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What I Learned From Kids About Accelerated Reader

Brainstorming with youngsters in a creative writing workshops.

 

Last night I taught the first of a series of creative writing workshops at the C.H. Booth Library in Newtown, CT. It's the second year I've taught these workshops and despite the travel to get there and back (it's an hour each way) I really love doing them. I teach two groups - one rising 6th-7th graders and the other rising 8th-9th graders, each for an hour-and-a-half. 

In our session last night, we talked about how writers get ideas and did some brainstorming exercises. 

As a writer, I find teaching these workshops incredibly energizing. After all, these are my people, the kids I write for - okay, maybe some are little younger, but I do plan to write a middle grade again some day. I learn so much from them by listening. 

Last night, what I heard broke my heart. In my younger group, the 6-7 graders, I asked the kids for some books that they'd really loved. And from one of the most promising writers in the group, I heard this: "I read this really long book and it was a waste because it wasn't in Accelerated Reader." 

I died a little inside. Actually a lot. And then I said to her, "It's NEVER a waste to read a book you enjoy." 

The girl next to her said that she'd started reading the Harry Potter series and loved it but then she "got stuck in Accelerated Reader."

This generated a whole discussion amongst the kids about AR. One girl complained that she likes to read high school books but because she is at the 8th-grade level on AR, she is only allowed to read those books. Out of 10 kids in the class, there was one kid who was happy with AR, and that was because she'd won a pizza party with two friends because she'd got to 500 AR points and it was a big source of pride and accomplishment. 

But this is a kid who is involved with Odyssey of the Mind, multiple after school activities - a clearly bright and motivated child. Is anyone telling me that AR got her to read and that she wouldn't have been reading anyway? That she couldn't have been motivated without "points"?

During the break between my classes I spoke to the librarian who runs my CW workshop about how heartbroken I was to hear this. She said that the school librarian at the elementary school was a big proponent of AR, because it had shown marked benefits with the reluctant and average readers. 

I'm not convinced training kids like puppies with "treats" is the way to turn them into lifelong readers. I had the privilege of hearing our National Ambassador for Young People's Literature, Walter Dean Myers speak in May at the Hudson Children's Book Festival, and he convinced me more than ever that it's adults modeling enthusiasm for books and reading and getting books into the home EARLY through programs like Reading is Fundamental and First Book that really makes a difference. That and investing in early childhood education. 

Instead we are cutting library funding and school librarians, cutting funding to literacy programs, and school systems are spending money on programs like AR, because it seems like an easy, one size fits all fix, instead of letting teachers work their magic. And in doing so, we end up with kids thinking that reading a really long book they enjoyed is a "waste." That makes my blood boil. It makes me wonder who the hell is making decisions about education in this country and if they're doing for benefit of kids or for financial benefit. 

For more on Accelerated Reader from those in the trenches here's some further reading:

http://blogs.edweek.org/teachers/book_whisperer/2010/09/reading_rewarded_part_ii.html

http://thereadingzone.wordpress.com/2012/04/14/what-kids-are-reading-2012-why-it-doesnt-matter/

