Engaging reluctant readers with beloved books

Something magical happens when a student finds “that” book—the one that speaks to them, delights them, and leaves them hungry for more. Suddenly, they’re devouring pages, chapters, books, and even whole series.

Yet “that” book isn’t the same for every child. The challenge is finding the just-right read for every student, based on their interests, reading level, and age.

This can be especially difficult when trying to engage reluctant readers. Whether they’re embarrassed by previous struggles with reading, have been frustrated by too-difficult texts, or just think of reading as “uncool,” these students tend to avoid new reading experiences.

One way to engage reluctant readers is to point them toward their peers’ favorite books—titles that have already proven their ability to capture kids’ attention.

These most popular texts also help add a social aspect to reading: With so many kids reading them, there’s a greater likelihood a reluctant reader can find a peer who’s read the same title and would be excited to discuss plot, characters, or other aspects. Often, a peer’s enthusiasm can be infectious, helping to spark a love of reading in a previously reluctant student.

So how can educators find out which titles are the most popular among students?

World’s largest study

Enter What Kids Are Reading, the world’s largest annual study of K–12 student reading habits. For more than a decade, this report has identified the most-read books in each grade.

For 2019, the researchers behind the report analyzed the reading records of more than 8.7 million students across the United States, who read 289 million books in the 2017–2018 school year. Based on this massive data sample, they were able to identify the most popular books in each grade, along with some key patterns in student reading habits.

Kindergarten to second grade

In the early grades, as students are just learning how to read, one topic seems to dominate: animals.

From domestic animals such as dogs (Biscuit Series by Alyssa Satin Capucilli) and cats (Pete the Cat Series by James Dean) to wilder creatures such as elephants (Elephant and Piggie Series by Mo Willems) and insects (Fly Guy Series by Tedd Arnold), young students can’t seem to get enough of the adventures of these friendly, funny animals.

Most popular, best fiction and nonfiction books for students in kindergarten, first grade, and second grade, early elementary school

Which animals do your young readers like best? Try these titles!

Dogs

  • Biscuit by Alyssa Satin Capucilli
  • Clifford, the Big Red Dog by Norman Bridwell
  • Sleepy Dog by Harriet Ziefert

Cats

  • The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss
  • Pete the Cat: Too Cool for School by James Dean
  • Cat Days by Alexa Andrews

Wild animals

  • Elephants Cannot Dance! by Mo Willems
  • Big Brown Bear by David McPhail
  • If You Give a Moose a Muffin by Laura Numeroff

Insects

  • Hi! Fly Guy! by Tedd Arnold
  • The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle
  • Bugs! by Patricia C. McKissack

While nonfiction titles don’t appear among students’ most-read books in these grades, you can start building their nonfiction reading skills with these fun (and true!) books about animals:

  • Animals Everywhere by Ann Corcorane
  • Baby Cats by Bethany Olson
  • Puppies by Colleen Sexton

(You’ll find enhanced digital versions of these three titles, plus many more fantastic nonfiction reads, in your myON library.)

Remember you can find even more great titles, including popular books not about animals, when you download the complete What Kids Are Reading report.

Third to fifth grade

Although animals continue to be popular among this age group (Dog Man Series by Dav Pilkey and Bad Kitty Series by Nick Bruel), they no longer rule the most-read book lists.

Students in the intermediate grades are very interested in the lives of other kids, spending hours with series such as Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney and Fudge by Judy Blume. Many of these tales focus on kids’ adventures with teachers, principals, and other members of their school community, such as A Fine, Fine School by Sharon Creech or Miss Nelson Is Missing! by Harry Allard.

This theme continues with their nonfiction reading too. True stories of school tribulations such as Smile by Raina Telgemeier and Real Friends by Shannon Hale are particularly popular.

Most popular, best fiction and nonfiction books for students in third grade, fourth grade, and fifth grade, elementary school

Which topic do your students want to read about? Try these popular themes and titles!

Animals

  • Dog Man by Dav Pilkey
  • Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White
  • Because of Winn-Dixie by Katie DiCamillo

Kids like them

  • Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney
  • Tales of a Fourth-Grade Nothing by Judy Blume
  • Wonder by R.J. Palacio

School adventures

  • A Fine, Fine School by Sharon Creech
  • Miss Nelson is Missing! by Harry Allard
  • Frindle by Andrew Clements

Nonfiction

  • Smile by Raina Telgemeier
  • Real Friends by Shannon Hale
  • The Story of Ruby Bridges by Robert Cole

For more nonfiction titles that are proven to grab—and keep—students’ attention until the very last page, be sure to check out our special What nonfiction books kids are reading blog.

