Students read too little nonfiction

I recently heard someone mention a high school senior with a 96% average and I wondered if the kid can read or write.

My pessimism was fueled by reading the 2021 edition of What Kids are Reading from Renaissance Learning Inc.

I examined Renaissance Learning’s 2021 report for students grade 9-12, since they will soon be in the college/adult learners group I teach.

what students read
Data from Renaissance Learning Inc. 2021 edition.

Then I compared those students’ Lexile scores on nonfiction reading material to the 50th percentile numbers on Lexile grade level charts. I used the Lexile scores established 30 years ago because they make it easy to compare how today’s students compare to yesterday’s students.

What scores mean
Students are reading in the bottom half of their peer of 30 years ago.

I looked at students’ nonfiction reading skill because that is a employability marker. Students who read at the 50th percentile for their grade are at the middle of the pack. Half the students in their cohort read less well, and half read better. The 50th percentile isn’t good enough to get a kid into Harvard, but it will get kids into trade school programs and then into decently paying jobs (minus student debt).

My analysis wasn’t sophisticated or deep, but it was depressing.

Typically, three-quarters of the titles on the fiction list were available in both English and Spanish, which could mean a significant proportion of students are not reading those books in English. That wouldn’t be a problem as long as students are getting plenty of practice reading English nonfiction.

On an annual basis, high school students read roughly as many books, both fiction and nonfiction, as the number of nonfiction books I read every two months. Such a small amount of reading may leave students unprepared to tackle the nonfiction reading needed in the working world.

Most distressing of all the information in the Renaissance report is the Lexile rankings of students. Not one of the cohorts of students grades nine through 12 is reading as well as the lowest half of students at their grade level as established in the Lexile scores used for comparing the reading skills of students over time.

What scores mean
Students are reading in the bottom half of their historical peer group.


What Kids are Reading: 2021 edition from Renaissance Learning Inc.

©2021 Linda Gorton Aragoni