Want to Improve Students’ Reading Skills?

Here are three key lessons.

By Eric Stickney

According to the world’s largest study of K–12 student reading habits, students aren’t reading for nearly as much time as they should be each day—and they aren’t challenging themselves with texts that are complex enough. The 2019 What Kids Are Reading report reveals key insights into reading that also serve as valuable lessons for how educators and administrators can improve students’ reading skills.

The report examines data collected through Renaissance Accelerated Reader® for 8.7 million students in grades K–12 who read 289 million books during the 2017–2018 school year. It also looks at data from the 102 million digital books opened in Renaissance myON® Reader, a personalized digital literacy platform, during the same time.

Among the report’s findings are some key insights about reading practice and growth:

  • Nearly half of students read for less than 15 minutes per day. However, reading time isn’t consistent across all grades. It peaks in elementary school, then begins to decline after 5th grade and never recovers. In high school, the typical student reads no more than 10 minutes per day.
  • Reading for a half hour or more per day is associated with accelerated gains in reading achievement. In fact, students who read an average of 30 minutes or more each day make triple the percentile rank improvements of students who read less than 15 minutes per day.
  • Students typically read texts that fall at or near the bottom of the recommended range of text complexity for their grade level. As a result, many students may not have adequate exposure to the challenging text they will encounter in college or career.

What can the K–12 community learn from these findings? Here are three important takeaways that educators can use to improve students’ reading abilities.

1) Make reading a fun—and non-negotiable—daily activity.

Reading can be entertainment, an escape, or a way to relax. For students, it’s also a critical skill needed for success in school and life. And like any other skill, it requires practice in order to improve. Devoting enough time and energy to regular practice is one of the hallmarks of developing a skill in any discipline, and reading is no different.

To see significant improvement, students should be reading for at least 30 minutes a day—and this habit should continue through high school. Whether educators set aside dedicated reading time during the school day or create incentives to get students reading outside of school, reading should be a daily requirement for all students.

However, this doesn’t mean teachers always need to assign specific books for reading. Giving students a choice in what to read is important, because students will read more and be more engaged when they’re reading texts that interest them.

2) Set goals and monitor progress.

If your goal were to become a better violinist, or a better basketball player, you would get a coach to give you feedback. You would get help if you were struggling, and you would celebrate your successes. The same should be true for reading.

It’s not enough just to devote more time to practice. As with any skill, students have to set goals and monitor their progress in order to improve.

Teachers can help each student set personalized goals that are reasonable for his or her achievement level, then track progress toward those goals. When students make headway toward or achieve a goal, they can celebrate their success—and then push themselves toward a new level of achievement.

3) Encourage students to read more complex texts.

In all grades, but especially in the upper grades, kids tend not to read very demanding books.

This isn’t surprising. Even adults don’t like to be challenged much when reading for pleasure. For instance, the books on the New York Times Best Seller list generally rate at an 8th-grade reading level. Yet, the more time students spend on easy reads, the less likely they are to experience growth in their reading skills.

In fact, by the end of high school, many students gravitate toward books around a 6th-grade level—not nearly high enough to understand college-level texts. A major reason students drop out of college is because they struggle with the reading and writing demands. To prepare effectively for college and a career, students should be exposed to more complex texts—and educators can lend support by recommending books at the upper reaches of students’ reading abilities.

A good resource for great reads is the What Kids Are Reading report’s lists of the most-popular books at each grade level. Referring to a student’s grade level—or perhaps skipping ahead a grade or two—can help students find bona fide lists of books they are likely to enjoy but that will also challenge them. For even more options, the report’s website includes a free search tool for creating lists of popular books by grade, state, difficulty, and other characteristics.

Educators can then encourage students to improve their skills by balancing:

  • Independent reading practice, at home or during reading time at school;
  • Reading at their individual levels; and
  • Reading, or at least getting exposure to, more challenging texts.

Reading practice is an important form of active learning, and the lessons from our annual study of students’ reading habits are clear: To improve their reading skills, students need to spend more time reading each day, have clear goals and progress monitoring toward those goals, and engage with more complex texts.

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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