Using Reader’s Advisory to Close the College Reading Gap

Did you know?

  • Only 44% of high school grads who took the ACT are college ready for reading, based on their scores.
  • The average reading level of the 40 most frequently-read books by high school students is 5.3 (fifth grade, third month). That’s about where The Hunger Games falls.
  • The average literacy level of college students falls in the intermediate range. That means they are only able to perform moderately challenging literacy activities.

(I created an infographic for this, but WordPress won’t let me embed it.)

Sobering statistics, right? That makes it very clear why students are also lacking information literacy skills. Reading comprehension is prerequisite to the level of critical thinking that college-level information literacy skills demand.

I think that librarians should be leading the battle to close this reading gap. The weapon of choice? Reader’s Advisory.

In an academic institution, reader’s advisory needs to be viewed as an educational objective. Students should be guided toward reading materials that are just slightly above their current reading levels. That means two things. Students need to be aware of their current reading level, and librarians should be aware of the various reading levels of research materials. That awareness will guide material selection, both for the student and from an acquisitions point of view.

The data on the college reading gap also brings up another question. Is it appropriate to require first year students to use peer-reviewed, scholarly articles for research papers? At non-selective and/or moderately selective institutions the answer may be no. First year students are still learning how to write, and to require them to write a paper using resources that are several reading levels above their heads seems counterproductive.

Fortunately, there are tools available to identify text complexity. One of the easiest to use is the ATOS analyzer. You can input text or even upload text files and get an estimate of reading level difficulty. You may be surprised at the results. It is particularly useful for informational texts. And of course, you also have the databases that are geared toward high school students.

Now, back to recreational reading. Having a popular materials collection is surely a must for promoting regular reading habits. But, you also need to consider that popular materials tend to be lower in text complexity. Just look up any popular title in AR Bookreader or the Lexile database and you’ll see what I mean. Students who are avid readers, but only read the popular stuff are getting stuck in a reading level rut – a reading level that ends somewhere around 5th or 6th grade. So, the educational objective for reader’s advisory at the college level should be to connect students with more complex literature that piques their interests. For example, a lover of Twilight might enjoy The Monk by Matthew Lewis. Or someone who enjoyed The Help might be interested in Alex Haley’s Roots.

Today’s students are not really reading any less than previous generations. They are just reading less complex texts. This is especially problematic for college bound students. The new Common Core requirements are supposed to help resolve this. We’ll see. In the meantime, reader’s advisory should be as important an objective as reference and instruction in academic libraries.



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