What kids are reading: New insights on the path to college and careers

By Heather Nagrocki, Senior Writer/Editor, Research

It all comes down to the first sentence. That’s how I decide. If the writing pulls me in, I’ll buy or borrow the book. If not, it remains on the shelf, whether physical or virtual. No matter how riveting a book sounds in a synopsis, on a book jacket, or via word of mouth, if the author’s first utterance doesn’t hook me, I move on.

And so, as a voracious—albeit picky—reader, I can understand how students need to find just the right book to open up the world of reading to them. Not to mention how important that just-right book is to a resistant reader, and even more so to that student who may make the effort but, for one of myriad possible reasons, is finding it a struggle to read.

The analyses in the new What Kids Are Reading: And the Path to College and Careers underscore just how critical reading practice is—how critical it is that students are motivated to practice this skill. Yes, practice the physical act of reading.

This practice allows them to move past decoding to understanding. With enough practice, they can open the pages of a book to absorb information, to research unknown subjects, to understand the world around them, to stretch their mind and imagination, or perhaps to just escape into another world for a while.

Simply put:

This year’s What Kids Are Reading report examines reading practice data on 9.8 million students in grades 1–12 in over 31,000 US schools in the 2014–2015 year. Here is a snapshot of the report’s findings about the state of student reading practice:

How Student Reading Compares to the Level Required in College and Careers

  • Readership of books within new college and career difficulty bands is inconsistent throughout students’ schooling. The addition of concerted efforts to read nonfiction—such as with informative articles—is a viable option for keeping student reading at recommended levels.

  • Likewise, students in grades 1–12 are selecting books to read at levels far lower than the reading they’ll be responsible for as adults and in workplace settings. Informational articles can begin to bridge this gap.

  • Very few high schoolers are choosing to read books at levels that reflect their grade level.

  • Books with STEM topics (science, technology, engineering, and math) are lacking from students’ reading diets.

  • Even as states opt out of the Common Core State Standards, the impact of new expectations for nonfiction reading can be seen nationwide; however, levels of nonfiction reading are still far below where they need to be, with girls, in particular, trailing their male counterparts.

  • The impact of new standards on expectations for nonfiction reading can be seen nationwide. However, nonfiction reading is still far below where it needs to be.

How Struggling Students Can Regain Their Footing

  • The data show that the return on investing a few extra minutes per day in reading can effect startling change over the long term.

  • As the graphic below illustrates, With dedicated, high quality daily reading practice, they can make great strides in reading and achieve college- and career-readiness benchmarks.

  • The right combination of high-quality reading practice characteristics can make students more likely to meet college- and career-readiness benchmarks.



The tools a student gains from a book are gifts that keep giving. The returns on their investment in reading practice are invaluable as they progress through early schooling, into colleges and universities, and ultimately into whatever future profession they choose to pursue. The bottom line is that kids need to read. A lot. Every day. A variety of books at the right level. It may take a bit to find that first book to hook them, but it’s worth the extra effort as the returns on the time they’ll spend engaged in this critical purpose will pay off in spades. May the What Kids Are Reading report serve as a wake-up call—and as a guide to help us find that just-right book to get students going. Let’s get our kids inspired and started down the path to fulfilling futures.

How do you inspire your students to read? Are there certain titles you’ve noticed seem to hook kids again and again—books that serve as a tried-and-true launching pad to other reads? Please share in the comments below.

Heather Nagrocki, Senior Writer/Editor, Research
Heather Nagrocki, Senior Writer/Editor, Research
Heather Nagrocki works as senior writer and editor for the Research team where she oversees all external publications for the department. She collaborates with educators on case studies highlighting school and district success with Renaissance solutions as well as shepherds the development of key annual reports including What Kids Are Reading.

1 Comment

  1. Roy Turrentine says:

    As a high school math teacher, I can suggest a myriad of reasons why I do not do anything at all to stimulate my students to read more about math. Here are just a few:

    1. High stakes testing in math means we have to practice like we play. Problems may have some stories connected with them, but they are not hooks into further reading.
    2. There are few titles students have access to in their own homes. We do not fund or use the library in any traditional sense; students cannot get anything they will read online if they cannot afford to be online.
    3. Stem topics may appeal to some students, but CSI sparked a huge interest in forensic medicine with “realistic” fiction in a video format. Why cannot we do that with reading? Simple. Take a look at man’s history, before stem became necessary for our maintenance of civilization. The ancient Greeks, noted for their math prowess, got way more recreation from their plays than their math.

    I could go on for a time, but you get the idea. It is not natural for people to think in math modes and read. These people tend more to build than to read.

    Now I would like to change the topic and speak as a father. I have a daughter whose reading appetite is as voracious as anyone could imagine. We had to get her into swimming just so she would get out of the book and be healthy. She does find non-fiction interesting. Where did that come from?

    The first source was The Magic Treehouse. She learned more hard history from Mary Pope Osbourne than she has from her historian father(I refer to myself. I was a history student before being a math student). Why? Simple enough. Kids are about stories. Historical fiction is always a conduit to hard history, even into adulthood.

    So we move to the larger question of how we can induce children to move in the direction of reading about stem topics. Here we should take a look at what is natural. What do primitively societies do in their spare time? Some of the members of these early people’s told stories about their social group or about the gods. Others told stories about the stars, thus our wonderful mythology focused on the constellations. This pointed some toward math due to the tendency of man to think of math as a window into the divine. Others arrived at math through the rise of trading with other cultures.

    So what can we take from all this? People arrive at an interest in their world from fiction, especially fiction that has a strong base in reality. What reader of Huck Finn would not be more likely to enjoy, and learn from, Life on the Mississippi.

    So what would I suggest? Use fiction at a young age as an inroad into non-fiction. Find ways to place titles in the hands of young students that are high interest. Then, as we move into the middle years of intellectual development, allow for time for students to experience stem development from lab experiences. By this I mean to include making and building, many of the exercises we allow kids to access in the hands on science learning centers so popular in cities these days. Schools should be built around these sorts of experiences. I have often mused that we prevailed over Hitler primarily because our generation that fought that war was raised in a culture where you could so easily see the results of mechanical action and reaction. Basic Trigonometry spewed from every farm implement.

    So what do we need to do? Use the fictional to excite the young imagination and the experience to stimulate the growing mind. Remember, however, that the reason I do not have my kids read comes from the pressure to perform on high-stakes tests. The same logic leads school away from the experience and into the mundane. So our first goal should be to replace high-stakes testing with tests that provide information rather than publicity. Only the. Can we move what we do toward the goal of getting students interested enough to read about reality in addition to fiction.