What Are Students Reading in Middle and High School?

By Catherine Gewertz — November 17, 2016 2 min read
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What do high school students flock to when they choose their “outside reading?” To Kill A Mockingbird holds a top slot in 9th and 10th grades, with “The Crucible” and “Macbeth” pulling ahead in 11th and 12th grades, according to a survey of students’ choices in a popular reading program.

To Kill A Mockingbird and titles in the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series still grab most of the spotlight in middle school, but so do Lois Lowry’s The Giver, and S.E. Hinton’s classic tale of alienation, The Outsiders, according to “What Kids Are Reading,” an annual survey by Renaissance Learning. (The study is also embedded at the end of this blog post.)

The study is drawn from the reading habits of the 9.8 million students who participated in Renaissance Learning’s Accelerated Reader 360 program in the 2014-2015 school year. The program lets students earn points for the books and articles they read, based on Renaissance’s calculations of their complexity. Accelerated Reader is typically used as a complement to students’ core English program, to encourage students to read.

The survey raises some serious questions, however, about whether students’ reading habits are preparing them well for study and work after high school. This chart shows that even in 12th grade, students are reading books and articles that fall short of the complexity level they’ll face in college. “The chasm between text difficulty for high school seniors versus college freshmen is striking,” the report says.

The study shows that students tend to choose books and articles that are below their grade level. (That could be in part because Accelerated Reader represents what they choose to read, rather than what their teachers assign.)

On average, 12th graders chose books at a 7th grade level of difficulty. Ninth graders chose books at the difficulty level that would be expected for students midway through 5th grade. This chart shows how rarely high school students choose to read anything above a 9th grade level. Even by the time they’re seniors, only 19 percent of the books students choose to read exceed the 9th grade level of difficulty.

The common core encourages teachers to use a hefty helping of nonfiction books. But students don’t appear to be flocking to nonfiction reading in their spare time, according to the survey. The increase in nonfiction readings in Accelerated Reader has been “marginal” since the common core was introduced, the study says.

For more on students’ reading habits, see EdWeek’s special report on digital literacy:

“Do ‘Digital Natives’ Prefer Paper Books to E-Books?”

What Kids Are Reading 2017 by cgewertz on Scribd

A version of this news article first appeared in the High School & Beyond blog.