Nonfiction Reading Improved but Still Short of College Readiness Levels

The amount of non-fiction read by students in grades 1-12 has steadily increased since the adoption of new learning standards introduced in the Common Core. Yet students — especially those in high school — don't read to the level of difficulty they should and fall "far short" of what may be required for college and career preparedness. At the same time, students who begin the school year behind their peers can make up for lost time with the right standards in place.

Those are some of the broader findings in this year's report from Renaissance Learning, which examined the reading practices of 9.8 million students across the country during the 2014-2015 school year. The 2016 report, "What Kids Are Reading," explores the major trends of student reading practices, examines the state of nonfiction reading in the United States and investigates how student reading compares to new text complexity expectations.

Renaissance pulls the data from student use of the company's product lines, Accelerated Reader 360 and STAR Reading assessments. All of the data used for analysis is aggregated and anonymized.

Most students (54 percent) read less than 15 minutes a day. What that duration indicates, according to the report, is how much vocabulary exposure young people receive. On average, those who read at this pace are "likely to encounter only 1.5 million words during the course of their schooling," the researchers wrote, whereas students who spend more than 30 minutes reading each day are "exposed to millions more words" over that same period.

The data also showed that  among less skilled or struggling readers, those "who read a lot of appropriately challenging books with high comprehension" are more likely to experience accelerated growth throughout the school year, thereby closing gaps. In fact, the researchers stated, "students who start low but who receive high-quality instruction, read books that are of interest to them, spend more time reading, encounter more words and demonstrate comprehension on their daily reading can surge ahead and catch up to their peers on the path to college and career readiness."

The report noted that nonfiction reading has increased in every state across the country as new learning standards for English/language arts have been adopted. The proportion of nonfiction to fiction reading varies from state to state, as the researchers documented, ranging from a low of 16 percent to a high of 29 percent.

But the overall picture for nonfiction still falls short of reading recommendations by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which compiles the "nation's report card." And it's worse for girls than for boys. For example, whereas by eighth grade the NAEP framework suggests that 55 percent of reading be of nonfiction texts, the actual reading practices are under 30 percent for boys and under 20 percent for girls.

The complexity of the text may also fall short of what's expected after high school. While nearly all elementary students read at least one book in their target grade band, the report noted, that readership declines over time. From sixth grade through high school, less than 15 percent of students, on average, read one or more books in their target range. However, nonfiction articles that students are assigned to read are "generally more challenging" than the books they select for themselves, which means article reading in most grades is more likely to meet goals for the text complexity grade bands.

The report also pointed out that by the time students leave high school, they're typically reading books in the 5 to 6 complexity range, which matches up with the typical fiction best seller complexity level of 5.7. However, that level still falls short by about two grade levels of the demands of books often assigned to incoming college freshman (7.3) and nonfiction best sellers (7.6).

The report, "What Kids are Reading," is publicly available on Renaissance's Learnalytics site.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.