School & District Management

Children Choose Below-Grade-Level Books Starting in Middle School, Study Finds

By Catherine Gewertz — May 08, 2014 3 min read
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Renaissance Learning’s annual look at what students are reading yields two sobering findings about adolescents’ choices when they’re choosing supplemental, or “outside,” reading:

  • High school students read far fewer words per year than their younger peers, and
  • Starting in middle school, students begin selecting reading materials that are below their grade level.

Before we dive into these findings, let’s keep in mind what this report does and doesn’t include. It doesn’t include students’ core English/language arts reading. It focuses on the extra readings that students choose outside their core studies.

The study was conducted by Renaissance Learning, which created the Accelerated Reader program. Schools use that program as a supplemental, not core, English/language arts program, according to Eric Stickney, the company’s director of educational research. Teachers use it to encourage students to read for pleasure, he said in an email to Education Week.

Students choose books from Accelerated Reader’s massive list, and earn points when they complete—and take quizzes on—the books. Points are awarded based on each book’s difficulty. Renaissance Learning uses its own method, the ATOS readability formula, to assign points to each book.

With that in mind, let’s take a more detailed look at what Renaissance Learning found when it examined the books students in grades 1 through 12 are choosing in Accelerated Reader.

You’ll see from one of the report’s charts that the number of books read per student drops after 2nd grade. Some of that is probably because older elementary students are reading longer books. The average number of words read per student each year climbs more or less steadily from kindergarten into middle school. But at about that point, both the books-per-student and the words-per-student drop off.

Some of this dropoff could be because high school students face heavier reading burdens across their core subject areas, so they pick shorter—and fewer—texts for “outside” reading. But the trend in their choices is still worth noting in light of education’s ongoing struggle to develop better adolescent reading skills. (If you have any doubt about the need for improvement, just check the most recent—and lackluster—NAEP reading results for 12th graders.)

Also worth noting, in that light, is that students start choosing easier texts when they get to middle school. Most of Renaissance Learning’s report is devoted to listing the 20 most popular fiction and nonfiction books at each grade level. And that is, indeed, interesting (more on that in a minute). But what is even more intriguing, and worrisome, is the fine print at the bottom of each one of those pages.

That fine print lists the average ATOS book level of those 20 most popular books at each grade level. For the 1st grade fiction list, for instance, it says that the average ATOS book level was 1.3 overall, meaning that those top 20 books, on average, were suitable for a child in the third month of 1st grade.

Take a look at how the grade-level ratings for the top 20 most popular fiction texts shift over time:

1st grade: 1.3 2nd grade: 2.3 3rd grade: 4.2 4th grade: 4.9 5th grade: 5.3 6th grade: 5.3 7th grade: 5.3 8th grade: 5.2 9th grade: 5.6 10th grade: 5.7 11th grade: 5.7 12th grade: 7.1

With slight variations, the pattern holds true for students’ nonfiction reading choices, too.

The lists of the 10 most popular fiction and nonfiction books in each grade is interesting, too, of course. On the fiction side, Green Eggs and Ham persists as a blockbuster in the early grades, displaced by the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books in 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade. The Hunger Games grabs the top spot in 7th through 10th grades, but teachers will also be reassured that The Great Gatsby, Of Mice and Men, and “Romeo and Juliet” make high-profile appearances as well.

A couple of noteworthy common-core trends: Children’s reading choices still fall far below the new standards’ vision of a heavier dose of nonfiction reading. Keep in mind, however, that the Renaissance Learning report tracks only children’s supplemental reading, and much of their nonfiction reading is probably occurring in their core subjects. Here you can see how their choices stack up to the common core’s expectations—based on NAEP frameworks—for nonfiction reading across the curriculum subjects:

Another interesting common-core note, for those of you who are so into the weeds on this stuff that you know about Appendix B of the Common Core State Standards. That’s the list of texts that the standards’ authors suggest as examples of readings in fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and drama that are appropriately complex at each grade level. Renaissance Learning’s report shows that there has been an increase—albeit small—in the reading of those texts. Although the standards’ authors didn’t intend those lists as “assigned reading” lists, they appear to be having an effect on what teachers suggest to their students.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.