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Reading by Numbers – One last AR rant

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straight-600I promise this will be my last rant on the widely popular Accelerated Reader program, but I feel the need to share an essay posted last summer to the New York Times.   Author Susan Straight’sReading by Numbers” gives a parent’s perspective on the negative impact this “reading management” software that reduces reading to a system of points and rewards based on multiple-choice online quizzes can have on young readers, even when they are growing up in what I assume is a highly literate home environment.

Librarians and teachers report that students will almost always refuse to read a book not on the Accelerated Reader list, because they won’t receive points. They base their reading choices not on something they think looks interesting, but by how many points they will get. The passion and serendipity of choosing a book at the library based on the subject or the cover or the first page is nearly gone, as well as the excitement of reading a book simply for pleasure.”

I can’t help wondering about the  8th grade language arts teacher Susan Straight references in the first paragraph, who announced at back-to-school night that she “refused to use the program.”  Did her administrators and English department colleagues know about her refusal? If so, were conversations about the impact of  AR on nurturing “a lifelong love of reading and learning” happening? Were parents joining in the conversation?

Or was this teacher the lone dissenter at her site? I hope not.

I know that districts tend to value programs they have to pay for (an observation shared by NCTE colleague and mentor Allen Webb) and that given all that teachers have on their plates already, it’s understandable to like a program that can be reduced to automated scoring. So depending on the climate and culture of a site or district, taking a stand on AR could get messy.

If you or any of your colleagues are looking for some support, I recommend reading the comments posted to:

As always, your comments are welcomed!

6 Comments

  1. What’s lost in the AR bashing is the importance of a passion for reading versus the ability to read and comprehend. For most of us, we don’t enjoy things we’re not good at, but have a passion for things we do well, and hence, enjoy. For a 12 year-old who reads at a 2-3 grade level, they really don’t enjoy reading. The AR program used effectively can raise there reading level, comprehension skill, vocabulary, etc. dramatically. But you do have to force them to read. You get better at reading by reading. Now if you have a class full of above grade-level readers, then you try to instill passion because they can read. But for a class of below grade level readers, I happy to force them to read, because when they walk out of my room, they will be better at reading, even if they don’t love it. I have a far below basic student this year who started at a 2.5 reading level, and because I force him to do AR and make him read silently during class time, is now reading 4.1 level books, with a third of the year left. I’ll take that.

    • Bill,

      I should probably clarify that there are only two components of the AR program I object to: #1 reducing literature to multiple-choice quizzes and #2 the prizes.

      I suspect the reason your students are becoming better readers is because you provide them with in class time to read and guide them to books you think would be of interest

      I don’t know if your are familiar with the in2books program, for instance, but what if your reluctant/low readers could engage in meaningful, scaffolded online discussions around books they could actually keep? Which program do you think would result in the bigger reading gains?

      But, again, I’m pretty sure it’s the way you are implementing AR that is making the difference.

  2. I too agree with this overpowering program. It has been apart of all the schools that I have taught in and I have never seen the program implemented for more than just a token economy system. I know that if implemented the way that the company wants it actually has a different impact but that implementation is an intense reading component that many teachers do use because they have other reading series textbook work to use instead. And I do know also that the company does have pretty decent teaching tools and nice teaching training.

    Having said that my other feelings on this one are geared towards how (not my current school) I had this program impact my kids. I was teaching young students who were not to use this program till 2nd semester. Apparently teachers went ahead and used it and I was left out of the memo. The principal went around to each classroom to praise the kids with trinkets and certificates for those who gained the principal’s point requirement. The principal stopped at my room and told my young students what a let down they were because not one of them had taken a test. When the principal left I promised my kids that as long as I was their teacher I would never let that happen again. And from that day we shut down class 2 days before AR cut off point time and every child would gain the principal point requirement.

    Absolutely horrid that it got to that. What an impression that this made on the kids. And I have also seen that the point gathering goes outside of the school and into the neighborhoods where it becomes a social class system with families. At no time, do I believe that a token economy of compiling points like this needs to be done for students. The drive, desire, social affects, and more that this program incorrectly implemented into a school is not read for the sake of reading, growing, and learning that kids should build within themselves.

    Sorry for ranting but this is a sore subject with me too.

    • Thank you, msmithpds, for sharing your AR insights.

      I’m intrigued by your comment that “the point gathering goes outside of the school and into the neighborhoods where it becomes a social class system with families.” I’m hoping you’ll drop back in and elaborate a bit more.

      • To set the stage of the story is that we had an AR issue, actually I caused an issue with the school’s AR program’s preferences. It was all my doing and I fessed up to it immediately. But I could not fix the problem and students were unable to participate in this program. I had groups of 5th graders and then parents involved blitzing all the school’s computers (classroom computers and all the laptop carts) in order to find the one computer sending back the wrong data. After several weeks of this issue, and hours of after school and weekend fixing, I had a parent who worked for Homeland Security even get involved. Parents were highly irriatated that their child could not “test” on the books that he/she had read. That they had worked for the points. Others were kind to me telling me that they understood that I was trying hard to correct the issue. That is when one confided in me that the number of points was a BIG neighborhood deal. Parents and kids were collecting the points to out do eachother on the street. The competition factor was huge. A few parents were actually happy that the program was out of service so that the kids could relax. The parent telling me this referred to it as a social class system. Kids were outsting other kids who did not have the point total to hang with them. It was sad and out of control. I have not been back to that school in years and do not have any connections with those neighborhoods involved. But my experience with this point system has not been good. Having said that I will say that one teacher from that school did say that she was completely trained by Renaissance and that they were not implementing the program correctly. Just doing the point collecting in just one small aspect of the program and is not supposed to be the overall theme. I feel that schools have implemented it wrong. Also, they should look in to Daniel Pink’s research and presentations on how to properly motivate people.

        • Your story makes me think of another AR issue that a number of students have shared with me: cheating. At many sites, students take their quizzes in a computer lab, where the lab teacher might not be aware of reading levels – and might miss that students are logging on and taking the quizzes for their buddies.

          I do want acknowledge that I do know one elementary site where the librarian uses the reading levels to make sure that all students have books they can read for whatever the current classroom topic might be, such as a 5th grade unit on the American Revolution. I really like this inclusive approach to making resources accessible to all students. Not surprisingly, this site does not support AR contests and prizes.

          I’m also a fan of Daniel Pink’s research – which, now that I think about it, is one more argument against AR, don’t you think?

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