What Kids Are Reading

In today’s Washington Post, crack education writer Jay Mathews highlights a new report from Renaissance Learning titled “What Kids Are Reading: The Book-Reading Habits of Students in American Schools.” And it’s fascinating stuff.

Jay Mathews’ Post story is here, and the full report can be seen here. Watch out, the file is a biggie.

Data is broken down in a number of ways — by grade level, geographic region, gender, and so on — but for the most part, the same books keep rising to the top. For those of us who haven’t read “kid’s books” in a long time, it’s nice to see so many familiar faces on the list, from Dr. Seuss and Judy Blume to S.E. Hinton and E.B. White. My Brother Sam Is Dead makes an appearance, as does To Kill A Mockingbird. And there are plenty of fun relatively new faces, too, like Louis Sacher and J.K. Rowling, along with sturdy new favorites like Lemony Snicket and Captain Underpants.

I’m delighted to see what kids are reading — and to see that a lot of my old favorites are still being read today. My 11-year-old would probably argue for the inclusion of Peter Abrahams and his Echo Falls series, and I was hoping to see Beverly Cleary make a stronger showing, but you can’t have everything.

It’s discouraging, however, to see the average number of books read by students drop precipitously as they move into high school. Students read voraciously in the early grades — averaging as many as 46 books per student in second grade — then gradually sputter down to a pathetic 4.5 books read per year, per student, by the twelfth grade. And that number, I would guess, probably reflects the number of books students were required to read as part of their school curriculum. Once outside the reach of the classroom, students don’t appear to be heading to the library, or to Borders, in search of entertainment or enlightenment. But when another recent survey showed that 53 percent of American adults don’t read anything at all, do we really have the nerve to act surprised?

Read Renaissance Learning’s report — or at least read Jay Mathew’s summary of it — then tell me: What books were you surprised to see on the list? What were you surprised to not see? And what do you think can be done to keep kids reading into high school and beyond?

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6 responses to “What Kids Are Reading

  1. Heidi the Hick

    I read about 100 books last year (I’m 37, two kids, two pets, horses, husband, house…writer… busy…laundry… but love to read!!)

    If I remember correctly though, I hardly did any reading in high school other than what was required in English class. I had, um, other extra-curricular activities back then. Y’know?

    I will be interested to see the results of the last decade’s incredible increase in quality YA. I know of one 24 year old who got hooked on Harry Potter and is still a voracious reader.

    I think there’s hope.

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  2. My son is 13 and I’ve just watched his reading drop dramatically! There’s a number of factors. Primarily it’s fitting it all in: social life and school work impinging on his time. Your post has brought my attention to the fact that it’s not going to get any better.

    Having said that, I’m not sure there’s a lot that I can do other than keep buying him good books and keep reading in front of him. In the summer, we both pile into a hammock in the garden and read – quality time! Not sure how much longer that will last.

    I suspect I read less in high school – I have vivid memories of discovering great books throughout my childhood but I can’t really think of anything post-15 (until about 21).

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  3. I out-read most kids in my classes in elementary school but, as others have admitted, pretty much stopped reading in high school. I didn’t even finished all the assigned books. But then I went to college and earned a degree in English. That high school slump didn’t prevent me from developing into an avid reader in adulthood.

    I know many people who experienced the same interuption in their reading habit. It doesn’t seem to have had a lasting effect on anyone I’ve talked to about it. So maybe we don’t need to worry about this study…?

    Just one optimist’s opinion.

    Thanks for the great post.

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  4. NickjFoster

    It may be that at 13 kids stop being interested in ‘kids books’ and even consider YA fiction beneath them. what self respecting 13 year old wants to be seen reading anything child like?

    But then at the same time many adult books will be above their heads – inaccessible language, storylines that don’t relate to them etc etc.

    Of course then there’s the old issue of identity at that age. Much as they didn’t want to be seen reading childish books do they want to be seen to be booky? Booky as I understand things is a step on the way to geekdom or nerdhood.

    I have no answer on how to change things, just an observation as to the reasons

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  5. Brian Jay Jones

    Thank you, everyone, for your comments. Heidi and Jessica, I’m probably a little more hopeful than I sound — the former educrat in me couldn’t help poring over the data and doing a little handwringing. I tend to agree that the recent boom in YA (including the Harry Potter phenom) will make more lifelong readers — but putting the skill in place doesn’t seem to be the problem; feeding the monkey is. (Boy, is that a botched metaphor. Nevertheless, I’m sticking with it.)

    As Nick said, there’s something of a gap between the YA and A that perhaps accounts for some of it. My problem in high school was that I was more interested in reading books outside the curriculum than in it. (I tended to bury my nose in Stephen King and Agatha Christie instead of Lord of the Flies…)

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  6. I can relate to that gap. 13 wasn’t too long ago for me, and I recall slowing down for a year or so before someone said the words “Stephen King”. Morbid little soul that I was (am!), I’m not sure why I hadn’t read him until then. King and other writers like him helped bridge the gap.

    I love reading “classics” now, but it’s a little aggravating when I go to the check-out with, say, Man in the Iron Mask, and the cashier goes, “Awwww, gettin’ some school reading done?”

    I lie and say yes. I add a self-pitying sigh too.

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