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6 more minutes: Struggling readers, reading practice, and growth

6 More Minutes - Struggling Readers, Reading Practice, and Growth

This post is the first entry in the Education Leader’s Guide to Reading Growth, a 7-part series about how education leaders can use research-driven strategies to support reading growth and achievement—and improve student outcomes.

What are the differences between a student who starts and ends the school year as a struggling reader, and a student who starts out struggling but ends the year succeeding?

A recent study comparing the two groups noted several differences in their reading practice characteristics, and one of them was the time spent reading per day. Students in the latter group—the “successful” readers—read approximately six minutes more per day on average.

In the world’s largest study of the reading habits of K–12 students—encompassing nearly 9.9 million students in more than 30,000 schools across the United States over the 2015–2016 school year—the authors also found differences in average words read (successful readers read more words) and quality of the reading practice as measured by the average comprehension level (successful readers had higher comprehension).1

The study first looked at third-grade students who began the school year in the bottom quarter of reading achievement—struggling readers who would typically be identified as needing “intervention” or even “urgent intervention.”

On average, the third graders who failed to meet grade-level benchmarks by the end of the year had 14.6 minutes of engaged reading time per day. In comparison, the third graders who met the college- and career-readiness benchmarks for their grade read for 20.0 minutes—a difference of less than 6 minutes of daily reading time. On average, these students also read 100,448 more words and had 11% higher comprehension than their peers who did not meet benchmarks.

The study next looked at sixth-grade students. Sixth graders who started the year in the bottom quarter and ended the year below benchmark read an average of 12.4 minutes per day. Sixth graders who started in the same place but achieved college- and career-readiness benchmarks averaged 18.0 minutes of engaged reading time per day. Once again, the difference in daily reading time was less than 6 minutes. These students also read more words on average (230,422 more) and had higher average comprehension (9% higher).

6 Minutes and Struggling Readers

It’s important to recognize that engaged reading time is not the same as time spent looking at a page. It’s calculated based on the text’s total word count and difficulty/complexity level as well as the child’s individual reading level and overall comprehension of the text. For example, reading the same page for an hour without understanding its meaning counts as zero minutes of engaged reading time. (More information about how engaged reading time is calculated can be found here.)

While the study did not examine other variables that can affect achievement—such as quality of instruction or socioeconomic status2—the data show that students who struggle initially but then begin to dedicate significant time to reading with high understanding can experience accelerated growth during the school year. This implies that, in addition to the high-quality instruction and intensive support that we know are essential for struggling readers to learn reading skills,3 time to practice applying those skills is also important.

It also indicates that reading practice isn’t simply an effect of a student’s reading skills. While it’s true that students who read well tend to read more, the fact that students who started at the same skill level but ended the school year with very different outcomes after engaging in different amounts of reading practice suggests that high-quality reading practice could help make significant contributions to growth. In other words, reading practice can be a sign of stronger reading skills, but it can also help build stronger reading skills.

What makes this particular revelation—that a small increase in daily reading time may play a role in turning a struggling reader into a successful one—even more eye-opening is the long-term impact reading skills (or a lack of reading skills) can have in a student’s academic career.

Struggling readers in third grade

A longitudinal study of nearly 4,000 students found that children who read proficiently in third grade were four times more likely to graduate on time than peers who were not proficient in reading in third grade. In fact, nearly one in six students who did not read proficiently in third grade did not graduate high school by age 19.4

When looking at only those students who were far below proficient—students categorized as having “below basic” reading skills—the rate dropped even further, with almost one in four students failing to graduate on time. Among students who did read proficiently in third grade, only one in twenty-five had not graduated high school by age 19.

Struggling Readers in Third Grade

Another longitudinal study, this time of 26,000 students, found that less than 20% of students who were in the bottom quarter of reading achievement (0–24th national percentile) in third grade went on to attend college. At the other end of the scale, nearly 60% of the students who were in the top quarter of reading achievement (75th–100th national percentile) enrolled in college.5

In other words, the strongest readers—students who were in the top quarter of reading achievement in third grade—were nearly three times more likely to enroll in college than peers who struggled with reading and were in the bottom quarter of reading achievement.

Considering the numbers, the question must then be asked: Could a few additional minutes of engaged reading practice each day, combined with high-quality instruction and other supports, help a struggling third-grade student get on a trajectory toward high school graduation and college enrollment?

