Secondary pupils shun more challenging books


The difficulty of books chosen by students to read plateaus or even declines after they make the transition to secondary school, research has found.

The annual What Kids are Reading report looks into the reading habits of around 426,000 pupils across years 1 to 11 in more than 2,000 schools.

This year’s results show that in primary school both the difficulty levels of books chosen and the accuracy with which they are read is on the rise compared with last year.

However, in year 7 the study finds that children are choosing books at six months below their chronological age and as they progress through secondary school reading difficulty plateaus or declines. 

The report contends that year 6 is the last year when children, on average, are reading more or less at their natural reading age and says that in secondary schools both struggling readers and high-achievers are “under-challenged by the books they are choosing to read”. It urges secondary schools to ensure a “higher level of challenge”.

On a more positive note, the research also finds that boys and girls are now performing equally well, with no discernible gender difference when it comes to reading difficulty.

It is the sixth time the annual report has been published. It is authored by Keith Topping, professor of educational and social research at Dundee University, and published by education software company Renaissance Learning.

Non-fiction difficulty levels also decline “significantly” in secondary school, the study finds and recommends that boys especially would “benefit from strong guidance to ensure a suitable level of challenge” in this field.

By year 8, sport and football have almost completely taken over as the main themes in the non-fiction chart, with 15 titles based on sports and seven of those dedicated to football or football stars.

The report says that while these titles are appealing to older boys, they are not sufficiently challenging for their level of ability and are not being read with any great accuracy.

It adds: “The most striking disparity is certainly the difference between performance in reading in primary school and performance in secondary school. There is a marked decline at the point of transfer which is not explained by differences in numbers of students in the sample. Exactly the same decline is found for high-ability readers and for non-fiction.”

Speaking about the findings generally, Prof Topping said: “There is a marked downturn in the difficulty of books at secondary transfer and this does not necessarily reflect a lack of ability to read more difficult texts. The results seem to point to under-challenge at either end of the spectrum, both for struggling readers and high-ability readers.”

Elsewhere, the research has also compiled its annual list of the most-read authors among year 1 to 11 students across the UK. This year, Jeff Kinney has pipped national icon Roald Dahl to top the list.

The two were tied for top spot in 2013, but Mr Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, featuring a boy’s struggles with school and family, has now taken top spot despite only having published a relatively small number of titles.

Also notable was comedian David Walliams’ entry into the rankings directly at number five. He has now written seven books for children and was ranked ahead of Harry Potter author JK Rowling and former children’s laureate Michael Morpurgo. 

Suzanne Collins, author of The Hunger Games, is ranked 6th in the chart, although is the most read author among students in years 8 to 11.

This year’s report has the largest participation rate to date, with 426,067 children taking part, reading 6,544,973 books and a total in excess of 77 billion words.

To access the 2014 report, visit

The most-read authors 2014

1, Jeff Kinney (Last year: 1st)

2, Roald Dahl (1st)

3, Roderick Hunt (2nd)

4, Francesca Simon (3rd)

5, David Walliams (n/a)

6, Suzanne Collins (4th)

7, JK Rowling (5th)

7, Julia Donaldson (9th)

7, Michael Morpurgo (6th)

10, John Boyne (n/a)

10, Martin Waddell (8th)



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