Reading Quotient: The Indicator of Success

The problem: kids aren't reading!
What is RQ, and why is it important to track?
The impact of a low RQ
Frequency and Duration
Parents: take your children's future into your own hands
The RQ Quiz

The problem: kids aren't reading! 

"Johnny Won't Read" (USA Today headline, 8 July 2004)

"My dad is still into the whole book thing.  He has not realized that the Internet kind of took the place of that" (college student quoted in Chronicle of Higher Education, Jan 2007)

"I Hate Reading" (Facebook page, with 550,783 "likes")

". . . For too many kids in this country, reading is a dirty word" (James Patterson,, 28 Sept 2011)

"Children think reading is 'uncool' and boring" (BBC reporting on a poll of teachers, 22 June 2012)

These are disturbing statements, but they echo everywhere with the same message: more and more kids don't like books.  They pack leisure hours with TV, social media, cell phone calls, and texting, not time alone with a volume in hand, and they abhor the novels and textbooks their teachers assign.

For a growing portion of the young, the phrase "reading for fun" doesn't make sense.

The U.S. Department of Education documents this trend among teenagers, asking them three times over a 20-year period how often they "read for fun."  In the chart below, note that the percentage of 17-year-olds who read "Never or hardly ever" more than doubled to nearly one in five, while those who read "Almost every day" dropped nine percentage points.

This is the wrong direction, and it dismays educators and advocacy groups that have insisted again and again on the power and benefits of books.  That such a longstanding activity central to individual growth and a vibrant society should undergo so steep a decline in so short a time signals a genuine crisis.

Meanwhile, the Bureau of Labor Statistics yielded the following meager amounts of leisure reading by teenagers in successive results of its American Time Use Survey.  The Survey asks individuals to keep a diary of the time they spend on various activities, and reading comes up as a negligible pastime.

The consequences are vast and distressing.  If the decline were simply a shift in tastes toward other diversions, we might accept it as but a normal change in the course of American society.  But reading is different from TV, video games, athletics, socializing, the Internet, and other leisure activities—reading is vital to a child's success in life. The benefits of leisure reading are enormous:

  • Readers do better in all subjects including science, math, history and civics
  • Provides higher verbal ability and better college readiness and success
  • School work is easier for readers–readers are more likely to stay in school
  • Stronger civic and cultural engagement including volunteering and voting
  • Leads to better workplace readiness and performance
  • Reading is a deep source of joy and curiosity
  • It increases our imagination, creativity, empathy and understanding

As Dana Gioia, former-Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, put it a few years ago, "If I could only know one number about a kid at 18 that would predict how successful he'd be in life, it would be his reading proficiency."

What is RQ, and why is it important to track?

The habit of leisure reading originates in the home, not in the classroom.  Teachers focus on knowledge and skills, not on the personal habits and interests of each student.  They know that out-of-school activities influence class performance, but they haven't the time or the authority to do much more than make recommendations.  Most importantly, for children to become avid readers, they have to love what they read, and reading required for a class too often doesn't excite them.  Parents create the home environment for reading, they take kids to libraries and bookstores, monitor media consumption, and serve as reading role models themselves.  How well they do it determines their children's future more than any single teacher.

To help parents with it, James Patterson has joined with reading experts to develop a scalable measure of youth reading: Reading Quotient (RQ).  It's a brief questionnaire that yields a precise score.  To determine RQ, we follow an equation: frequency + duration + volume + challenge = RQ.  Like IQ, it measures intellectual ability, but in a specific, two-fold way: first, the ability to comprehend works of greater and lesser complexity; and second, the disposition to read, to devote regular periods to reading at home without interruption, to do high-volume reading.  It's an aptitude plus a tendency, and it evolves through practice.  The more often youths read and the more books they absorb over time, the higher their RQ—and the higher their achievement and personal well-being.

The lower their RQ, the more limited their futures may be.

The following pages explain why RQ is so important, compiling research on pleasure reading and academic achievement, job prospects, and personal life.  We outline, too, the rationale for the RQ Test, the questions and the scoring.  The research complements Patterson's ReadKiddoRead initiative, providing empirical support for the claim that high-RQ is the most effective way to ensure that a child will fulfill their full potential in whatever field they chose as adults.  As Patterson has stated, "We need a radical shift in our kids' reading habits.  We're asking parents to pledge to put reading above all."  His words are warranted by research from government offices, private foundations, and academics.   Here we offer concise information useful to the real agents of improvement—not teachers and schools, employers, or public officials—but mothers and fathers.

