Reading under Lockdown

Gene Kerns reviews the largest annual study of K–12 reading habits, which featured some good news in digital reading, student comprehension, and the complexity of texts students choose

Each year, Renaissance releases the What Kids Are Reading report, and each year it grows by leaps and bounds.1 This year’s report looked at the reading habits of seven million students from more than 26,000 schools in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. These students read more than 255 million books last year, making it the largest annual study of student reading practice.
Before I share some of the key findings of What Kids Are Reading and the free tools it offers educators, it’s worth taking a moment to answer the question: “Why does it matter what kids are reading outside of classwork?”

Practicing Reading Skills Is Not Reading Practice

Educators have known for years that students who read a lot outside of school perform well academically, and there’s an emerging body of research that’s beginning to explain why that is. At the simplest level, as students read more, they gain the ability to recognize more words instantly, which leads to more fluent reading. But it continues to build from there. Each book provides more vocabulary, more background knowledge, and even sharper critical thinking skills.

The cognitive research community is beginning to push back on the approach that educators have taken to reading practice for so long, an approach that “skillifies” reading and asks students to practice discrete skills such as decoding or finding the main idea in a paragraph.

The discrete skills are real, but they can’t be isolated effectively and must be practiced together.

Last year, for example, the Fordham Foundation published a report finding that, between struggling readers who received extra time in social studies and those who received extra time in reading skills, the students with extra social studies time made better reading progress.2 Practicing reading skills will never teach students that the Berlin Wall was anything other than a wall in Berlin, but reading in a social studies class very well might.

With the idea in mind that reading is the most fundamental academic skill, we design the report in large part to help teachers and other educators find new and great books their students will love reading. In order to make comparisons from one year to the next, and because we find certain items particularly helpful, features like the favorite books by grade level are included every year.
Teachers looking for books that will interest their students can find the most popular print and digital books by grade level or by state or find out which books are trending in the “New and Now” section.

However, the education world is constantly changing, so each year we also like to add a couple features to help put the findings in context. This year, of course, it’s difficult to talk about anything without acknowledging the disruptions caused by the pandemic, so we chose to look a little more closely at digital reading. We also drilled down on the topics kids were reading from a social and emotional learning angle and from a perspective of diversity and inclusion, given the level of social unrest as the country grapples with a lot of difficult issues. For example, many students in seventh grade this year were reading Can I Touch Your Hair to support social and emotional learning and I Remember: Poems and Pictures of Heritage to learn about diversity and inclusion.

This Year’s Findings

People really needed some good news this year, and I can deliver some positive findings from this year’s report—digital reading increased 107% from the previous year, thanks in part to digital reading platforms like Renaissance’s myON giving schools access for free.

The other piece of good news is that students are still reading at the same difficulty level and comprehending just as much as in previous years. This year’s fifth graders, for example, are reading texts just as difficult as last year’s fifth graders, and they’re comprehending what they’re reading at a similar level, despite experiencing greater disruption to their learning than at any time in recent memory.

Support for Emerging Biliterates

The research has been increasingly clear lately that, as students continue developing literacy in their native languages, they are likely to progress faster in English as well. There is a mutually beneficial relationship between literacy and fluency in one language and literacy in another.

These emerging biliterate students actually have brighter prospects than students who are performing equally well but only in a single language.

To help encourage this relationship, we flagged all the top books in the report that have Spanish-language quizzes in Accelerated Reader, such as To Kill a Mockingbird and The Great Gatsby, as well as listing all the most popular titles in Spanish for each grade, such as …y no se lo tragó la tierra for ninth grade.

Help for Struggling Readers

There are three helpful ways to divide struggling readers into broad categories to determine what those students need to succeed. The first group is students who were not taught the mechanics of reading, such as phonics and other foundational skills, in the very early grades. The research is very clear on what they need, and it’s no surprise that it’s those foundational skills.

The second group is students with learning disabilities. They may have received the appropriate instruction, but they may also need additional reinforcements and support. It takes a little more, perhaps a more systematic approach, to help these students perform as well as they are able.

The final group is simply struggling readers. These are kids who were taught to read and have no diagnosed or undiagnosed cognitive or learning disability, but who still fail to read at an appropriate level. The other day a colleague was talking about a couple kids she knew, one of whom was at the top of his class and the other of whom was a heavy reader. They both got into college, but that top-performing student struggled because there’s a lot of reading in college. In college, literature students may be expected to read a novel a week for a single class.

The reading is lighter for freshmen, but they’re still being asked to be marathon readers from day one.

Now, personally I can run, but I cannot run a marathon without training. Trying to read long, complex texts without practice beforehand is just like trying to run a marathon without training and is exactly what many kids are trying to do when they start college. They just don’t have the stamina. And it’s no wonder. They simply don’t practice. Many years ago when we first looked into the time the average student spends on independent reading, it was only about four minutes per day across all grades. Can you imagine a football team practicing from 3:00 to 3:04 p.m. each day and then thinking they’ll go to the state championship? They won’t, and we’d all think it was a ridiculous expectation.

That’s why we spend so much time finding titles that teachers can use to engage their students. A lot of kids just never practice reading enough to be even remotely successful, but if teachers can help students find books their peers are excited about, they’re most of the way toward effective, wide reading happening across their schools. And a school with wide reading is a school that has a fighting shot at making everything else work well.

Links

  1. www.renaissance.com/wkar
  2. https://fordhaminstitute.org/national/resources/social-studies-instruction-and-reading-comprehension

Dr. Gene Kerns (@GeneKerns) is vice president and chief academic officer at Renaissance (www.renaissance.com). He is a third-generation educator and has served as a public school teacher, adjunct faculty member, professional development trainer, district supervisor of academic services, and academic advisor at one of the nation’s top edtech companies. He has trained and consulted internationally and is the co-author of three books. He can be reached at [email protected]

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