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Amid the CCSS “shifts,” let’s not lose sight of independent reading practice

By Eric Stickney, Director of Educational Research
Earlier this month, our Chief Academic Officer Gene Kerns wrote about text complexity and the Common Core State Standards. His comments remind us that even with all the attention on the “shifts” demanded by new standards, we should not overlook the importance of independent reading practice.

The authors of the new standards agree. Appendix A of the CCSS English Language Arts document says that “students need opportunities to stretch their reading abilities but also to experience the satisfaction and pleasure of easy, fluent reading within them, both of which the Standards allow for” (page 9). Another CCSS document calls for developers to create materials “to increase regular independent reading of texts that appeal to students’ interests while developing both their knowledge base and joy in reading” (Coleman & Pimental, 2012, page 4).

Why is independent reading practice important?

In addition to the reasons listed above, it’s nearly impossible to become skilled at something without doing it. A lot. Just ask any high-performing athlete, chess player, or musician. Extensive practice at the right challenge level plus instructional support, feedback, and differentiated goal setting is important for building just about any skill (Ericsson et al., 2006). We’re able to provide insight as to how much and under what circumstances practice helps improve general reading ability, thanks to the wealth of data we have available on reading practice (through Renaissance Accelerated Reader®) and achievement (via Renaissance Star Reading® and state assessments).

Prior research has revealed three important practice variables that independently and significantly explain differences in student reading achievement growth, after controlling for prior achievement: quantity (estimated reading time per day—around 25-30 minutes or more), comprehension (how well students understand what they read—85% comprehension or higher), and challenge (the relative difficulty of the books each student reads compared to his/her current achievement levels).

With all the attention by states and districts on students being able to read at grade level by the end of third grade, it seems fitting to explore the relationship between practice and end-of-third-grade outcomes.

Let’s consider time spent reading per day. The table summarizes data for more than 40,000 students from Tennessee for whom reading practice (Accelerated Reader) and achievement (Star Reading) data were available over time (Renaissance, 2013). As early as first grade, the amount of time spent reading per day was positively and consistently predictive of how well a student was likely to do on the state test (TCAP) at the end of third grade. The same held true for second and third graders. (See other state reports here.)

Table 1. Students’ projected TCAP Reading score, end of grade 3

Reading minutes per day, grade 1

Reading minutes per day, grade 2

Reading minutes per day, grade 3

Level 4 (Advanced)




Level 3 (Proficient)




Level 2 (Basic)




Level 1 (Below Basic)




Are the good readers good because they practice a lot, or do they practice a lot because they’re good? It’s almost certainly a mix of both. An important question is this: For struggling readers, what kind of practice is associated with accelerating their achievement and closing gaps? We’ll address this issue in future posts.

We’re certainly not alone in examining the relationship between the nature of reading practice and achievement. In the Handbook of Reading Research, Duke & Carlisle (2011) remind teachers that students need to practice early and often if they are to develop comprehension, fluency, and vocabulary. Anderson, Wilson, and Fielding (1988) documented that students scoring in the 90th percentile spend about an hour per day reading, while students in the 10th percentile average less than three minutes reading per day. The international PISA study (Kirsch et al., 2002) found that a student’s engagement with text was a strong predictor of overall academic achievement and appeared to mediate socioeconomic disparities to a large extent (see figure).

Figure 1: Reading practice, achievement, and socioeconomic status


Source: OECD PISA database, 2001, Table 5.9

 blog graph


For 30 years, Accelerated Reader has withstood the test of time. The program has not only evolved but also stayed true to its core objective, to promote and manage independent reading practice, a purpose both the standards and research literature support. Thus, it’s no surprise that Accelerated Reader’s focus on independent reading has earned it accolades as a “proven” program (Promising Practices Network, 2013) and a “model” program with “strong evidence” (National Dropout Prevention Center/Network, 2010). So even though new standards and assessments require shifts in teaching, practice remains a mainstay in the learning process.

Curious to learn more? Explore Renaissance Accelerated Reader 360®, the latest version of Accelerated Reader.


