports mechanics, knowledge, and strong-willed characters. An unforgettable read for sports enthusiasts.
The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins
This unique book presents the history of life not through the lens of civilisation, but from the point of view of genetics. It is both provocative and intellectually challenging and bound to provoke debate. It’s essential reading for students interested in studying anthropology, game theory or life sciences at university.
It Ends With Us by Colleen Hoover
When Lily leaves her small-town upbringing and moves to the city, she meets Ryle, a dashing surgeon who promises the best of lives. But then a former boyfriend reappears and things become far more turbulent and complex. A hit with fans on TikTok, It Ends With Us is a romantic rollercoaster easy read that might reignite a love of leisure reading in older teens.
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
This tremendously ambitious novel follows six people whose lives span different periods and places, yet are all strangely connected by intrigue and a tattoo. Themes of power, ambition and where we fit in the universe underpin a plot of epic proportions. A good source of ideas for students interested in creative writing.
Underland: A Deep Time Journey by Robert Macfarlane
In this unique work, Robert Mcfarlane takes the reader on a series of descriptive journeys underground, to places both exotic, remote and largely untouched. Caves, caverns, and a nuclear shelter are explored through immersive prose in a series of stories that force the reader to explore the relationship between man and earth. A great choice for students interested in natural history, geology and geography.
Books for Year 13 – our sixth form reading list recommendations
A Fort of Nine Towers by Qais Akbar Omar
A stunning tale of one family’s escape from the Taliban in 2000s Afghanistan and survival in a nomadic and cave-dwelling life. This novel explores themes of family, faith and the repetition and inevitability of history and politics. It’s a compelling read and one that’s ideal to discuss in book clubs.
No Logo by Naomi Klein
In a Western world dominated by huge corporations, brands, influence and money, Canadian journalist Naomi Klein shows us ways to see through the hype, find the truth and fight the negative effects of consumerism. With real-life examples and a highly readable style, this book is recommended to students interested in advertising, marketing and business.
What Does It All Mean?: A Very Short Introduction to Philosophy by Thomas Nagel
A highly accessible, short and readable introduction to key philosophers and philosophical ideas. Free will, right and wrong, and the mind, body and soul are discussed with examples, contradictions and opposing points of view. The reader is invited to form their own opinion. It’s ideal for students considering philosophy or political theory at university, or just to provoke blindingly erudite and eyebrow-raising discussion at the dinner table.
The Reason I Jump by Naoki Higashida
This eye-opening first-person autobiography reveals what it feels like to be autistic, and how a neuro-divergent person sees and experiences the world. Written when the author was 13, it offers teens a unique glimpse not just into non-verbal lives, but also into the many different ways events can be perceived, and all the different ways life can be lived. Recommended for students interested in abstract ideas, art and psychology.
White Teeth by Zadie Smith
Crossing multiple cultures, families and generations, this expansive contemporary novel explores London’s rich multiracial tapestry from post-war, through the sixties, and towards the present day – through the lives and relationships of Archie, who marries Clara, a Jamaican lady half his age, and Samad whose marriage is arranged. A more advanced, yet rewarding, read for sixth-formers.
Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth by Wole Soyinka
When Doctor Menka discovers body parts are being stolen from his hospital, he is horrified to find they are ending up in the hands of an unscrupulous opportunist looking to profit from their sale for use in West African religious rituals. But who is behind the scandal? This captivating and brilliantly written novel blends power, corruption and danger with a deliciously dark whodunit plot.
The Art of War by Sun-tzu
Not just a must-read for students interested in military careers, this classic is a surprisingly useful primer for how to traverse work politics, difficult people and planning a successful life.
The Periodic Table by Primo Levi
Primo Levi brings a scientist’s precise thinking to this collection of 21 short stories about life and the human condition – drawn from his experiences in childhood, in Mussolini’s fascist Italy, and as a survivor of Auschwitz. Each story is named after a chemical element, comparing its properties to situations, characters and places that he experienced. Unconventional, yet revealing, this is an unforgettable read.
Philomena by Martin Sixsmith
A heartbreaking true story about a mother’s tenacious search for her son who was taken and sold by the Catholic church. Sent to a convent for fallen women as a teenage mother, Philomena Lee never gave up trying to find her son and in a twist of fate, her son never gave up trying to find her. The evil of the institutions and heartless, self-righteous bureaucrats that she faced will linger in the reader’s memory. It’s a highly worthwhile read for anyone considering a career in social care or religion, or for students thinking of working in a large and faceless organisation.
Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
A fresh and mesmerising story about religious intolerance and a young woman finding herself and flourishing despite a dark past. Set in a richly realised post-colonial Nigerian setting, the writing is vibrant and uplifting. It’s a terrific read and a great novel to discuss in sixth-form book clubs.
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
This classic true-crime narrative is both chilling in the terse prose presentation and the nature of the subject matter. The crime, the scene, the investigation and the emotional aftermath are clinically examined in forensic detail. It’s not a book recommended for everyone, but it will be a compelling read for post-A level students who are fans of true crime podcasts, journalism, criminology and human psychology.
White Rabbit, Red Wolf by Tom Pollock
Peter Blankman is a 17-year-old with prodigious maths ability, a gift that he uses as a sanctuary from a world he finds too complicated, stressful and frightening. When his mother is attacked and his sister vanishes into thin air, Peter uses his gift to find the truth. A cracking thriller for fans of maths and logic.
