‘What Kids Are Reading’ Shows Growth in Non-fiction

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Rennaissance Learning has released its newest edition of “What Kids Are Reading,” finding that US students are reading more nonfiction, but not as much as is recommended by Common Core standards.

About 10 million US students take part in the study that tracks the reading habits of students at all grade levels through participation in its Accelerated Reader Program.  Students who take part in the program record what they read, both independently and as school assignments, and take quizzes pertaining to those books.

The report has been issued for the last five years, offering a list of the top fiction and nonfiction books for each grade level for boys and girls.  The newest edition added an analysis of how complex these reading materials are, how much kids are reading, and why that matters.

“Kids who spend a lot of time reading and have success reading are ones who grow most,” says Eric Stickney, Renaissance’s director of educational research. “This raises a lot of questions about the extent to which teachers and parents are providing enough time for students to practice reading.”

Research suggests that students who experience the most growth in reading spend about 30 minutes a day reading independently at a “challenging” level, meaning at least 85% of the information being read is understood.  However, of the students to participate in the study, only one quarter were doing that.  In fact, almost 50% read for less than 15 minutes each day.

The study found that reading habits hit an all-time high in the sixth grade, where about 436,000 words are read from books.  That number then falls to the low 300,000s by the end of high school.

In addition, girls were found to read more than boys.  The average girl read about 3.8 million words between first and 12th grade, while the average boy read about 3 million.

“A key cornerstone of reading comprehension is vocabulary,” Mr. Stickney says. “A lot of the words that need to be learned are encountered in literature…. Over time, boys are at a disadvantage because they’re just not getting enough exposure to vocabulary.”

Also discussed in the report is the issue of complexity.  New standards require books to become increasingly complex as students get older in order to better prepare them for college and the workforce. The ATOS formula was used to decipher how challenging books are, and the standards suggest high school books should receive an ATOS score between 9.7 and 14.1 in complexity.  In reality, those books saw an average of 5.2 on the ATOS scale.

“In elementary school, kids being asked to [read appropriately difficult books], and they can handle it,” says Stickney. By high school, less than 15 percent of students read one or more books in their target range.

Guidelines from the National Assessment Governing Board suggest nonfiction books should account for 70% of all reading by the 12th grade.  While the study has shown an increase in nonfiction reading by about 5% in every grade level, the total amount is still falling short of the recommended percentage, by 13-31% based on gender and grade level.  However, the study does not account for articles, essays, and other informational reading children are doing at school.

The study found the most nonfiction reading taking place in the fourth and fifth grades, accounting for 20-31% of all reading for boys, and 13-21% for girls.  The recommended percentage for that grade level is 55%.