http://thereadingzone.wordpress.com/2009/03/15/accelerated-reader-frustrations/

homeward bound June 30, 2012 at 11:33 AM
Bravo! Thanks for caring about helping children develop creative and analytical minds and suggesting an approach that won't make our kids into puppets, or thinking the reward for reading a book is a pizza party.
Elise Silkowski June 30, 2012 at 12:42 PM
The AR system has taken so much joy out of reading. Many kids in Newtown won't consider a book unless there is an AR test for that title. Any system of points over interest destroys individuality and the natural early curiosity of children. I want my country to grow leaders and thinkers, not just followers, and that seems improbable in a system where there is no room for personal interest beyond a set number of books, or worse, tests.
Sarah Darer Littman June 30, 2012 at 01:50 PM
Thank you. This upsets me on so many levels - that children would think that reading any book is a "waste" but mostly that kids would be held back from reading challenging books by some artificial construct. I was extremely fortunate that my parents, teachers and librarians never limited me in my reader choices - so I was always reading books well above my grade level. It's how I developed an extensive vocabulary - because I encountered words I didn't understand and learned to decode them through context or asked my parents what they meant (and was usually told "Go look it up in the dictionary" : ) It makes me fume that a child would be told they can't stretch to read challenging books, especially when the feedback I've had from teachers about the tests are that they are more based on recall of specific facts than critical analysis and an author failed the AR test of her own book.
Dawne Kornhaas July 01, 2012 at 01:09 AM
When both of my sons were at Reed, they participated in the AR program. My oldest didn't like it fr the very reason that he didn't like the book choices. He was on a higher reading level but could only read what was on the list in order to complete the quiz. My youngest son struggled with reading and only chose Diary of a Wimpy Kid books because it was the easiest ones for him to answer the questions on and like stated in the article, there was a pizza party involved. I agree with this article that there shouldn't be incentives for reading.Reading is something to enjoy.
Elizabeth July 01, 2012 at 09:57 PM
Sarah, my kids have gone through Reed and NMS using Accelerated Reader and I have volunteered at both school libraries. There are some faults with AR—my kids have had to talk to their teachers about answers marked wrong when they were actually correct and sometimes there is unfamiliar vocabulary used in the questions, forcing students to guess what the question means before even considering the answer. I consider those things bugs in the system that need to be worked out. Many teachers understand that and accommodate when necessary. Another problem with AR quizzes is that you need to take them within a few days of finishing the book so that you don’t forget small details. And, it is best not to stretch out reading a book too long because you may not remember things from the beginning of the book during the quiz. However, Sarah, I think you should speak to a school librarian or teacher who uses the Accelerated Reader program to find out why they recommend it. In past years, Reed School library has been open in July for students and you may be able to speak to a librarian there and you can see the program for yourself.
Elizabeth July 01, 2012 at 09:58 PM
Sarah, some of the things mentioned in your article didn’t make sense to me. For example, Harry Potter does have quizzes. In fact, because those books are so long, my children earned hundreds of points quizzing on them. Now, AR is lacking when it comes to nonfiction. When my kids read nonfiction, or any book that wasn’t on the list, the librarian offered the option of getting credit for a short summary. However, many kids don’t want to write a short summary, so they choose books off the AR list, which honestly, is extensive. Like other parents who have commented here, my children are advanced readers also, but mine have never been restricted to reading books below their reading level. Parent modeling in early years is ideal, but doesn’t always happen, and isn’t a guarantee. Teachers are presented with a variety of students with different backgrounds and abilities. I do believe that rewarding children for reading can have a positive impact as demonstrated in the public library. The summer reading program there is based on a reward system and has been very successful. So, please consider that the school librarians and teachers promote the program because they honestly believe that the benefits outweigh the drawbacks. Talk to them and find out why. If you’re still upset, work toward a positive reform.
Kathy Fetchick July 01, 2012 at 11:27 PM
AR is a complete waste of time. Kids read books they've already read just for the points. They are not reading what they really would like to read. The tests are too simplistic and don't get to the meat of really gaining an understanding of what happens in the book. Since writing is such a focus now, why not have them write a paragraph or a book report which has the appropriate detail for the age group? At the Reed school, students have AR, Independent Reading (a different book than AR), they can read during learning lab and they must read at home too. This was my experience and not necessarily the experience of all clusters.
Sarah Darer Littman July 02, 2012 at 01:48 AM
Elizabeth - When I came home last Thursday evening after the workshop, I got into a lengthy discussion on Twitter with several teachers and librarians about AR, one of whom was nationally known teacher Donalyn Miller, who wrote "The Book Whisperer." Her piece about the flaws of AR is one I've linked to at the end of the piece. I've had so many parents and teachers writing to me on my personal blog (where this post originated) and on Facebook and Twitter, telling stories of how AR sucked the joy out of reading for their kids. Here's one parent's experience: " My son is considered a struggling reader because his read-aloud words-per-minute tests fall below benchmarks, but when he's tested for comprehension his scores are at the top of the charts. Part of the problem we think are related to vision and speech issues he had when he was younger. He'd struggle while sounding out sight words. Our old school didn't push AR, but it closed last year and we moved to a new school where the librarian is a huge fan of AR. He could only check out lower level books that suited his read-aloud level. He used to love to read, but this last year at his new school killed off some of that, I think. He doesn't want to check out books at our local library like he used to, doesn't bring me books to read aloud at night anymore."
Sarah Darer Littman July 02, 2012 at 01:48 AM
Donalyn Miller wrote a article for Education Week Teacher called First Do No Harm (Reprise). She wrote this: "Avid "I cannot wait to get my hands on a book" readers outstrip their peers on every test, every time. Isn't this what students should learn from us about reading? It is an ethical issue, not just an educational one. Children trust us and deserve more. So, first, do no harm. Do not take away that love of reading in the name of the greater good (Good for whom?). It ultimately kills. It kills children's love of reading for all of their lives."
Elizabeth July 02, 2012 at 01:54 AM
Hi Kathy, AR keeps track of books students read and won't allow for repeats. Kids can choose what they want to read from the extensive list of books. Kids can gain understanding regardless of the AR quiz. When my kids were at Reed they could write a paragraph instead of an AR quiz if they wanted to. When my kids were at Reed they were supposed to use their independent reading book for AR.
Elizabeth July 02, 2012 at 02:12 AM
Sarah, I don't believe that read-aloud-level is a factor for AR quizzes in our district, however, I suggest that you ask the librarian at Reed Intermediate School for more detail. I agree that teachers, like doctors, should, first, do no harm. I think the quiz itself is harmless but proper implementation is essential.
Kinga Walsh July 02, 2012 at 12:56 PM
AR is different for each kid and is a program that, for my household, worked fine. All my kids read above grade level and are avid readers and have found easy books to meet points as well as higher books that gave them more total-book-points which resulted in above goal results. No program is going to be "right" for every kid. It is also helpful if parents get involved and help guide kids' decisions. My kids also asked peers and teachers for recommendations which expanded their options and often times created new book series options that kept them engrossed with reading when doing for school or for choice. The issue is how it is incorporated into the curriculum for all students vs trying tiered options for different reader levels. These ideas may, however, have costs related to them.
Laura Whitacre July 06, 2012 at 06:12 PM
As an ELA teacher who uses AR, I see both valid and invalid remarks here. I think that AR for reluctant readers is great, and I think that students who are avid readers can also learn and thrive using AR. What it takes, though, is a diligent teacher who is well-versed in the program, but more importantly, knows her students well. If I have a student who is a great reader but wants to read a book that is not on AR, I will never tell him/her not to read it! Instead, I will lower his point goal to accommodate that. We have only used AR for one semester at my school, but I have seen an immense increase in reading from students who were not readers before. We don't use it as all-class reading; rather, it is used to enhance independent reading. So, students are simultaneously reading an all-class novel and an AR book. As with all teaching strategies, there are faults and positive impacts to AR. With a teacher who knows her students and who is not rigid to only AR, I see it as a wondetful way to allow students to pick books they are interested in and to hone a love of learning. As for the subject of rewards and pizza parties: don't get me started! I am an anti-rewards educator!

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