Anderson, R. C., Wilson , P., & Fielding, L. (1988). Growth in reading and how children spend their time outside of school. Reading Research Quarterly, 23(3), 285–303.
Coleman, D., & Pimental, S. (2012). Revised publishers’ criteria for the Common Core State Standards in English language arts and literacy, grades 3–12. Washington, DC: Council of Chief State School Officers. Retrieved from
Common Core State Standards Initiative. (2010). Common Core State Standards for English language arts & literacy in history/social studies, science, and technical subjects. Appendix A: Research supporting the key elements of the standards, Glossary of terms. Washington, DC: National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, Council of Chief State School Officers, Council of Chief State School Officers.
Ericsson, A., Charness, N., Feltovich, P. J., & Hoffman, R. R. (Eds.). (2006). The Cambridge handbook of expertise and expert performance. New York: CambridgeUniversity Press.
Duke, N. K., & Carlisle, J. (2011). The development of comprehension. In M. L. Kamil, P. D. Pearson, E. B. Moje, & P. P. Afflerbach (Eds.), Handbook of reading research (Vol. IV) (pp. 199–228). New York: Routledge.
Kirsch, I., de Jong, J., Lafontaine, D., McQueen, J., Mendelovits, J., & Monseur, C. (2002). Reading for change: Performance and engagement across countries. Paris: Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
National Dropout Prevention Center/Network. (2010). Review of model programs: Accelerated Reader. Clemson, SC: Clemson University, Author. Available online from
Promising Practices Network. (2013). Programs that work: Review of Accelerated Reader. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation. Available online from
Renaissance (2013). Special report: The powerful role of reading practice in meeting Tennessee’s third-grade reading plan. Wisconsin Rapids, WI: Author. Retrieved from

Eric Stickney, Director of Educational Research
Eric Stickney, Director of Educational Research
Eric Stickney works with external independent researchers who conduct evaluations of Renaissance programs. He specializes in analyzing reading and mathematics data collected from millions of students in North America and the UK.


  1. Matt Renwick says:

    Thank you for sharing this research, Eric.

    This quote resonated with me the most:

    “Are the good readers good because they practice a lot, or do they practice a lot because they’re good?”

    I think they practice a lot because they love reading and what it provides them. The benefits students receive from reading leads them to want to read more. The current research by Dr. John Guthrie (2012) and Dr. Gay Ivey & Dr. Peter Johnston (2013) support this idea. The findings suggest that students don’t read 20 minutes a day because they want to get better at reading, or to take a quiz. They read because they are engaged in what they are reading.

    When you note quantity, comprehension, and challenge as three important practice variables, where does engagement fit in to the research puzzle?

  2. Dave Herman says:

    It doesn’t. Common Core’s authors think reading is an end in itself, rather than a means to a higher understanding of life. The more they can bury the beauty of what can be ga

  3. Rebekah Roberts says:

    I am concerned about the country Finland and how they are doing so well in the reading literacy of their students and future achievements. What is your opinion about this?

  4. Mary Salvador says:

    I agree that independent reading is very important.

  5. Eric Stickney says:

    This is a great question. I probably should have qualified the statement about the three characteristics of practice (quantity, quality, challenge) that we know independently influence reading achievement growth. Those are the factors we can measure quantitatively with Accelerated Reader. So while each is important, they’re not the only factors that matter. Measuring other important constructs like engagement is tougher, and something we’re not able to do directly (at least at the moment, and not on a large scale). But you raise an important point; research by John Guthrie and others paints a clear picture, that the students who do the most reading are engaged in what they read, and have positive attitudes towards reading, among other related characteristics. The good news is that student engagement isn’t set in stone, it’s something that can be improved with instruction, feedback, providing students with choice, finding materials at the right challenge level, setting goals, parental involvement, and other strategies.

  6. Everlena Jones-Walker says:

    I agree that independent reading is important coupled with early interventions and consistency.

  7. Denise Cottenmyre says:

    I agree! I have seen reluctant readers in 6th grade develop into readers begging for more time by the 8th grade because we took the time to find books they enjoy.

  8. Fawn Simpson says:

    I agree that socioeconomics also plays a role. I’ve seen it over and over again. If the parents aren’t engaged, because they lack education, it’s hard to get the student engaged. But students have to fall in love with reading. It has to be an adventure! It has to be fun and exciting. They need to be introduced to that at such an early age. If you don’t catch them early, they are almost gone, forever.