Results of Third Grade Reading Success

Struggling readers in sixth grade

If elementary reading performance has a role in high school graduation rates, then middle-school reading performance is even more critical. A longitudinal study of almost 13,000 students found that only 12% of students who failed an English course in sixth grade graduated high school on time. Another 6% graduated late. The remaining 82% did not graduate by the time the study had ended.6

Struggling Readers in Sixth Grade

It should be noted that sixth grade is part of a period during which reading gains experience the biggest decline. Over the course of a student’s education, yearly reading gains typically decrease as they move through the grades—which is the normal pattern for cognitive development and not a cause for concern. Students often see very large reading gains in early years; the difference between a student’s reading skills in second grade and third grade is much greater than the difference between skills in tenth and eleventh grades. However, the rate at which reading gains slow is not steady across all years—and sixth grade is part of a period during which that rate is lowest.

If you chart typical midyear Lexile® reader measure ranges (25th percentile to 75th percentile) across multiple grades, you’ll end up with a curve that starts fairly steep and softens as the years go by.7 Viewing the data this way, it’s easy to see that there is room for improvement, but it’s hard to see why we would look more closely at any grade range in particular.

Typical Midyear Lexile Reading Measures

However, if you look at only the changes in typical Lexile reader measure ranges across the years, a different pattern emerges. Here we do not see a steady decline across the years, but instead a steep drop at the fifth and sixth grades.

For most grades, the increase in both the upper and lower boundaries is 80% to 100% of the prior year’s increase. From tenth to eleventh grade, the upper boundary increases by 40L, which is 80% of the increase between ninth and tenth grade (50L), which is turn is 91% of the increase between eighth and ninth grade (55L)—and that is 92% of the increase between seventh and eighth grade (60L). However, between fourth and fifth grade the increase drops to 61% for the lower boundary and 68% for the upper boundary, and between fifth and sixth grade the increase drops to 63% for the lower boundary and 65% for the upper boundary.

Changes in Typical Midyear Lexile Reader Measure Ranges

It is at sixth grade that students stop independently reading books within the text complexity bands for their grade. Between second and fifth grades, the vast majority of students read at least one book in their target grade band. In sixth grade, that number plummets below 20% and never really recovers. From sixth grade through high school, less than 15% of students, on average, read one or more books in their target range.8

Percentage of Students Reading Books within the Text Complexity Band for their Grade

It is tempting to imagine what might happen if we were able to reverse these trends. If a few additional minutes of daily reading practice may help struggling readers transform into successful readers, could this also help change these students’ entire academic trajectories? What if adding a few minutes of high-quality reading activities in our elementary classrooms reduced the total number of struggling readers in middle school? Could those minutes keep them reading within their text complexity grade bands, not just in sixth grade but in future grades?

What if we made a few additional minutes of daily reading practice a reality for all struggling readers, in all grades?

Let us be clear: We are not saying that six minutes of reading time is all you need to turn struggling readers into successful readers. We are saying that, if you have struggling readers in your schools, or if you have ever been concerned about your students’ reading achievement levels or graduation rates, reading practice must be one of your top priorities.

However, it’s not just struggling readers who aren’t getting enough reading practice. In the next entry, we examine the relationship between reading practice and growth and show why increasing reading practice for all students needs to be a system-wide priority.

To read the next post in this series, click the banner below.

Next Post


1 Renaissance Learning. (2016). What kids are reading: And how they grow. Wisconsin Rapids, WI: Author.
2 Baker, B. D., Farrie, D., & Sciarra, D. G. (2016). Mind the gap: 20 years of progress and retrenchment in school funding and achievement gaps (Research Report No. RR-16-15). Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service.
3 Gersten, R., Compton, D., Connor, C.M., Dimino, J., Santoro, L., Linan-Thompson, S., and Tilly, W.D. (2008). Assisting students struggling with reading: Response to Intervention and multi-tier intervention for reading in the primary grades. A practice guide. (NCEE 2009-4045). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved from
4 Hernandez, D. J. (2012). Double jeopardy: How third-grade reading skills and poverty influence high school graduation. Baltimore, MD: The Annie E. Casey Foundation.
5 Lesnick, J., Goerge, R., Smithgall, C., & Gwynne, J. (2010). Reading on grade level in third grade: How is it related to high school performance and college enrollment? Chicago, IL: Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago.
6 Balfanz, R., Herzog, L., & Mac Iver, D. (2007). Preventing student disengagement and keeping students on the graduation path in urban middle-grades schools: Early identification and effective interventions. Educational Psychologist, 42(4), 223–235.
7 MetaMetrics. (n.d.). Matching Lexile measures to grade ranges. Retrieved from
LEXILE®, LEXILE FRAMEWORK®, and the LEXILE® logo are trademarks of MetaMetrics, Inc.
8 Renaissance Learning. (2015). What kids are reading: And the path to college and careers. Wisconsin Rapids, WI: Author.


