What Kids Are Reading: Five Ways to Close the Achievement Gap

students reading on a couch and closing the achievement gap between themselves and other students

By Jack Lynch
We all have a book that reminds us of our childhood. For me, it was T.H. White’s The Once and Future King. Books have the power to transport us to new worlds, instill a mindset of infinite possibilities and expand our worldview.
Reading is the foundation of learning. To better understand what students are reading, our organization conducted the world’s largest annual reading survey. The resulting report analyzed 346 million books and articles read by 9.9 million K-12 students in 30,863 schools, and revealed not only the most popular books among students but more importantly provided insights that can make students better readers and learners.
Here are five ways we found that reading can help to close the achievement gap:
1. Allow time for daily reading practice.
Students are busier outside of school than ever before. Sports, work and other extra-curricular activities keep them occupied before and after classes. These conditions make in-class reading time imperative.
An average first grader reads about 15 minutes a day, putting them on pace to read around 5.7 million words by the end of high school. If that student instead read 30 minutes a day, they would be exposed to more than 13.7 million words. We know that students’ vocabularies expand as their reading increases, and the impact of eight million more words is substantial. Dedicating time for reading throughout the school day can help students achieve these gains.
2. Hook boys on reading.
Boys read 23 percent fewer words than girls do throughout their academic career. This translates to fewer opportunities to develop reading fluency, vocabulary and general knowledge. At a time when girls outpace boys in college enrollment and graduation, a heightened emphasis on reading could play a role in making up ground for boys. By sparking boys’ interest in reading in early grades, educators can help boys establish reading habits that will serve them well throughout their lives.
3. Engage all students in STEM books, particularly girls.
Only nine percent of all books read during the 2015–16 school year were STEM books. Overall, 57 percent of boys and 53 percent of girls read at least one STEM title. If we want more students to enter fast-growing STEM fields, these percentages need to change.
Increasing exposure to STEM topics, piquing students’ interests and raising visibility into STEM careers improves the odds that students will pursue STEM fields after high school. Not only are there more STEM careers available than non-STEM careers—but STEM salaries pay 26 percent more than non-STEM jobs, according to Burning Glass.
4. Challenge students.
The time spent reading and volume of words read are critical to students’ development. Equally important is the difficulty level of texts. For a student to grow, they need to be reading books that challenge them to become deeper learners.
Our report grades text difficulty based on the ATOS Readability Formula, a research-based measure of text complexity. The report found that when students finish high school, they are reading between the fifth- and sixth-grade level—for comparison, a typical fiction best seller is at a 5.6 reading level.
However, our research found books assigned to incoming college freshman as common summer reading are often at a 6.5 reading level, and a sampling of college textbooks had an average reading level of 13.8. By being challenged with more complex reading materials, with scaffolds as appropriate, throughout their schooling students can begin to close a challenge gap that might otherwise leave them struggling to comprehend course and workplace materials.
5. Help struggling readers catch up.
They can catch up. From the data, we can see that third-graders who started the year as struggling readers and went on to meet college benchmarks read 100,000 more words, read about five minutes more per day and had 11 percent higher comprehension than struggling readers. In the sixth grade, greater disparities exist: struggling readers who caught up read an impressive 230,000 more words, read nearly six minutes more per day and had nine percent higher comprehension.

Final Thoughts

Reading is an activity to be enjoyed inside and outside of the classroom. A book can challenge previously held views, spark our imagination and make us think deeper about a new topic. For students, we must ensure that we are helping institute the best reading practices in our classrooms because of the impact it has on students’ overall learning experience.
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Jack Lynch is the CEO of Renaissance®. Follow them on Twitter @RenLearnUS

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