What Are Your Students Reading?

A new report finds that students are not reading enough challenging texts to prepare them for college and careers. Here’s why it matters, and how you can change it.

GUEST COLUMN | by Eric Stickney

In the decade-plus that Renaissance® has been publishing the What Kids Are Reading report, we’ve been celebrating students’ love of reading by drawing attention to the books they read the most. However, while reading is a wonderful way to pass the time, it’s also so much more—especially for K–12 learners.

Reading is, in and of itself, a form of active learning and a critical skill for understanding new material throughout a student’s academic and professional careers. With this in mind, this year’s report revealed a number of trends that merit our attention. Most urgently, students are not reading as much as they should to fully develop their skills, and they tend to read at the bottom of the recommended text complexity range for their grade level. Fortunately, there are steps teachers and administrators can take to reverse those trends.

Not Enough Time

If your goal is to become a better violin player or a better basketball player, you set aside time to do those activities. You set goals and monitor your progress toward those goals. You probably get a coach to provide you with feedback. You celebrate successes and get help if you’re struggling.

Reading is no different. Reading practice boosts achievement and can help kids close achievement gaps. But in order to do that, just as with other skills, you have to set aside time for reading. You have to set goals and get feedback on how you’re doing.

And yet, students largely aren’t getting the practice they need. According to the report, roughly half are reading less than 15 minutes per day. Why do we care about 15 minutes per day? Because when we examine reading practice and achievement, controlling for other factors, 15 minutes per day is a kind of “break-even point” at which students tend to see improvements in their reading ability. Another concern is that daily reading time drops significantly as students age. In grades 1–6, students average between 15 and 20 minutes of reading practice daily. By grade 7, they dip to the minimum of 15 minutes—and below that by grade 8. From there, reading time continues to fall, dropping to about eight minutes each day by grades 11 and 12.

It’s difficult to know from the What Kids Are Reading data why that drop-off occurs, but we know that most elementary schools set aside time for reading, whereas many middle or high schools don’t. That may explain some of the reduction we see in minutes of reading per day from middle school onward.

Reading researchers tend to talk about the Matthew effect, which is a reference to the Biblical verse about how the rich get richer and the poor stay poor. Kids who have access to a lot of literature tend to read better, and they tend to read at home. Kids who don’t have that access tend to be those who most need the extra practice, but as soon as their school stops requiring time spent reading, they tend to stop.

But their reading ability is by no means fixed. Every student can grow. What we highlight in this year’s report is that the time students practice is highly predictive of their achievement growth: Students who read more, grow more—and students who read less, tend to grow less. And reading time is something that can be effectively managed by students, teachers, and families.

Not Enough Challenge

Over the years, we’ve found that the amount of time spent reading is one of three aspects that are independently and significantly predictive of whether kids benefit from reading practice. The other two are the difficulty of what they’re reading and the extent to which they understand what they’re reading.

And yet, in the data from What Kids Are Reading, we see that students are reading texts at the bottom of the recommended complexity range for their grade level. The data we’re picking up about book reading is a mixture of assigned and self-selected reading—mostly the latter. This means that students tend not to choose very demanding or extremely difficult books, which is not surprising. Adults do the same thing.

We know this because the report also compares student reading against other sources, such as the books on the New York Times Best Seller list. Although many adults are capable of reading at much higher levels, best sellers tend to sit at around an eighth-grade level of complexity. In contrast, students generally read around sixth-grade level at the end of high school even though, again, many of them are capable of reading much more difficult texts. That suggests that there’s going to be a gap—and that’s been a persistent concern for many years—in the text difficulty that students are used to in high school and what they’ll encounter as adults.

The real concern is the gap between what students are reading and the complexity of the texts they’ll be expected to read in college and in their careers. When they get to college, the average difficulty level of the text they’ll encounter is equivalent to grades 13 and 14, and we know that a primary contributor to dropping out of college is an inability to handle the reading and writing demands. So even though the bulk of the reading they’re likely to do in their lives is well below that level, they need to be able to handle that more complex text when they graduate from high school.

To be able to do that, though, they need exposure to it. There has to be an appropriate balance between the reading they do by themselves at home or during reading time at school at their own level and exposure to more challenging texts. That way they don’t have a rude awakening when they hit college and career texts.

Just giving students challenging texts isn’t the answer, though. Our research on reading challenge and achievement growth reveals that when students choose books well above their current level without understanding enough of what they’re reading, they don’t profit from that practice. Students can benefit from reading material above their recommended challenge levels, but only if they receive enough support to demonstrate enough comprehension past a certain threshold. However, most of the gains we observe are attributed to students reading a lot within their personal challenge levels.

Think of a football team lifting weights. If everyone else on my team is bench pressing 200 pounds, but I’m only able to lift 100, I’m not going to be successful and I may end up hurting myself if I try to match them. If I stick to the weight I can lift and add more weight as I’m able, I can eventually catch up to the rest of the team.

It can be a little counter-intuitive to say it’s okay for a student to read at their level rather than grade level, but as long as they keep reading with comprehension, do a lot of it, and try to increase the challenge level, they can catch up just like the weightlifter. Struggling readers didn’t fall behind their peers overnight, and they aren’t going to catch up overnight, either. It has to be a long-term strategy to get them back to grade-level reading with more intensive instruction and practice.

How Administrators and Teachers Can Help

The number one thing that educators can do is think about reading as a skill, and not just casual leisure time—though it can be incredibly fun and enjoyable. Try to think about it in terms of setting goals for the amount that students will read, the challenge level at which they’ll read, and how well they comprehend what they’ll read. According to our data, when teachers set personalized targets around these factors, 88% of students meet them. Emphasizing reading in this way and setting goals is something a whole school community can get involved in, too.

Reading software can help teachers and students work together to set personalized goals by providing a reasonable and achievable target for each student’s level. With or without software, it’s important to check back and monitor progress, and think about bumping students’ targets up if they’re having a lot of success at their current challenge level.

We also know that good ELA programs, particularly in middle and high school, assign books, and that’s great, but at some point, students also need the ability to choose what they read. They’re more likely to persist with challenging texts if they find them compelling.

The website for the report has an interactive tool that provides teachers, parents, and students with ideas of what other students at their child’s grade or achievement level are reading, and has a variety of parameters to search for appropriate and popular titles. It’s a good tool for answering the common student objection, particularly in middle and high school, that they don’t know what to read next.

The number one thing administrators can do is help teachers create a culture of reading in the school. That means that reading is not just occurring in an ELA class, but is emphasized and prioritized across the curriculum. The WKAR report provides cross-curricular connections lists that highlight popular books by grade level and subject. So, for example, if you’re teaching social studies, history, science, social-emotional learning, or technology, among other subjects, the report has lists of books appropriate for those subject areas.

In the end, we know that reading practice is essential and can be a powerful way to boost student reading achievement. Getting the most out of it is quite simple: Set goals, spend plenty of time, and stretch yourself.

Eric Stickney is the senior director of educational research at Renaissance. He specializes in analyzing reading and mathematics data collected from millions of students in the U.S. and around the world. To download his team’s latest report, visit Renaissance.com/WKAR.

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