The impact of a low RQ

Low reading rates are linked to weaker performances in every school subject. Having a low RQ also contributes to a lack of engagement in later in life, including civic and volunteer opportunities, and a loss of career and income potential.

"Students who are on target in eighth and ninth grade to be ready for college-level reading," it stated, "are substantially more likely to be on target to be ready for college in English, mathematics, and science" (see The Forgotten Middle: Ensuring that All Students Are on Target for College and Career Readiness before High School).  Of those students who met ACT's reading benchmark, 65 percent met the math benchmark and 31 percent met the science benchmark.  If they didn't meet the reading benchmark, other scores plummeted: only 14 percent in math and a mere one percent in science.

Another set of data from U.S. Department of Education found firm correlations between NAEP scores in several subjects and the presence of books in a student's home. Presumably, the presence of books correlates to a home where reading is a central activity.

The impact of books in the home applies not only to academic tests.  Readers also live better lives.  Here is a breakdown of civic and cultural activities by reading and non-reading populations (using National Endowment for the Arts data):

Participation in Cultural and Social Activities

Percentage of U.S. Adult  Population
Literary Readers Non-Literary Readers
Perform Volunteer and Charity Work 43.0 17.0
Visit Art Museums 44.0 12.0
Attend Performing Arts Events 49.0 17.0
Attend Sporting Events 45.0 27.0

The impact spreads from cultural participation to employment as well.  When we examine reading scores, it is important to include the correlation with job success also, for workplace readiness is for many high school students more important than college readiness.  Here, too, the correlations are strong.  When students earn low reading scores, they lose job opportunities and income potential.  The U.S. Department of Education reported the following trends in reading ability and workplace results.

Those who don't are at risk for the rest of their lives.  Indeed, when social scientists survey the most unsuccessful individuals in our society, they find low reading and low literacy every time.  The National Assessment of Adult Literacy found that on literacy scales, individuals in prison scored significantly below individuals living in regular households (see Literacy Behind Bars).

The National Commission on Adult Literacy stated that of the 2.3 million adults in prison in 2006, "56 percent have very low literacy skills" (see Reach Higher, America: Overcoming Crisis in the U.S. Workforce, p. v).

Our conclusion must be: low reading rates are an academic problem for students; they become a workplace and productivity problem for employees and employers, and a civic and quality-of-life issue for the nation.  The costs in human lives and social health are inestimable.


One aspect of these results seems counter-intuitive.  How can hours spent reading books that don't bear upon course assignments not hinder academic performance? But this isn't the case.  According to the 2011 National Survey of Student Engagement, an annual poll of 500,000 first-year and senior college students, heavy leisure readers tend to do more homework than light leisure readers.

  • Nearly half of first-year students who read more than 20 books in the preceding year spent more than 15 hours per week on homework vs. only about a third of those who did not read

The fact that heavy leisure readers do more homework than light and non-readers overturns assumptions that fun reading competes with school reading.  The evidence is that it complements school reading.  We might explain the direct relationship by a basic similarity.  Both actions involve focused attention, the inclination to sit alone with a single text without interruption.  Here we find another basis for the value of leisure reading.

However diverting and un-academic it may appear, fun reading trains youths to concentrate, to plunge into another world of words and representations.  As they read, they exercise their minds, arranging actions into plot, imagining the motives of characters, envisioning settings, processing information, and learning new terms.

Reading is a mental workout, toning the brain to more reading, deeper thinking, sharper concentration, and vaster reservoirs of words and knowledge.

Research proving the benefits of leisure reading improving mental cognition does not distinguish between popular fiction and arduous works such as Shakespeare's plays.  Both activities involve considerable mental labor, and the correlations cited earlier suggest that reading for fun actually eases the labor of academic reading.  It cultivates basic intellectual powers necessary for students to comprehend the kinds of texts they will encounter in school, the workplace, or daily life, everything from Supreme Court decisions to philosophical arguments, technical manuals and business reports.

This leads to another finding among reading researchers that echoes the NAEP results from 2011.  It is that volume of leisure reading is a crucial factor in a student's success.  As a report by the National Institute of Child Health affirmed, "Literally hundreds of correlational studies find that the best readers read the most and that poor readers read the least.  These correlational studies suggest that the more children read, the better their fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension" (12).

Some researchers even attribute achievement gaps between high- and low-income students more to relative amounts of leisure reading than to any other factor, particularly given the effect of summer vacation on reading skills (see Allington and McGill-Franzen, and also Cunningham and Stanovich).  They conclude that raising the amount of leisure reading over time has direct benefits such as gains in fluency (defined as the ability to read quickly and accurately, without stumbling, an ability that grows, precisely, with more reading).

