The science of reading: How to choose books students will actually enjoy

The correlation is simple: students who understand and enjoy the material will be motivated to read more. A new report shows educators exactly which books students find most popular.

Nearly half of all students (49%) spend less than 15 minutes per day reading. That’s a profound statistic, considering motivated reading has proven to have a substantial impact on student achievement, comprehension, vocabulary and academic growth. So, why is this the case? It’s quite possible students don’t want to read simply because they don’t enjoy the books they’re assigned. Here’s how to change that.

Renaissance, a global leader in pre-K12 education technology, released its annual “What Kids Are Reading report”  for 2023, the world’s largest study of K12 student reading habits. It also lists some of the most consistently popular books by grade level, allowing district leaders, educators and librarians to efficiently provide students with books that they will be more likely to read.

How to motivate students to read

“All readers are simply searching for a book to grab their interest, to inspire them to open the cover and begin,” the report reads. “And kids are naturally more likely to want to read books they can see themselves in, or that mirror their experiences.”

In addition to choosing books that are reflective of students’ personalities and experiences, there are four key points that are necessary to properly assess and teach reading:

  • Knowledge: Educators must first grasp the development of fluent reading so they can teach specific skills necessary for language comprehension and word recognition. Keep an eye out for signs that students are not growing in this area.
  • Assessment: Students should be screened for early signs of potential reading problems so that teachers can intervene effectively before those problems become long-term. Students’ progress should also be continually monitored so that instruction can be adjusted if necessary.
  • Instruction: Using instructional methods that are proven to build positive reading outcomes for students will help to build foundational skills for both native English speakers and non-English speaking students.
  • Meaningful practice: Students must be given opportunities to practice reading skills like they would any other habit. Teachers must be intentional in providing time and lessons for students to build reading skills.

However, this is no easy task, according to the report. Like speaking, reading is not a skill we acquire naturally.

“Learning to read requires a lot of explicit teaching and opportunities to practice,” it reads. “Even with teachers’ greatest efforts, we still have many students who do not become successful or independent readers.”

Assigning books that are fun and engaging, the report adds, will help to increase the chances students will actually read the material and benefit from it. According to the research, these are the most-read books by students by grade range:

  • Grades K-12: Dr. Seuss’ Green Eggs and Ham
  • Grades 3-5: E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web
  • Grades 6-8: S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders
  • Grades 9-12: Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird

Books with “staying power”

  • Grade 1: Alyssa Satin Capucilli’s Biscuit Series
  • Grade 2: Laura Numeroff’s If You Give a Mouse a Cookie
  • Grade 4: Judy Blume’s Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing
  • Grade 6: Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet
  • Grades 7 and 8: S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders
  • Grades 7 and 8: Lois Lowry’s The Giver
  • Grades 9 and 10: Elie Wiesel’s Night
  • Grades 9 and 10: Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird
  • Grades 9-11: John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men

The bottom line is that investing adequate time for students to practice reading is necessary for comprehension and experiencing reading success, according to the report. The correlation is simple: Students who enjoy and understand the material will be motivated to continue reading in the future.

More from DA: Why books are flying off the shelves in school libraries… for good

Micah Ward
Micah Ward
Micah Ward is a District Administration staff writer. He recently earned his master’s degree in Journalism at the University of Alabama. He spent his time during graduate school working on his master’s thesis. He’s also a self-taught guitarist who loves playing folk-style music.

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