Sixth to eighth grade

Middle school is a time of transition for many students, especially as they move from “young children” to “young adults,” and their reading choices reflect this change.

While they love many of the same books they did in elementary school (especially Diary of a Wimpy Kid), young adult fiction also starts appearing on the most-read book lists. Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, The Giver by Lois Lowry, and Harry Potter by J. K. Rowling are all popular choices for students in the middle grades.

Another notable pattern is also clear: Book series are big in middle school. Of the top 10 most-read books among students in grades 6–8, nine of the ten are part of a larger series (the sole exception being The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton).

For nonfiction, students seem ready to tackle more challenging topics, including the Holocaust (Night by Elie Wiesel), gender equality (I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai), and child abuse (A Child Called “It” by Dave Pelzer).

Most popular, best fiction and nonfiction books for students in middle school, middle grades

What kind of genres are your middle schoolers interested in? Here are some great starting points:

Realistic fiction series

  • Diary of a Wimpy Kid Series by Jeff Kinney
  • Brian’s Saga Series by Gary Paulsen
  • Wonder Series by R.J. Palacio
  • Dork Diaries Series by Rachel Renée Russell

Fantasy fiction series

  • Giver Quartet by Lois Lowry
  • Percy Jackson and the Olympians Series by Rick Riordan
  • A Wrinkle in Time Series by Madeleine L’Engle
  • Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins
  • Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling

Popular nonfiction

  • Smile and Sisters by Raina Telgemeier
  • Night by Elie Wiesel
  • I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai
  • A Child Called “It” by Dave Pelzer

Fiction inspired by real events

  • A Long Walk to Water: Based on a True Story by Linda Sue Park
  • The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis
  • The Diary of Anne Frank (play) by Frances Goodrich
  • The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne
  • The Call of the Wild by Jack London

Want to help your middle schoolers practice reading in the content areas? Find themed lists on popular topics—such as robotics, horses, and mysteries—in our blog post, Bonus What Kids Are Reading lists for middle and high school.

Ninth to twelfth grade

Books that are typically assigned to students—rather than picked by the students themselves—tend to top the most-read lists for high schoolers. These students seem to spend much of their reading time with literary classics such as To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, The Crucible by Arthur Miller, and plays by William Shakespeare.

Further down the list, books emerge that are likely self-selected for reading enjoyment. Tucked between more academic texts, educators can find trendy titles such as The Maze Runner by James Dashner, Divergent by Veronica Roth, The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, and The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan. Notably, these books and series all have associated movies that may serve as a starting point for reluctant readers in the upper grades.

For nonfiction, memoirs seem popular: Night and A Child Called “It” reappear alongside The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom, and Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer.

Most popular, best fiction and nonfiction books for students in high school, upper grades, teenagers

Do your students prefer the wild words of fantasy or sci-fi, or would they rather explore the lives of fellow teens in more realistic circumstances? These are great titles to start with:

Fantasy and sci-fi books with movie adaptations

  • Maze Runner Series by James Dashner
  • Giver Quartet by Lois Lowry
  • Percy Jackson and the Olympians Series by Rick Riordan
  • The Twilight Saga by Stephenie Meyer
  • Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins
  • Divergent Series by Veronica Roth

Teenage girls dealing with challenges and drama

  • Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon
  • The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
  • The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
  • The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
  • Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
  • If I Stay by Gayle Forman

Coming-of-age stories featuring boys

  • A Separate Peace by John Knowles
  • The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
  • The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton
  • The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
  • The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
  • Holes by Louis Sachar

Looking for nonfiction titles for teens? Find the Top 10 most popular nonfiction books for grades 9–12 in our special What nonfiction books kids are reading blog, then explore curated collections of fiction and nonfiction titles around themes such as music, true crime, and memoirs in our Bonus What Kids Are Reading lists for middle and high school blog.

Empowering students to choose

For many students, their favorite books are the ones they’ve picked out on their own.

Designed for students as much as for educators, the book lists in What Kids Are Reading are a great place to start. Encourage students to browse the Top 20 list for their grade to find books or series that interest them. Each title is accompanied by both an ATOS® reading level and a Lexile® reading measure, so students can quickly find books that match their reading ability.

If you have myON, the report also highlights popular digital reads for each grade that your students can access anytime, anywhere (at school, at home, or even on the go!) by logging into their myON library.

Once a student has found a book title that fascinates them, make sure they have dedicated time—at least 15 to 30 minutes a day—for uninterrupted reading.

Then sit back and watch the magic begin.

Click here to download your copy of the What Kids Are Reading report. Be sure to also check out the Custom Report Builder tool. You can create custom book lists for individual students or reading groups using What Kids Are Reading data. The tool features filters such as state, grade, difficulty level, and more.

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