Student Reading Practices Lag Far Behind National Goals

As new learning standards put more emphasis on getting students to be able to read and analyze non-fiction text, this year's annual "What Kids Are Reading and Why It Matters" report from Renaissance Learning suggests that classrooms have a long way to go. Renaissance produces Accelerated Reader (AR), an integrated reading program that delivers online quizzes to students on the books they've read, both fiction and non-fiction.

Currently, according to Director of Educational Research Eric Stickney, the company offers quizzes for 165,000 books, consisting of "most of the books that a child would encounter in her school library as well as a public library." The company takes the data generated through those quizzes and anonymizes and aggregates it to develop the report.

The seventh-annual report used data from 9.8 million students in grades 1-12 at nearly 32,000 schools. During the course of the 2013-2014 school year, those students read a total of 330 million books. However, the amount of non-fiction in that total fell far short of the national goal.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) Reading Framework has called for an increasing shift to nonfiction reading over time, from 50 percent nonfiction in fourth grade to 55 percent in eighth grade to 70 percent in 12th grade. In reality, the portion of nonfiction books students read varies from 20 percent to 31 percent for boys and 13 percent to 21 percent for girls.

The report noted that the data focuses only on books and doesn't encompass article reading that students may do. The company's latest edition of its software, AR 360, will permit tracking of nonfiction article reading done through sources such as National Public Radio and Associated Press and therefore is expected to offer a "fuller picture" of student reading in next year's report.

The latest report examined the text complexity — or level of challenge presented by the text — and student reading lags there as well. The Renaissance "ATOS" readability formula takes into account three variables: words per sentence, average grade level of words and characters per word. The complexity levels for various grades fall into a range called a "text complexity band," which gets higher as the child moves from grade to grade if he or she is expected to be college- and career-ready. For example, for grades 2-3, the text complexity band is between 2.8 and 5.1. For grades 4-5 it's 5.0 to 7.0. And so on.

The latest survey found that beyond grade 5, few students read books within their text complexity grade bands. However, the report added, although students should be "encouraged to read increasingly complex texts," that shouldn't come at the expense of comprehension. Better that the students be exposed to complex text, the report stated, "during instructional periods where scaffolding, coaching and discussion are available."

New this year is an online freely available analytics tool that allows educators and others to drill down on the aggregated data to understand trends for specific categories. Learnalytics, as the program is called, allows the user to filter by grade, gender, ATOS level, interest level, state, fiction vs. non-fiction, language and keyword to generate a report showing what books fit into a given category. Filters can be stacked on top of each other, and the reports can be saved and printed.

One question the company is getting with more frequency is how students are reading books — digitally or in the "traditional paperback" form. Stickney said that's not something Renaissance can answer yet. However, he asserted, the amount of digital reading is on the rise. "An increasing number of people are using mobile devices and reading text digitally before they go in and do the AR quiz," he explained.

The company has a number of partnerships with digital reading providers such as MackinVIA and BrainHive. If a school uses those programs, students can read the book in that environment and link directly to the AR quiz. In the future, Stickney said, Renaissance expects "to measure exactly where these readers are coming from. Right now we don't know exactly."

But Stickney also pointed out that the reporting done by his company isn't just about numbers; it's about books. "We hope with the list of most popular books that teachers, parents, librarians and students can figure out what's most popular in the country and find the next book that students will really love," said Stickney. "Part of the driving force of the report is to celebrate great books and the critical importance that reading practice plays in helping students become great readers and great learners all around."

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