National Children’s Reading Habits Study: Understanding the Reading Gap and How to Help Close It

November 15, 2018
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In Summary

The majority of American elementary students are not proficient readers—a survey of 1,000 teachers and 1,000 parents reveals three significant causes of this reading gap and offers insights into solutions.

The Reading Gap

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Reading is the foundation of education and vital to children’s success in school and beyond. Regular reading not only improves vocabulary and school performance, but also helps children develop empathy and self-confidence.1 And when children fall behind in reading, learning other subjects becomes increasingly difficult with each passing school year. Students unable to read at grade level by 4th grade are four times less likely to graduate from high school.

According to the Nation’s Report Card, more than 6 out of 10 U.S. 4th graders are not reading at grade level.2 For low-income students at high-poverty schools, that number is worse: 8 in 10 are not proficient.3

To understand some of the causes of this reading gap and identify solutions to help close it, Age of Learning recently conducted nationwide surveys of more than 1,000 parents and 1,000 teachers of children ages 2 to 12. Participants reported on children’s access to books and reading habits, and described what they see as the major obstacles to developing confident and successful readers. The data reveals three important factors contributing to the reading gap:

1.Many children lack access to books, especially high-quality, high-interest books.
2.Parents aren’t sure how to support their children’s reading needs.
3.Children don’t spend enough time reading outside of school.

Key Findings

1. Children lack access to books, especially high-quality, high-interest books.

Parent survey data shows that more than half of American families have fewer than 50 books (of any kind) in their homes, including children’s books. And according to teachers, lack of access to books at home is one of the top three obstacles to getting their students to read.

Unfortunately, many families cannot count on their child’s school to provide access to books. Ten percent of teachers report that their school does not have a school library, and 56% report that their students do not have access to a digital library. This confirms research finding that more than 8,000 elementary schools in the U.S. do not have a school library4 and that the number of school librarians has been declining dramatically.5

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For both teachers and parents, cost and space are the top challenges to providing books for children. Seven out of 10 teachers said the cost of books was an obstacle to building a classroom library, with 77% reporting that they bought books for their classroom with their own money. For parents, cost is the second most cited obstacle to building a home library.

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Even when funds are available, teachers and parents report that they don’t have enough room to store books: 54% of teachers and 47% of parents cite lack of space as a major challenge to building a library.

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As children learn to read and come to enjoy a wide range of both fiction and nonfiction books, variety and volume of books are key to encouraging their reading development. Based on teachers’ reporting on student performance, students that have access to both a traditional and digital library are 53% more likely to be reading above grade level than peers without such access.

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2. Parents aren’t sure how to support their children’s reading needs.

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Teachers want parents to be more active in supporting their children’s reading—7 in 10 believe that parents are not involved enough in their child’s education. They cite a lack of parental involvement as the number one challenge to students reading more books.

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Parents agree. They want to be more involved, but they are often unsure about how best to help. They may also be missing a complete picture of what their child needs in order to grow as a reader. Two-thirds of parents (67%) are not sure what their child’s reading level is.

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And while teachers report that 30% of their students are reading below grade level, only 9% of parents think their child is in that category.

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3. The majority of children don’t spend enough time reading outside of school.

According to teachers, students should be reading between 15 minutes and 1 hour a day outside of school (85% of teachers expect daily reading in this range), but most of their students are reading less than the 15-minute daily minimum. Seven percent of parents report that their children do not read or look at books alone outside of school. With more than 44 million children ages 2 to 12 in the U.S., that represents more than 3 million children who are never reading alone outside of school. Parents report that a similar number of children are reading or looking at books alone only 5 minutes per day or less.

There is also a gender gap in how much children enjoy reading. Parents of girls rated their child’s enjoyment of books significantly higher than parents of boys did: 8.5 for girls versus 7.9 for boys, on a 10-point scale. Parents of boys were also more likely to report that their child mostly or only reads at the parent’s direction rather than choosing on his own to read, with 27% of boys reading because they were told to versus 17% of girls.

A great way to inspire a love of reading is to give children books that they enjoy. Teachers and parents consistently identified three topics as the most beloved by their students and children: (1) Adventures and Mysteries, (2) Fables and Fairytales and (3) Animals and Plants.

Reading Study

Four Simple Steps to Help Your Child Become a Confident and Successful Reader

Although there are considerable challenges facing families, they can adopt low-effort, high-impact steps to help their children become strong and engaged readers. Parents should:

  • Get on their level! Books are like Goldilocks’ porridge—too easy and kids get bored; too advanced and they get frustrated and give up. Ask your child’s teacher what your child’s reading level is, and make sure he or she has books at that level that are just right.
  • Schedule for success. Help kids build good reading habits by setting aside at least 15 minutes every day to read together. Encourage independent readers to read on their own for that long—and reward them when they do!
  • Take them on a book treasure-hunt. Help children discover their next favorite book by visiting your local library. Encourage them to find books on the subjects they’re interested in, or ask the librarian to recommend titles that will keep their attention. Digital libraries are a great way to get books anytime and anywhere, and some can be easily searched by topic.
  • Help them explore the world of words. Books aren’t the only thing we read. Create a print-rich home by labeling objects around the house. Create a word wall where kids can see the connection between objects and their written names. By showing your kids the letters in their life, you can help them begin to decode the world around them.

Working together to overcome challenges to reading, families and teachers can help close the reading gap and improve educational outcomes for every child.


In September and October 2018, Age of Learning conducted an online survey of 1,002 parents of 2- to 12-year-olds and 1,000 preschool- through- 6th grade teachers who taught reading. Survey questions aimed to understand their sentiments and behaviors around children’s reading. Parents and teachers were diverse with respect to ethnicity, income, and geographic location in the U.S.

2 National Assessment of Educational Progress. (2017). 2017 NAEP National Achievement-Level Results for Grade 4. Retrieved from
3 Retrieved from
4 National Education Association. (2016). Library/Media Centers in U.S. Public Schools: Growth, Staffing, and Resources. Retrieved from
5 Education Week. (2018). Schools See Steep Drop in Librarians, New Analysis Finds. Retrieved from