I started my career teaching British, American, and world literature to high school kids. So I'm not thrilled to see the steady decline in the number of books read by middle and high school students. We're told that last year, on average, 2nd graders read roughly 46.2 books compared to 4.5 books for 12th graders. That has me depressed. But before I cry in my beer (read: Starbucks Chai Latte Nonfat Extra Hot), I decided to download the study.

Yes, as a former program evaluator (another post-teaching vocation), I actually like to review the methodology of studies as opposed to relying upon the "bottom line" message often reported in the news media. As alluded in the Toledo news report, the study's data are collected from a database at Renaissance Learning, a company that markets Accelerated Reader (AR)--a popular reading program in schools. Turns out, though, that the number of books students read is calculated by the number of quizzes that any particular student completes (each AR book title has an accompanying quiz). A caveat explaining such is included in the introduction to the report, which reads:

Please note: Renaissance Learning recognizes, of course, that not all book reading that happens in or outside of the classroom is captured through the Accelerated Reader software. However, it is reasonable to assume that for users of Accelerated Reader much book reading is captured in this way. AR quizzes number more than 115,000, which allows students a wide range of book selection; nearly every book found in a school, classroom, or local library has a quiz available.

They go on to explain that the study sample is one of convenience (duh), not a representative one. They say that they have records for more than 3 million students at more than 9,800 schools. That is all well and good. But let's not make the mistake of concluding that the data in this report speak for school-age children in general. I'm left wondering about the conditions under which students completed these quizzes. Were they graded? Were there incentives tied to completing the quiz--a book-of-the-month gold star perhaps? These are critical data left out that would help us understand how we should interpret the findings.

So, then, what we should keep in mind about the study is this: The dismal number of books students are reported to have read pertain only to a large bunch of kids enrolled in schools that pay to use Accelerated Reading and then are asked (more likely required) by their teachers to complete a quiz on what they read.

Sure, I agree, kids are probably reading fewer hard copy books these days, but we need to know more about how and how much students read online. Emerging technologies are changing how academic reading is handled in schools, and innovative thinkers are reinventing teaching in exciting ways. So for now, I choose to remain optimistic about kids and reading--and especially what we'll be doing in the future to enhance how they read.

Photo by Flickr user judybaxter.

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