Researchers Anne Cunningham and Keith Stanovich have maintained that high reading volume isn't a result of high reading ability. Instead, it is a source of high reading ability.   

A few years after this study, researchers at Center for the Study of Reading at University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign examined vocabulary acquisition through independent reading and came up with similar conclusions about the enormous cumulative impact a few minutes of reading each day produces.

They found that for children who do a fair amount of independent reading, this could lead to the acquisition of 5,000 to 10,000 new words a year, and thus account for the bulk of their annual vocabulary growth (See Anderson and Nagy, p. 9).  Leisure reading produces vastly more vocabulary gain than classroom instruction—once again, shifting some of the responsibility of a child's intellectual growth to the parents.  Indeed, even "a moderate level of daily reading," they affirmed, "can lead to gains of several thousand words per year."  Children who don't do it, fall farther and farther behind their peers.

Differences in reading ability between readers and non-readers widen over time.  With regular leisure reading, "an upward spiral of causality" develops.  The process is self-reinforcing: reading more allows children to read more.

Reading volume is important not only to verbal aptitude, but to study and work habits, too.  High school and college courses often assign long novels, dense chapters in textbooks, and experiments reported in scientific literature.  Workplaces ask employees to read dense technical guidebooks, business and government reports, client communications, and other, often lengthy texts.  They require adequate comprehension skills, that is, the ability to read a text and summarize it accurately, but they also require a disposition to stick with them for hours at a time.  It takes stamina and habit.  One can't read a William Faulkner novel a few pages at a time in 10-minute snatches and keep track of the plot and characters.  One can't break off in the middle of a chapter in a new software manual and return to it an hour later without starting from the beginning.  In the Reading Between the Lines report cited earlier, ACT determined that one primary distinction between successful and unsuccessful college students is the ability to read "complex texts" such as Faulkner's novels.

The critical value of reading volume indicates why the "fun" element is so important, for enjoyment is what lengthens reading hours and increases material covered.  If youths don't like the books in their hands, they regard leisure reading as a chore, not a pleasure, and it doesn't expand.  They have other activities available—TV, texting, socializing—and unless reading is a prized option, it won't happen.

The importance of matching books to your child's age is underscored by the Common Core project, a National Governors Association initiative of standards for reading and math that have been adopted by 46 states.  Appendix A of the project's English Language Arts section states:

    Additionally, Common Core notes, at the same time that college texts have increased in difficulty, high school readings have decreased in difficulty.  Once again, the burden falls on parents to discover books whose reading challenges will serve their children well after high school.

    Parents: take your children's future into your own hands

    The research proves the impact of a reading-oriented home.  High-RQ ends in workplace and academic success, and it begins in a parent's guidance and example.  From reading storybooks to a toddler to handing likable novels to a teenager, parents sustain reading as a family value and joyous interlude.  It requires consistency and diligence, daily efforts to create and preserve it against a hundred duties and diversions that draw children and adults away from books.

    Given the impact of RQ, frequent, sustained reading should have the same status as nutritious food and abundant sleep.  A mother who feeds her kids fruits and vegetables and milk, but who neglects a copious reading diet, forgets a decisive component of child rearing.  Books must be a practice and a presence, a behavior as ordinary as bathing and a fixture as abiding as the kitchen room table.

    The obvious first step is to stock the home with books.  RQ needs a supportive environment, and it won't thrive unless books are common and available at all times.  With books in every room in the house, children and teenagers experience them as part of the comforts and routines of the family, of bedtime, of privacy.  Parents bolster the permanent place of books with magazines and newspaper subscriptions.  Each issue comes and goes, but they send the message that reading isn't only a ticket to an imaginary world, but the primary means of following events in the real world, too.

    If parents involve children in collecting books, making the public library and local bookstore a regular destination, it becomes an activity with a value all its own.  RQ gets an instant boost when a 10-year-old is set loose in the children's section free to choose as many books as he or she wants.

    With the tremendous growth in TV, computer, and video games, there is also the decline in print consumption.  The American Time Use Survey reveals the same rates of media consumption by older teenagers (15-19 years old), along with miniscule reading minutes.

    In spite of all the encounters with words other than through printed matter, NAEP reading scores for 12th-graders in 2009 were four points lower than scores in 1992, before the Digital Age revolutionized teenage leisure time. So, although youths have more access to media and information, the decline of reading print also declines reading scores.

    The kind of reading children and teenagers typically do on screens doesn't foster critical reading and writing abilities.  Books provide a richer and deeper experience than the Twitter tweet or the Facebook comment.  Young people need longer texts requiring lengthier engagement, with more characters, varied settings, complicated plots, and three hundred pages of words.

