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How Students’ Reading Habits Have Changed and Shifted

What are the most popular books at each grade level? Is the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series still as popular as ever? What topics do students like the most? What about the least?

The latest edition of What Kids Are Reading, the world’s largest annual study of K–12 student reading habits, highlights fiction and nonfiction reading trends, along with the top books K–12 students are reading nationwide.

Popular with educators and families, the What Kids Are Reading report has been a go-to resource for insight into students’ ever-changing reading habits for more than a decade. Created by Renaissance, the report provides helpful tools to help educators guide their students toward “just-right” reading recommendations.

The report draws from two data sources: Accelerated Reader, which tracks the books and articles

(print and digital) that students have read from start to finish, and myON, which monitors student reading on a personalized digital library platform. Combined, these two sources provide insight into millions of students’ reading habits. The 2020 edition draws from reading data on more than 7.6 million students from all 50 US states. In fact, no other study captures student reading behavior on this scale.

To mark the release of the all-new What Kids Are Reading report, we’ve highlighted the three biggest takeaways from the 2020 edition. 

1. Students still prefer fiction over nonfiction

With an increased emphasis on nonfiction in recent years, educators were encouraged to steer students toward nonfiction content in their classrooms. Yet, according to the latest findings in What Kids Are Reading, an average of just one in four of the books read in grades K–12 are nonfiction.

Students tend to read the most nonfiction in grades 3–5, making up an average of 54 percent of their total reading, but that amount drops to just 43 percent in grades 9–12.

The research highlights that students read more nonfiction when they have easy access to nonfiction books and articles. Is there a lack of access to nonfiction in most classrooms? Access to compelling nonfiction has been shown to be a difference-maker in getting students to choose to read more from this genre. From learning more about the natural wonders of the world to understanding weather patterns, the interest in nonfiction is there, it’s sometimes just a matter of providing enough choice.

Nonfiction is also often perceived as more difficult for students to understand than fiction. Yet, according to the analysis in What Kids Are Reading, students passed the majority of comprehension quizzes taken on both fiction and nonfiction books, with only slightly lower pass rates for nonfiction titles. In fact, the research shows that with the right background knowledge, nonfiction is no more challenging than fiction.

2. Background knowledge makes a big difference

Background knowledge is critical to success. When students have background knowledge on a subject like a certain sport or interest, research proves that students are able to read higher-level texts, even when they generally read at a lower level.

Research from What Kids Are Reading points out that on average, younger students read about more topics than older students. This makes sense, given that younger students are generally still discovering what interests them (and what doesn’t), while older students and adults tend to have a decent idea of their interests. Not surprisingly, when students show sustained interest in topic areas, their scores also tend to be higher than students who read only one or two books on those topics.

The report also shines a light on how students’ reading interests change as they age. K–2 students gravitate toward poetry and rhymes, so Dr. Seuss books are often the most popular. In grades 3–5, sports and recreation take center stage, and interpersonal relationships become the hot topic as students transition into middle school. Those interests continue to change as students enter high school, with students showing a continued interest in sports, while also balancing assigned reading.

3. The connection between reading and careers

Speaking of background knowledge, What Kids Are Reading highlights just how important reading is in understanding training and career materials.

The report includes a section that calls out the importance of reading, emphasizing that reading is important in college, career, and life. Electricians, registered nurses, and other careers all require reading skills to be successful. While it might not mean reading Shakespeare cover to cover, a solid foundation in reading—particularly nonfiction reading—is crucial in the workforce.

For example, according to the Lexile® Career Database, registered nurses will likely encounter training materials ranging from a Lexile reading level of 1260L to 1410L. To illustrate this, a book within this reading range is A Brief History of Time by Stephen W. Hawking (10.5, UG, 1290L). Again, not that a registered nurse would need to read A Brief History of Time, but it’s an interesting way to call out the importance of reading—and to make a solid connection between students’ literacy skills and their aspirations for the future.

Ready to explore the other great insights that What Kids Are Reading has to offer? Click here to explore more reading data points, to create custom book lists, and to download the all-new report.

Plus, join Renaissance for a webinar that delves into these findings in even greater detail.