  1. Krystal Dozier says:

    I am looking forward to this series of articles. This article has inspired me to challenge all of my students to “Give Me Six”. We are going to take the first six minutes of their library time, READING!!!!

  2. Jody Steinhaus says:

    Wow! Fascinating study with lots of info on which to reflect.

  3. Katie Wiltz says:

    My school has AIM Time. During that 30 minutes of the day, kids are reading silently or working with a teacher on Reading skills. In the two years, I have been at this school, I have noticed a big change in the students’ performances on tests and their Reading skills.

    • Renaissance Renaissance says:

      That is awesome, Katie! Every minute a child spends with a book is another opportunity for them to fall in love with reading.

  4. Damaris Perez says:

    Great information and studies. Really shows that a little can go a long way.

  5. carly says:

    While I agree that knowing an AR test is associated to their reading helps some students to pay more attention to details, not all students respond well to testing. We provide 30 minutes of daily independent reading for our 3rd grade students. Even with interventions, we still have struggling readers. As mentioned, not every reader goes from struggling to being on grade level by simply receiving an extra 6 minutes to read.

    Title I schools in particular have unique needs to be considered. Title I schools certainly have larger amount of students of who will fail Language classes with more students less likely to graduate then non Title I schools. For some students with difficult home lives, reading allows them to escape from harsh realities. As a 3rd grade teacher, I work extra hard to help my students love school, love reading, and beat the odds set against them.

    Looking forward to reading other strategies in the next series.

  6. Dvawn Maza says:

    Interesting statistics. We have a program where our students are to read 20 minutes to an adult every day.

  7. P R says:

    I like seeing Data that shows practices that increase student academic performance. Having data like this to show parents can help a teacher support his/her case for their students reading more.

  8. Alecia Walkuski says:

    I think that it is interesting that there is such a dramatic data point shift in text complexity at the 6th grade level. I wonder if that has to do with most popular literature being written at a roughly fifth grade or lower level.

  9. Laura says:

    I will definitely add some extra quality reading time into my day today!

  10. Andrea says:

    Excellent research! Proves that just a few minutes each day can add up to great results!

  11. Belinda says:

    WOW! What six minutes a day can do.

  12. jason says:

    Every little bit helps. Just have to give students a chance to read.

  13. Rita Platt says:

    Wow. This is wonderful. Teachers, we MUST give students time for in school reading!

  14. Laura Q-T says:

    We always allocate 30 minutes of reading time throughout the day. Our students state testing results have shown an increase in test score throughout the past four years. I completely agree with this article and the time devoted to daily reading can make a huge impact on a child.

    We allocate

  15. Sandra Cunningham says:

    Wow… those stats are just crazy! The percent of 3rd graders who go on to college and graduate high school based on their 3rd grade reading levels in mind blowing! Looking forward to reading more!

  16. Gretta says:

    Excellent article with factual information. I have noticed this to be true.

  17. Taneshia Glover says:

    Excellent! What a big difference a few a day can do!

  18. Renee Graham says:

    Sometimes, the answer is so very simple. Parents seem to want a more complicated response – worksheets, computer programs, tutoring – when all that is needed is 6 minutes.

  19. M. Sanchez says:

    Great article. I cannot believe that just by have a little time goes a long way in the students comprehension and fluency. I am sure we could all as teachers find at least six minutes in our already cramped schedule to focus on reading.

  20. Ami K. Edwards says:

    Great idea!

  21. Kelsie Haggard says:

    Love the visuals, helps really see what is happening!

  22. s. bellomo says:

    Reading practice is essential to growth!! No two ways about it!

  23. Brenda Curtis says:

    Reading is so important! We need to keep that emphasis in every grade. The article was very interesting!

  24. Liana Ferrer says:

    I encourage my students to read things that interests them. We have a set reading time on a daily basis and as art of our classroom procedures they always have their A.R books on their desks. This year I have had many proud teacher moments when I see those who struggle finally making strides.

  25. Beckie Nieman says:

    True information! We need to raise readers.

  26. Mary Moetell says:

    Wow! What a big difference 6 minutes could do! I can’t wait to read the next article!