    Neuroscientist and reading researcher Dan Gustafson puts it this way: "The human brain resembles a muscle that strengthens through effort, and just as a person only becomes a stronger weightlifter by lifting more weight, the same ultimately is true of a successful reader." Greater length produces a tougher mental workout.

    This breakdown of media consumption among teens, and its effect on these teens' reading levels, is disturbing. But parents have the power to reverse these trends. And they can take the first step towards fostering a high RQ in their children by taking the simple RQ Quiz.

    The RQ Quiz

    Once parents have established the conditions for high-RQ, they must inculcate the habit, encouraging, coercing, tempting, and leading their children to read voluntarily at home and elsewhere.  As their children grow up, they need to monitor how effectively it produces the habit.  The question to ask is: How often and how long and how much?—and they need a clear and simple standard of measurement in order to gauge how they are doing.

    The first question is:

      How often does your child read a book at home that is not one required for school?
        Every day or almost every day                  [25 points]
      • Once or twice a week                                  [20 points]
      • Two or three times a month                       [15 points]
      • Never or hardly ever                                    [0 points]

    How frequently is your child leisure reading at home? NAEP scores indicate a substantial difference between daily readers and once or twice a week readers, a difference that the scoring should reflect.  Also, we divide NAEP's single category "Almost every day" into two categories, "Every day" and "Almost every day" in order to distinguish more sharply the optimum frequency.

    Question 2 is:

      When your child reads a book outside of school for pleasure, how long does he or she spend reading in one setting?
        More than 1 hour                                           [25points]
      • 40-60 minutes                                                 [20 points]
      • 20-39 minutes                                                 [15 points]
      • 10-20 minutes                                                 [10 points]
      • Less than 10 minutes                                    [0 points]

    It is important also to measure your child's reading duration. We set the bar at 60 minutes for two reasons.  One, it is a reasonable expectation to apportion one hour to reading out of the five hours of leisure time that the average teenager enjoys (according to the American Time Use Survey). Two, we consider a 60-minute amount of time the minimum necessary for youths both to make reading a distinct, habitual activity and to acquire the disposition to handle homework assignments and complex texts.

    Question 3 is:

      How many books does your child read per year for pleasure, not homework?
        More than 12                                                    [25 points]
      • 9-12                                                                   [20 points]
      • 5-8                                                                     [15 points]
      • 1-4                                                                     [10 points]
      • None                                                                 [0 points]

    This is the volume question.  Parents can monitor frequency and duration, the subjects of Questions 1 and 2, simply by checking each day and recording number of minutes.  Volume is more complicated and more diagnostic, too, for it measures how competent and avid a youth reader happens to be.  A 13-year-old who reads every day for one hour but covers only as many pages as a 13-year-old who reads daily but only for 30 minutes might indicate a problem.  To assess it, a parent would have to examine the reading materials.  Is the low-volume reader choosing overly difficult or insufficiently engaging books?  Are there factors to consider pertaining to the mingling of readings—for instance, novels, comic books, and informational texts in jumbled combination?

    Question 4 is:

    How many of the books your child reads are age-appropriate or above?

      All of them                                                         [25 points]
    • Most of them                                                     [20 points]
    • Some of them                                                   [10 points]
    • None of them                                                    [0 points]

    This is the challenge question. A Harry Potter book for a five-year-old is too hard, while a Magic Tree House book for a 13-year-old is too easy.  A high school student who flies through a Pokémon comic book every week reaches high volume but the material is too simple to build much knowledge and reading skill.

    RQ depends upon much more than reading more than 12 books per year, of course, and we expect youths to add other items such as youth-oriented magazines, informational texts, and the sports page into their daily mix.  But to determine a child's fluency and interest, the age-level book measure serves well.  To find engaging books of the right certain length and density, vocabulary, and background-knowledge demand, parents have two helpful sources.  One is their children's English teachers and local and school librarians. Also, they may consult In it parents may find hundreds of exemplary texts matched to age levels from Kindergarten to 12th Grade, including fiction, poetry, drama, biography, essay, history, and science.  Parents will be well-equipped to select books for their children to exceed the "More than 12" threshold.


    These questions produce an RQ score for parents.  Anything less than 100 points is a call for change.  If Question 2 earns only 20 points, the strategy is clear: add 20 minutes to every reading session.  The tactics may range from increasing library visits to allowing kids more choice of reading to discussing books with kids to hard-line stands ("you can't watch TV unless you do another 20 minutes of reading")—anything that works.  If Question 3 earns 20 points, parents and kids find a couple more books of the right complexity level, testing one after another until the child sticks with it and raises the yearly rate.

