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Study Reveals What Kids Are Reading for School

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Extra Credit
What High-Achieving Students Are Reading

Students in the top 10 percent of reading achievement (based on STAR Reading assessment scores) tended to emphasize more science fiction and fantasy than general readers.

Top-20 books that the highest achievers in grades 9 through 12 read that did not crack the general top 20 included:

  • Angels & Demons by Dan Brown
  • The Chosen by Chaim Potok
  • The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown
  • Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
  • Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card
  • The Fellowship of the Ring by JRR Tolkien

More Information

--D. Nagel

According to the first study of its kind released in the United States, kids are reading an average of about 26 books per school year. That's the great news. The less than great news is that their volume of reading peaks in second grade, and the level and volume of books that they're reading stagnates from about sixth grade onward, even dropping off in high school.

The findings are part of a report released this week by Renaissance Learning, based on results from more than 3 million students in more than 9,800 schools around the country. The data do not come from a survey; they were recorded in 2007 directly within Renaissance Learning's Accelerated Reader software, which captures the titles of the books read, quiz scores, number of words read, and book readability levels for more than 115,000 titles. The report, What Kids Are Reading: The Book-Reading Habits of Students in American Schools, presents these results, including not only the volume of books read by students at each grade level (1 through 12) by sex and geographic region, but also which books made the top 20 at each grade level.

What it found was that the largest number of books read was in first, second, and grade--at an average of 38.6, 46.2, and 40.2 books per child per year, respectively. (In first grade, 70 percent of those books were read independently by the student; in second grade, 84 percent were read independently. The remainder were read to the students or read with them.)

By fourth grade, the average number of books read per student for the year dropped to 29.2, followed by 19.1 in fifth grade, 12.9 in sixth, 10.7 in seventh, 7.1 in eighth, 6.5 in ninth, 6.3 in 10th, 5.8 in 11th, and 4.5 in 12th.

Meanwhile, the "book level" as a measure determined based on the ATOS Readability Formula for Books started falling below grade level in the sixth grade on average for the top-20 books read by students (at 5.9, indicating reading level of grade 5, month 9), falling further behind as grades progress. In both seventh and eighth grades, students were reading at an average of 6.2 for the top-20 books read. This declined to 6.1 for grades 9 through 12. The reading lists for grades 7 through 12 were virtually identical year by year, though the order of the popularity of the books changed at each grade.

When asked how this could be accounted for, Roy Truby, senior vice president of State & Federal Programs at Renaissance Learning (who also wrote the overview to the report), said: "This is an interesting question. Because there are 120,000 AR quizzes available, there is practically a quiz for every book in a school's library. And schools who use AR Enterprise, which all of the schools in the report did, have access to all 120,000 quizzes.

"With access to 120,000 AR quizzes, so long as the corresponding book was in the school's library, the What Kids Are Reading report suggests that kids aren't necessarily choosing low level books, but rather that the readability level of most books available 'flatten out' at about the sixth-grade level.

"As we show on PDF page 17 of the report, even the readability of newspapers and magazines doesn't go any higher than 7.8 years--and those are the Washington Post and New York Times. USA Today's readability level is 6.6."

(It should be noted that newspaper journalists intentionally "dumb down" their writing to what they perceive, probably correctly, to be the average reading level of their audience--i.e. the American population--aiming for something between third- and eighth-grade levels using various measurements, such as Flesch-Kincaid. See this post of an internal memo from the Cleveland Plain Dealer for more. This doesn't mean the writing is designed to be poor; it means its designed to require little literary equipage to get through, as opposed to stories that use, for example, words like "equipage" and whose authors were not journalism majors.)

Another possible explanation is that at higher grade levels, Accelerated Reader is being used largely for remediation, although this isn't clear. Renaissance Learning's Truby told us that the information in the report spans all classes and couldn't be broken down by remedial, honors, or general classes. In the sample, however, only 0.14 percent of students in grade 12 in the data made the top 10 percentile in the STAR Reading National Percentile Rank, a far smaller percentage than seen in lower grades.

In grades 9 through 12, seven books from the J.K. Rowling Harry Potter franchise made the top 20. Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird was No. 1. John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men was No. 3 (behind Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows). William Golding's Lord of the Flies was No. 14. George Orwell's Animal Farm came in at No. 16. And F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby came in at 17. Arthur Miller and William Shakespeare made a showing at No. 13 and No. 20, respectively, with The Crucible and Romeo and Juliet.

Many other literary standbys--Hemingway, Faulkner, Salinger, etc.--didn't make the published report, which covered only the 20 most popular books read by students at each grade level, but were, of course, part of the curriculum. Hemingway's Old Man and the Sea came in at 43 for grades 9 through 12. Others were buried further down, according to Truby.

Data from the study spanned all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Renaissance Learning's software is currently used in more than 68,000 schools across the country. The complete study, with statistics, explanations, geographical and gender breakdown, and further commentary, can be downloaded from Renaissance Learning's Web site here. A printed version of the report is also available. A PDF can be downloaded directly here.

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About the author: David Nagel is the executive editor for 1105 Media's online education technology publications, including THE Journal and Campus Technology. He can be reached at dnagel@1105media.com.

Proposals for articles and tips for news stories, as well as questions and comments about this publication, should be submitted to David Nagel, executive editor, at dnagel@1105media.com.

About the Author

Executive Producer David Nagel heads up the editorial department for 1105 Media's education publications — which include two daily sites, a variety of newsletters and two monthly digital magazines covering technology in both K-12 and higher education.

A 21-year publishing veteran, Nagel has led or contributed to dozens of technology, art and business publications.

He can be reached at dnagel@1105media.com. You can also connect with him on LinkedIn at linkedin.com/profile/view?id=10390192 or follow him on Twitter at @THEJournalDave (K-12) or @CampusTechDave (higher education). A selection of David Nagel's articles can be found on this site.


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