  27. Amy says:

    So few minutes, just the ride to school or to the grocery store could make all the difference. Waiting in line at the store, or while filling up with gas. There are so many creative ways to find six minutes to listen to your child read.

    • Renaissance Renaissance says:

      Any increase in quality reading time is a great increase—even if it’s only a minute or two!

  28. Barbara says:

    As a former teacher and administrator, I know how important daily reading time is to later success in life. This article confirms what I’ve always known, but as I get ready to move into retirement, I will be making sure that my grandchildren have the opportunities to read more each day.

  29. Virginia Travis says:

    All of this is so true!

  30. Pamela Rackley says:

    Very insightful research! I will definitely share this article.

  31. Katie Peugh says:

    6 minutes is easy! I loved the charts too!

  32. Terri says:

    Great article! We devote 30 minutes a day to independent reading and usually have good gains. The information about the text change in 6th grade is important , it explains a few things. Can’t wait to read more in this series.

  33. Patricia Hodges says:

    This research validates the practice of extra reading practice. Many years ago i began to work on Master Classroom status . I quickly learned the value of daily reading totals. The more my children read, the more growth they achieved. Last year, our average growth on the STAR test was over 200 points. I know that the more my children read, the more growth they achieve.

  34. Melissa Stephens says:

    This article is so informative. I printed it so that I have it to refer to in the future. When I have parent conferences regarding requiring more reading time, I can have research to prove that the more a student reads the more successful they become. Thanks for sharing this information!

  35. Karla says:

    I love the idea the one teacher had in the comments. Start a “Give me Six”. What a great way to encourage students to go the extra “Six” minutes! I would love to collect my own data on this. Great article.

  36. Maria E. Martinez says:

    What an informative article! Very direct and comprehensive.

  37. Mary Brown says:

    This article has shown me the need to bring in older students or parent/grandparent volunteers to actually listen to children read for 10 minutes a day. So little to ask to reap such benefits, I am anxious to bring this to my team’s attention!!
    It is always nice to read reading research!! Thank you!

  38. Mary Brown says:

    This is wonderful reading research to learn that such a strategy can reap such benefits! I will share this info with my team and try to arrange some parent/ grandparent or older students to listen to a student read approximately 10 minutes daily.

  39. Mary Brown says:

    It is wonderful to read about research that shows such a small strategy can yield such amazing results…I will share with my team to get parents/grandparents or older children to listen to our students read about 10 minutes a day!

  40. Donna Nichols says:

    Students, like all of us, are so busy. We have to help them build in time during school. A little time goes a long way.

  41. Nicole Erwin says:

    This is perfect timing as my ELA team is trying to address differences in reading achievment

  42. Janet Mullins says:

    I have seen and am concerned with the drop off in 6th grade. I have seen that with my own grandchildren and am anxious that it doesn’t affect there academics. I will use this information to encourage them to see the usefulness of continued reading for their success. I am also excited to share this with my 5th & 6th grade teachers to help them with their students.

  43. Lauren Thrasher says:

    That is some very interesting data. I cannot wait to share it with other teachers to show them what an additional 6 minutes can really do with our students!

  44. LeeAnn Needham says:

    Thank you! This was so worth the read. I have forwarded this to several other teachers. I would like to know more about the 6th grade slump. I see it in my 5th graders to some extent. How can we fix this? There is a lack of higher level reading fiction that is appealing to my high readers in 5th. I steer them to the classics and to non-fiction, but I know they still love the content of Wimpy Kid and Bad Kitty books. Emotionally they aren’t ready for 8th grade novels. What to do?

  45. Deana says:

    Great article with lots of facts that teachers and parents need to be aware of. I’m going to share this article with all the ELA teachers at my school.

  46. Veronica A Gonzalez says:

    The data is interesting and will definitely share with team.

  47. Angela Domond says:

    Last year, one of my below level readers was constantly reading. She read more than more other students. She went from being below level in August to being above level in May. The extra reading time made a huge difference!

  48. Amber AuBain says:

    Interesting read! I loved looking at the date in the graphs and tables.

  49. Debbie Vehnekamp says:

    Any extra reading time certainly stacks the deck in favor of success in school and life!

  50. Mary says:

    Amazing stats!

  51. Marianne Gaskins says:

    Very interesting read. I believe that any extra time spent reading will benefit students. It is amazing how the difference in averages is only 6 minutes. This reminds me of some figures I have seen before based on children who are read to before entering school. The difference in the words that they are exposed to based on children who are not read to is staggering. It makes sense that it will hold true throughout their education careers.

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