    RQ is not a final grade.  It's a diagnosis, isolating areas for improvement.  The tactics will vary but the goal is simple: more leisure reading.  Would you describe your child as an avid reader of books?  Has reading become one of his/her favorite pastimes?  The RQ score is a quantitative measure, but the ultimate goal is to instill an attitude in your child.  How to make it happen, though, is complicated, especially when children and teenagers have so many other duties and diversions, both homework assignments and peer pressure, drawing their attention. But all parents should agree that it is worth the effort since all children will benefit in substantial measure, by becoming avid, life-long readers.

    List of sources

    ACT, "Reading Between the Lines: What the ACT Reveals About College Readiness in Reading" (2006)

    —–"The Condition of College and Career Readiness, 2011"


    Allington, Richard L., and Anne McGill-Franzen, "The Impact of Summer Setback on the Reading Achievement Gap," Phi Delta Kappan 85 (2003): 68-75.

    Anderson, Richard C., and William E. Nagy, "The Vocabulary Conundrum," Technical report No. 570 (March 1993), Center for the Study of Reading.

    Center for Postsecondary Research, Indiana University, National Survey of Student Engagement.

    Cunningham, Anne, and Keith Stanovich, "Reading Can Make You Smarter!" Principal (Nov/Dec 2003): 34-39

    Conference Board et al, Are They Really Ready to Work?  Employers' Perspectives on the Basic

    Knowledge and Applied Skills of New Entrants to the 21st Century U.S. Workforce (2006—

    Chiong, Cynthia, Jinny Ree, Lori Takeuchi, and Ingrid Erickson, "Print Books vs. E-books: Comparing Parent-Child Co-Reading on Print, Basic, and Enhanced E-book Platforms," Joan Ganz Cooney Center (

    Dehaene, Stanislas.  Reading in the Brain: The Science and Evolution of a Human Invention (2009)

    Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute, Boiling Point: The Skills Gap in U.S. Manufacturing

    Higher Education Research Institute, UCLA, American Freshman Survey.

    Johnson, Jeffrey G., Patricia Cohen, Stephanie Kasen, and Judith S. Brook, "Extensive Television Viewing and the Development of Attention and Learning Difficulties During Adolescence," Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine 161 (2007): 480-86.

    Keller, Timothy A. and Marcel Adam Just, "Altering Cortical Connectivity: Remediation-Induced Changes in the White Matter of Poor Readers," Neuron 64 (2009), 624-631

    Lacey, S., R. Stilla and K. Sathian.  "Metaphorically Feeling: Comprehending Textural Metaphors Activates Somatosensory Cortex," Brain & Language (2012).

    Lenhart, Amanda, Rich Ling, Scott Campbell, and Kristen Purcell, "Teens and Mobile Phones," A report of Pew Internet and American Life Project (

    Mol, Suzanne E., and Adriana G. Bus, "To Read or Not to Read: A Meta-Analysis of Print Exposure from Infancy to Early Adulthood," Psychological Bulletin 137 (March 2011): 267-96 National Commission on Adult Literacy, Reach Higher, America: Overcoming Crisis in the U.S. Workforce (June 2008,

    National Endowment for the Arts, Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America (2004)

    —–To Read or Not to Read: A Question of National Consequence (2007)

    —–Reading on the Rise: A New Chapter in American Literacy (2008)

    National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, Teaching Children to Read: An Evidence-Based Assessment of the Scientific Research Literature on Reading and Its Implications for Reading Instruction (2000)

    Nielsen Company, "New Mobile Obsession: U.S. Teens Triple Data Usage (15 Dec 2011—see

    Peter D. Hart Research Associates, "Rising to the Challenge: Are High School Graduates Prepared for College and Work?: A Study of Recent High School Graduates, College Instructors, and Employers" (FEBRUARY 2005,

    Project Tomorrow, "Mapping a Personal Learning Journey—K-12 Students and Parents Connect the Dots with Digital Learning," Results of Speak Up 2011 (

    Rideout, Victoria J., Ulla G. Foehr, and Donald F. Roberts, Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-Year-Olds (2010)

    U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, American Time Use Survey (

    U.S. Department of Education, United States.  NAEP 2004 Trends in Academic Progress: Three Decades of Performance in Reading and Mathematics (2005)

    —–Literacy Behind Bars: Results from the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy Prison Survey (2007)

    —–"Findings in Brief: Reading and Mathematics 2011" (2012)

    Wolf, Maryanne. Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain (2007)