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So, How Much Are Kids Really Reading?

The library and education worlds have been astir for the past couple weeks about a report from Accelerated Reader company Renaissance Learning entitled “What Kids Are Reading: The Book-Reading Habits of Students in American Schools.” The report analyzes AR program data for the 2010-11 school year and shows the number of books and words that students in grades 1 to 12 read on average during that school year, as well as the average reading level of the 40 most commonly read books in each grade.

Hub blogger Becky O’Neil provided some fantastic commentary on this report in a post earlier this month called “Leveling Up and Keeping Score: High School Students Reading at 5th-Grade Levels, Report Says.” The biggest headline in her post, as well as in most of the news coverage of the report, is that the level of books students are reading plateaus after 5th grade. Students advance on grade level up to 5th grade, and then after that, the books that they most commonly read remain at just above the 5th grade level through 12th grade.

Reading Level of Most Commonly Read Books by Grade

Yet this report is heavy with other numbers that are just as interesting, in particular the number of books and words that students are reading on average in each grade, as well as the gender differences between boys and girls when it comes to reading.

What follows are a series of graphs depicting these reading trends according to the data in the Renaissance Learning Report.

The first graph depicts the average number of words and books read by grade level. It shows that the number of words students read peaks in 6th grade and remains relatively stable through 8th grade. Yet starting in 9th grade, when students traditionally enter high school, that number drops significantly by more than 100,000 words a year and remains at that lower level through 12th grade.

Average Numbers of Words Read Annually by Grade

This next graph shows the average number of books read per year. Unsurprisingly, that peaks in 2nd grade when students are still reading mostly picture books. But it’s interesting that the number of books students read on average declines steadily every single year after 2nd grade.

Average Number of Books Read Annually by Grade

The last two graphs show data comparing the reading habits of male and female students. Girls read more words per year on average than boys at every grade level. But that divide does not expand beyond an average of 10,000 words a year until 4th grade. Girls in 4th grade read just over 15,000 more words a year than boys. That divide expands to almost 120,000 more words a year in 8th grade, and then levels off at just above 100,000 more words a year through the high school years. Yet the average reading level of the most commonly read books for each gender is relatively the same, with boys even slightly edging out girls in this area starting in 7th grade.

Average Number of Words Read Annually by Gender

Average Reading Level of Most Commonly Read Books by Gender

– Annie Schutte, currently reading Ichiro by Ryan Inzana


  1. I guess that this is not surprising. High school teachers have to teach to their particular subjects, so the overall emphasis on reading goes downhill. Losing the forest for the trees. I remember the vast amounts of homework assigned in high school getting in the way of reading, too. And yet, successful readers will be life-long learners and more independently minded. Not to mention that they will do better on the English/Reading/Grammar parts of the SAT and better in college.

  2. Tracy Tracy

    Teens also become more involved in extracurricular activities in high school, they start driving (and their social life expands), and some of them get jobs. It really isn’t surprising that they read less. They have less time to read.

  3. Annie Schutte Annie Schutte

    I agree that it’s not surprising. But another reason for that, I think, is that there are also just a lot more places to read now: magazines, online, articles and textbooks for class, etc. One thing I didn’t underscore in my post is that this survey just looked at books students are reading, so that leaves out some other types of reading material.

    • I agree, Annie. Many of the teens in my library due a lot of reading online.

  4. Wait, we’re trusting Accelerated Reader data as representative data for high school reading levels? One would hope that, at the high school level, most kids are reading books and writing analytic papers about them, not taking a basic reading comprehension quiz. Using this as a data set skims out all of your upper level English students, seriously skewing the results.

    I have to seriously question the relevancy of the data set, and therefore any conclusion that one tries to draw from it.

    • Hi Jennie! You have a good point. It’s true that this is only a portion of the data; that 5th-grade-reading-level average comes from only the top 40 books read by high school students, by “choice” (“choice” already being limited by which books have AR quizzes — but this is quite a large number). Books without quizzes and books that are not in the top 40 (which I am guessing includes most of the books read in AP and upper-level Language Arts classes) are not part of this average. As well as, obviously, high schoolers who are reading books but are not part of the AR program.

      That being said, within those limitations, I do think it’s worth pondering a data set of this size that shows such a strong trend toward lower reading levels among the self-selected reading of high schoolers. As the report points out, “Unlike publisher book-sale records, best seller lists, or individual library circulation data that inform us which books were purchased or checked out to read, What Kids Are Reading lists the books we know students did read from cover to cover.” Although I’m in the anti-AR camp myself, I still keep thinking about this.

  5. Becky Becky

    Ooooh, more graphs! I’m glad you did this, Annie; it’s much easier for me (and I’m sure many people) to interpret information visually. It really adds a lot to the report.

  6. I looked at what they give by way of methodology: as Jennie pointed out, they have almost no high school kids in their database. They have fewer kids in all of high school than in any other single grade. Accordingly, they have very few highs school books in their database, more than a hundred books rated for fifth grade compared to each one for high school.

    Even as anecdote, their data is garbage after middle school, and it isn’t strong for middle school either, since kids often read up in interest and reading levels.

    They rate the three books of The Hunger Games trilogy at 5.3, One Hundred Years of Solitude at 8.7, Hamlet at 10.5. Of the last hundred books I’ve read, they either don’t have them in the database, or they’re rated lower than 8.9.

  7. I am not surprised at all by the average reading level of books read by high school students or the fact that girls read SO much more. As a longtime bookseller and parent of kids forced to use AR, I am frequently looking up the “reading level” of books for parents and kids. AR almost never ranks any book over an 8th grade reading level, making it almost impossible for kids to read at a higher level, according to their standards anyway.

    Regardless of how Renaissance comes to rank their books by reading level, as a bookseller I can tell you that the teen section is very much divided by gender lines with “girl appeal” books winning out 5 to 1 for shelf space. Boys seem to do ok if they read fantasy, but when it comes to regular, reality based fiction there are so few books that would appeal to teenage boys. Maybe it’s a catch-22 – teenage boys don’t read because there are so few good books for them and publishers don’t target them as an audience because they don’t read…

  8. […] a book cover to cover all year.  This could be dismissed as a case of rural redneck mentality, but this study shows that the average number words read per year by boys is significantly lower than the average […]

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