The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read by Philippa Perry
A self-help style guide to parent-child relationships, and, in particular, what to avoid. Exploring how our own upbringing can affect the way we treat others, it provides valuable tips on how to communicate effectively – illustrated with real-life examples. Although this book is essentially a guide to adult-child relationships and a compendium of parenting skills, it’s a text that teens about to leave childhood will find compelling to read. Also, psychotherapist Philippa Perry’s precise, well-informed and rational advice might be much easier to absorb, and prescient, than later-life advice from parents or friends.
Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
With rich descriptions of rural North Carolina life in the 1960s, and vividly drawn characters, the reader is thrust into Kya Clark’s world. Living an abandoned and off-grid life of solitude and nature, she is immediately branded an outcast and viewed with deep suspicion when a popular ex-high-school football star is found dead. A highly original and readable novel.
Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage by Jeremy Butterfield
Not just a must-have style guide that’s suitable for essay writing, reports and presentations, this updated edition of Fowler’s is a highly readable and interesting collection of examples, explanations and answers to burning grammar and word usage questions.
North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell
A classic Victorian drama of class clashes, disparity of wealth and prejudice. When Margaret is rudely uprooted from her comfortable middle-class home after her father decides to move up north, she is shocked and revolted by her new surroundings in Milton. Will the hardship and poverty she sees change her for the better? This is a great book for social studies and history students to discuss and debate.
Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe
The Troubles are chronicled through the lens of the abduction of Jean McConville from her home and the devastating effects on her family. Radicalisation, religion, extremism and injustice are revealed in this detailed and gripping account. ‘Say Nothing’ explores an important aspect in this county’s history that all students should be aware of, and with the recent impact of Brexit, a fragile Good Friday peace accord that all generations should be encouraged to safeguard.
Why Most Things Fail by Paul Ormerod
A lively and at times light-hearted non-fiction look at economics and why some strategies work, and why others don’t. Using parallels with science, game theory, systems and logic, Ormerod breathes life into economic theories and practices and with real-life business and corporate examples. It’s interesting reading for potential entrepreneurs, PPE students or business school applicants.
Land of Big Numbers by Te-Ping Chen
This startling collection of short stories will immerse students into the lifestyles, atmospheres and motivations of characters from modern China. A captivating glimpse into the contemporary communist culture, the deft characterizations and precise prose sparkle throughout.
The Pleasure of Finding Things Out by Richard Feynman
This collection of essays and articles is a great book to keep older teenagers interested in science, reasoning, analytical thinking and using evidence to inform opinions and rise above a 2020s media-driven world of fake news and hyperbole.
Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga
This gripping coming-of-age story sees the 13-year-old protagonist encounter oppression, imperialism, and subjugation set in Zimbabwe’s slow journey towards independence and majority rule. With verve and wit, the story is told with a startlingly vibrant voice. A modern classic.
The Vote: How it was won, and how it was undermined by Paul Foot
A compelling exposition of democracy, the fight for the right to vote, the historical narrative of power since the Civil War, and why it is so important to resist the erosion of hard-won rights in the UK. This book will appeal to students interested in politics, economics and social history.
Living Better: How I Learned to Survive Depression by Alastair Campbell
A must-read for teens before they leave home, start university, or enter the workplace, Living Better explores depression, what causes it, how it affects people, how to live with it, and how to use it. This frank, honest and eye-opening autobiographical account offers hope and encourages readers to talk about their feelings. Through discussion of real-life events, it offers fascinating and useful life skills. Highly recommended.
The Alchemist: a fable about following your dream by Paulo Coelho
When poor shepherd boy Santiago dreams of a better life, he embarks on an unforgettable quest which reveals there is more wealth in knowledge and experience than money. A spectacular novel that spans cultures, lands and generations, it’s one that might inspire dreams and change the perspectives of those who read it. The ultimate follow your dreams fable.
Delia’s Complete Cookery Course by Delia Smith
The classic edition of this cookery bible will ensure sixth-form students have access to practical, reproducible and healthy meals for every occasion. With clear and easy-to-follow cookery techniques and recipes, accessible ingredients, and helpful illustrations, this is a great book to help your teens become more independent. There are also plenty of ideas for meals to impress when entertaining that won’t break the bank or require exotic ingredients.
The Crossing Place: A Journey among the Armenians by Philip Marsden
An unflinching account of opposing ideologies and persecution, and how one group of people has survived in spite of adverse history and politics. This illuminating book takes the reader on a compelling journey through the geography, history, and culture of Armenia. A must-read for social studies students, this is a good counterpoint for pupils learning about Afghanistan, Yugoslavia, the Uyghurs and the Holocaust.
Cancel This Book: The Progressive Case Against Cancel Culture by Dan Kovalik
In an era of social media, fake news, conspiracy theories and the cult of celebrity, this book will prove a provocative point of discussion for sixth-formers. Arguing squarely for free speech and natural justice, Dan Kovalik deftly espouses why cancel culture is a risk to democratic values and rational discussion and reasoned judgement. A great book for debating in book clubs and discussing in academic interviews.
The Night Trilogy: Night, Dawn, Day by Elie Wiesel
Elie Wiesel’s autobiographical account of a teenage boy navigating the horrors of the Auschwitz concentration camp with his father is a demanding but life-changing read. The trilogy spans ‘Night’ – which chronicles the writer’s recollection of Holocaust cruelties that challenge every fibre of his faith in God; ‘Dawn’ a story which follows a survivor who settles in the Holy Land with a deathly mission; and ‘Day’ – a moving story which examines the difficulties of remaining positive and moving forward despite the psychological trauma of survival.
On the Beach by Nevil Shute
Never more prescient, Nevil Shute’s classic novel On the Beach is ideal for KS4 & KS5 book clubs to discuss the Domesday Clock, world peace, aggression by superpowers, the futile aftermath of a World War & the prospect of being ‘The Last of Us’.
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