The Power of Reading Practice on Student Achievement

By Eric Stickney
Cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham once said, “It is virtually impossible to become proficient at a mental task without extended practice.”
Reading is no different. The reading students do each day represents a form of self-guided practice, similar to learning how to play a musical instrument or shooting free throws after basketball practice for a half hour each day.
Every year, our research team at Renaissance Learning researches and publishes a report called What Kids Are Reading: And the Path to College and Careers. The 2016 edition is based on data for 9.8 million students in grades 1-12 from more than 31,000 schools. These students read over 334 million books and nonfiction articles during the 2014-2015 school year. The report explores key characteristics of student reading practice, examines the state of non-fiction reading in the United States, and investigates how student reading compares to new text complexity expectations.
Why should educators care about the time and difficulty level of books their students are reading? The makeup of student reading practice matters a lot—for improving achievement, for meeting the goals of new college- and career-readiness standards, and ultimately, for helping students to become well-rounded and successful adults.
For instance, this year we learned that students who begin the year well behind their peers yet meet high standards by the end of the year read much more than students who don’t make this leap. We also gained insight that the rate of nonfiction reading has steadily increased since new standards have been adopted. And, although the difficulty level of texts high schoolers read nears what adults typically consume, it falls short of what may be required for college and career.

The Anatomy of Reading Practice

Over the past decade, we’ve leveraged massive data sets to better understand student reading practice and what makes it impactful—or not. To that end, we’ve learned that three characteristics drive annual achievement growth. The most powerful of these characteristics is comprehension—the extent to which students understand the main points of the books and articles they read. We also know that volume (the time students spend reading each day) and challenge (the difficulty and complexity level of the text they encounter, relative to the student’s ability) are meaningful.
Drilling into data on daily independent reading practice and achievement from the millions of students who use our Accelerated Reader 360 program allows us to identify key factors about how children become successful readers.

Reading Practice Impacts Vocabulary Exposure

In order for students to build and strengthen their vocabularies, they need repeated exposure to words in a variety of contexts . How students get that exposure is largely through reading—every day. The impact of spending a few extra minutes per day reading can be startling over the long term. The majority of students read less than 15 minutes per day.
However, the data show kids who spend more than 30 minutes reading each day are exposed to millions of more words over the course of their schooling. Time spent reading is a long-term investment in vocabulary exposure.

Reading Practice Contributes to College and Career Readiness

Using a combination of the proficiency standards set by the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortia and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career (PARCC), we calculated a benchmark for college and career readiness and estimated how many students will reach that benchmark as a function of daily reading practice. Our team performed a study in 2015, involving over 2.8 million students from 12,000 districts across the United States.
The control group consisted of students not using Accelerated Reader 360 for daily reading practice—and of those students, only 39 percent met College and Career Readiness (CCR) benchmarks for their grade. In contrast, 66 percent of students who engaged in a fair amount of daily reading practice (15 minutes or more) at a relatively high comprehension level (85 percent and above) were far more likely to reach CCR benchmarks. These results also held true for struggling readers, English learners and students in free or reduced lunch programs—and rose with the level of program use.

Reading Practice Closes Reading Gaps

While it’s true that high-performing students tend to do a lot of reading, we also found that less skilled or struggling readers who read a lot of appropriate challenging books with high comprehension tend to experience accelerated growth throughout the school year—and close gaps. The key here is to make sure students spend enough time with those engaging and appropriately challenging text.
Students who begin the year below their peers are not destined to stay there. Students who start low but receive high-quality instruction, read books that are of interest, spend more time reading, encounter more words and demonstrate comprehension of their daily reading can surge ahead and catch up to their peers.

Reading Practice Helps Students Read More and Better

It’s no secret that meeting established goals is associated with improved performance—and reading is no different. Students who meet goals set for independent reading practice read more and achieve better outcomes. According to our database, over the 2014-2015 school year students who met set reading practice goals read 39 percent more books, read 49 percent more minutes per day, scored 8 percent higher on reading comprehension quizzes and read at a higher level of comprehension.
For more, see:

Eric Stickney is the director of educational research at Renaissance Learning. Follow them on Twitter@RenLearnUS.

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