Putting the Brakes on Accelerated Readers
The Accelerated Reader program: a centerpiece of reading instruction in more than 75,000 public school systems across the United States, and yet another divisive battleground among educators. It shares that status with a variety of other programs and methods used in the classroom amidst great debate: behavior charts, gold stickers, a treasure chest chock full of prizes for when you finally sit down in your seat and profess your obedience (with fingers crossed)... I digress.
I first encountered the Accelerated Reader program in the eighth grade. As an already avid reader, the burden of reading 75 points worth of books in a grading period wasn't too overwhelming. In fact, I remember being asked once or twice to skip a test over a book I had read because, with my best intentions at heart, my teachers just weren't sure that I was actually reading them. Of course I was reading them; the problem was my short-term memory, which was going into overdrive in an effort to remember names and places.
So what could possibly be so terrible about a program that is known for getting children, especially boys with a natural competitive drive, to read books? A lot, I would argue.
First, what is the point? All instructional programs have to have a clear objective, and Renaissance Learning (the company behind the AR program, who saw its income rise 48% in the last year and made $5.8 million on its myriad incentive programs) doesn’t disappoint:
The purpose of these quizzes is to determine whether a student has read a book, to measure his or her literal comprehension of the book, and to provide immediate motivational feedback.
If those are the three things that the AR program claims to bring to the table, I can’t see why a district would even consider spending the money for its services. How is that process authentic? Is that the only goal in reading? To finish a book, feel good about reading all 234 pages, and then spit out random facts, such as what was written on the note that Lucy passed to Sam in English class?
And that brings us to the second problem: AR comprehension tests place an extreme emphasis on literal comprehension. We all know that it cannot be taken out of the equation entirely, but if students are being pressed to read 3-4 books in a week just to keep up their GPA, what do you think is going to “stick” when they read? A painfully obvious answer to a question that you can see coming a mile away, or a deeper application of the book’s theme or underlying message?
And finally, simply by its nature and limited selection of books, the AR program sets forth some roadblocks that could cripple already-established readers. AR books are assigned a level of difficulty based on a series of measurable characteristics, and we already know that many schools foolishly require a certain number of points to be earned in a specified amount of time. So what happens when an 8 year old takes an interest in the newest Harry Potter book but can’t earn AR points for reading it until he is in the 6th grade? Do you think the books at or below his reading level are going to look a little more appealing, especially since he’s still 23 points away from an A this grading period? And thus, J.K. Rowling loses a potential fan. (And, of course, an 8 year old learns that a book is only worth reading if someone is watching and waiting to award you for it.) Furthermore, only 130,000 books are registered in the AR database, while an estimated168,000,000+ total published books exist in our universe. So much for reading a book that Renaissance Learning doesn’t think is necessary.
Anyone who has committed themselves to the education of children knows that reading instruction should focus on one long-term goal: a lifelong love for reading. On Twitter, I asked if the benefit of motiving some children to read outweighed the risk of losing them to the boring process of read, recall, repeat. Some said that those same struggling readers can be assisted in other, less potentially harmful ways. Others saw a greater risk to all readers, and shared a growing concern that we are mistaking what children can recall in a multiple-choice test for comprehension.
At the end of the day, my feelings are most closely reflected in something that an elementary school principal, Chris Wejr, wrote:
Educators, students, & parents need to stop getting caught up in how many books [they read], rather than just reading, reflecting and discussing.
It’s time to put the brakes on the Accelerated Reader program and model a truly authentic love for reading, one that can’t be measured by a test and charted on a wall.