Wednesday, September 24, 2008

How many books does the average child read in a year?

We know from the Census Bureau and Commerce Department that the average household spends about $35 per year on books.

I have often wondered how many books an average household contains but have yet to come across any sort of information that might answer that question.

The other day it occurred to me that I don't know how many books an average child reads each year. The question came to me while following a list serv discussion where the majority of the participants were advocating limiting access to books that, while popular for many decades, run counter to current social sensitivities. My initial thought was - We alredy have a hard enough time getting many kids to read much at all, why keep cutting back on books that are known to attract them?

Which then led me to the question: just how many books do kids read? It is not an easy one to answer and if anyone has better information I would be very interested in hearing about it. The best I could come up with is some calculations from raw data released in a report this year by Renaissance Learning, What Kids Are Reading. In it they report the number of books children read per year by grade. They then also provide the same information for the readers performing in the top decile of reading proficency.

There are obvious issues with this source of information. It is a structured reading program: presumably school districts that can afford such a program may already have a higher than average reading population. It is unclear that the results capture summer reading volumes. The results are self-reported by students (though they are subsequently quizzed on content) which might lead to higher than accurate reported reading. It should also be noted that the decline in number of books read, makes some sense as children move from 32 page picture books to 80 page intermediate readers, to 150 page young adult books.

The average child starts school reading 39 books per year. This goes up a little their first couple of years in school and then declines steadily. In their high school years, they are reading about 6 books a year. This latter number is consistent with surveys that are conducted periodically in which adults are asked some variation on the question of how many books did you read in the past year and in which the results typically vary between four and ten books as an answer.

The interesting aspect is that Renaissance also reported the results for the best readers. They start first grade already reading at nearly twice the volume of their peers, i.e. 74 books per year versus 39. They also exhibit a decline in number of books read per year till by high school they are reading 25 books per year. However, this represents more than a four-fold multiple of number books they are reading over that of their peers (25 books versus 6 books).

It would appear that the culture of reading is already established by high school years and that it represents a pretty wide variance between the top readers and everyone else. Mathematically, the implication is also that 76% of all books read, are read by only 10% of the population, again a number consistent with other data. I see this concentration of reading little remarked upon in the various articles and research I come across.

While these numbers are provisional, I suspect that they are in the ball park (potentially too high) and probably directionally correct. So on average, each househlod spends about $35 on books each year and the average child reads around forty picture books per year in their young years (1st through 3rd grade), about fifteen books per year in their independent reader grades (4th through 8th grade) and six books per year in their young adult years. Those are soberingly small numbers when you think about which books you would prefer that they read at each of those grade levels.

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