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How have students’ reading habits changed due to the COVID-19 pandemic?

March 15, 2021 4 min read
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Without a doubt, the average classroom looks more different now than ever before. With schools and districts across the nation engaging in a mix of remote, hybrid, and in-person learning, getting books into the hands of students can be difficult.

The 2021 edition of What Kids Are Reading, the world’s largest annual study of K–12 student reading habits, highlights reading trends during the COVID-19 pandemic, along with the ever-popular lists of top print and digital books students at each grade level are reading nationwide.

A fan favorite among educators and families, What Kids Are Reading has been a go-to resource for insight into students’ ever-changing reading habits for more than a decade. Created by Renaissance, a global leader in pre-K–12 education technology, the report provides useful tools to help educators guide their students toward “just-right” reading recommendations.

The report draws from two data sources: Accelerated Reader, which tracks the books and articles (print and digital) that students have read from start to finish, and myON, which provides students with instant access to books on a digital reading platform. Combined, these two sources provide insight into millions of students’ reading habits. The 2021 edition draws from reading data on more than 7 million students from all 50 US states. No other study captures student reading behavior on this scale.

To mark the release of the all-new What Kids Are Reading report, we’ve highlighted the three biggest takeaways from the 2021 edition.

1. Students gravitate toward digital reading options

Perhaps the least surprising takeaway from the 2021 edition of What Kids Are Reading is that whether they’re in or out of school, it’s crucial that students still have access to high-interest digital books and news articles.

The importance of quality digital reading options and edtech resources cannot be overstated during the COVID-19 pandemic. Traditional classroom lessons and physical resources don’t always translate to a hybrid or remote learning environment.

This is evident in the research from What Kids Are Reading. Numbers show that when students had access to myON, a digital reading platform with thousands of fiction and nonfiction books and news articles, they spent twice as much time reading in Fall 2020—8.9 million hours versus 4.3 million hours in Fall 2019.

Although schools and districts are providing physical book drop-offs and limited visits to local libraries now, students still need a diverse, curated selection of reading materials at home and on the go—now more than ever.

That need led Renaissance to give schools and districts the option to enable at-home quizzing for Accelerated Reader for their students for the first time ever. Traditionally, students have had to take quizzes at their school or an approved location, such as a public library.

2. Students continue to read more and more nonfiction

With an increased emphasis on informational text in recent years, educators were encouraged to steer students toward nonfiction content in their classrooms.

The research highlights that students read more informational text when they have easy access to nonfiction books and articles. Is there a lack of access to nonfiction in most classrooms? Access to compelling nonfiction has been shown to be a difference-maker in getting students to choose to read more from this genre. From learning more about the natural wonders of the world to understanding weather patterns, the interest in informational text is there. It’s often just a matter of providing enough choice.

As noted earlier, What Kids Are Reading points to students reading more on myON than ever before. In fact, while students spent 5.1 million hours reading fiction, they still spent 3.9 million hours reading nonfiction. One of the biggest draws to myON is the vast amount of nonfiction available. So while students might still choose fiction the majority of the time, when there are high-interest nonfiction books available, students will read them.

3. Despite different learning environments, student reading comprehension remains high

Similar to the results reported in the 2020 edition of What Kids Are Reading, students scored around 80 percent in reading comprehension overall and fared only slightly better on fiction than nonfiction.

This is a great sign. Despite students switching between remote, hybrid, and in-person learning (including missed instructional time), students are continuing to make gains in reading and understand what they’re reading.

A big part of this is due to educators working hard to get books into the hands of students and check-in with them. Another reason why student reading comprehension remains high is that reading can often be done outside the classroom, while other subjects like math or social studies often require an educator working directly with the students.

Ready to explore the other great insights that What Kids Are Reading has to offer? Click here to explore more reading data points, to create custom book lists, and to download the all-new report.

Plus, join Renaissance for a webinar that delves into these findings in even greater detail—and provides further insights on K–12 students’ reading habits this year.

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