Specializations

Accelerated Reader: Instigator of Readicide

AR book labels

Image from Victoria Leon at http://www.teacherspayteachers.com

Let me start off by saying, I am NOT attending Library School to become a Library Media Specialist. My knowledge on the topic of Accelerated Reader and other reading management systems is something that I have only begun to explore. I’d like to thank fellow Hacker, Britt Foster and my cohort at Pratt SILS Camille Baker for sharing their AR resources and viewpoints with me.

I wanted to write a post on this topic ever since I visited my sister’s classroom in California. Back in August 2011, I was helping her prep her classroom for the first day of school. Out of the various tasks that I was given, one of them was to sort the books from her library into baskets. Upon inspecting the books, I noticed that each book was labeled with a sticker that had a number attached at the spine. I asked her, “What’s this number mean?” it certainly wasn’t a Dewey number. She briefly introduced me to what is known as Accelerated Reader. This introduction incited my curiosity as well as questions like how is reading by a number level limit the reading choices of students? Does reading to reach a number of points change the choices that students are making in what they choose to read? Is this in every school across America? The following is some of my findings.

Accelerated Reader (AR) is a reading management program that a product of Renaissance Learning, it’s designed to track students reading activity.  The software that accompanied with AR provides computerized diagnostic tests to determine students reading levels, lists of books that correspond to their reading levels, book quizzes, as well as a data management system for teachers to use to keep track of students reading progress. The way AR works, is first, students take a diagnostic test to determine their Zone of Proximal Development, upon attaining their ZPD, student are to start reading books that fall in their book level (BL), and are to increment their book levels by reading books and taking book quizzes that test their reading comprehension of said book. Based on their performance of the book quizzes students receive points. The more a student reads and passes book quizzes the higher their reading level will be and the more points they will accumulate. The fact that points are awarded for passing a book quiz is to serve as a motivation for more reading. The collection of points can lead students to receive awards such as recognition at a school assembly, toys, gift certificates or even a pizza party.

Now, what’s “Readicide”? And what does it have to do with AR? Readicide is a new term I discovered in while learning about AR, it was coined by a English high school teacher and author, Kelly Gallagher. He defines readicide as “the systematic killing of love of reading, often exacerbated by the inane, mind-numbing practices found in schools”. Let’s look at some of the various criticisms that exist for AR, and how such criticisms lead me to believe that AR is a contributor to readicide rather than the solution.

One of the primary criticisms of AR that make it such a controversial subject is what it does to student’s exploration of books and how it limits their recreational reading because students are limited to a list of books that fall in their book level. In my experience that’s what I enjoyed the most, having the autonomy to choose what books I wanted to read, to not have to adhere to a list or a book level. That freedom that I have to choose from across genres is what made reading engaging to me. That doesn’t happen with AR, rather than students having the choice of what they want to read students are choosing books according to what’s dictated by their book level, and only choosing books according to how many points the book is worth. When teachers or schools encourage children to read for points, and to strive to reach X points by the end of the year, term, semester, etc. for X reward this alters a students book choice tremendously. This essay I found in the New York Times written by Susan Straight, sums up the problem, she says, “the passion and serendipity of choosing a book at the library based on the subject or the cover of the first page is nearly gone, as well as the excitement of reading a book simply for pleasure.” That fun that used to be in browsing, noting intriguing titles, favorite authors, cover art, is stripped down to “how many points is the book worth?”

The next critique of AR which is the content of the book quizzes that children are required to take and pass in order to move up book levels. Most of the book quizzes, are based on the students memory recall of the book they have read. The questions are shallow, and don’t require the critical skills that students should be mastering. My fellow hacker, Britt Foster, who happened to be young enough to have had AR in her school had the following to say about book quizzes “The ability to remember detail has nothing to do with critical thinking, analysis, and, especially for elementary students, their developmental level.”

Another concern that involves both School Libraries and Public Libraries, is whether or not a students’ rights to privacy is being compromised. When books are labeled and shelved according to BL, classmates can now see what BL the student is reading at. There aren’t just privacy issues to deal with, but there is also the issue of how a children’s library collection should be organized. Should Public Libraries and School Libraries be labeling their books according to book level?  In my local library I saw that books were now being labeled with BL, and it saddens me to think what books are being missed when schools have adopted AR.

Lastly, I should say that  the way that AR is implemented, is completely unique and depends upon the school and the teacher. Not all schools across the country are using it, there are other reading management systems. What I have found astounding, is that as school continue to use such programs, or begin to adopt them, there has been no conclusive data or research that can conclusively point to AR as a main factor in children’s reading success. I hope that the readers who are in Library School for a Library Media Specialization or who are current Teacher Librarians, or Public Children’s Librarians share their thoughts on Accelerated Reader and reading management systems in general. Would you agree that AR is an instigator or Readicide? Have you been a witness to success stories of students who have used AR? What positive aspects are there to having AR in schools?

22 thoughts on “Accelerated Reader: Instigator of Readicide

  1. I had Accelerated Reader in middle school. It was not really tied to grades or anything like that and from what I remember there were a couple of kids that used the same book to boost their points. What I do remember is that none of the traditional “smart” kids if you will ever had many points. It was more of a tool to try and improve reading levels for kids that started out in the lower levels. I also do remember having to read books I didn’t like but I think once you scored a certain level they didn’t make you participate anymore. Its really part of the larger trend tying “education excellence” to test scores so politicians can have a talking point about “improving” education levels and its really more about getting higher scores on standardized tests than about actually getting the kids to learn anything. It goes back to how can to quantify and measure something abstract like how well a teacher is doing teaching. I don’t know if you can really call it readicide. A lot of the kids that didn’t read well did improve and some were exposed to books they wouldn’t normally read. I think the multitude of other entertainment options available today are more to blame for readicide than Accelerated Reader. At least it tries to incentivize reading to actually get them to read something.

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  2. It also trains parents consumer habits. I can’t tell you how many times I helped parents out with systems like this at Borders. All I can say is, “Blegh!” I couldn’t really read until I was in 3rd grade, but I picked it up fairly quickly after that. An AR system would have totally killed my love of reading. Loving to read and to learn are the real keys to education, it’s so sad that our schools increasingly do neither. It might be a librarian read across borders perspective, but AR seems like it Accelerated Reader teaches people how to live in their box and never really peak outside of it.

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  3. “because students are limited to a list of books that fall in their book level.”

    Accelerated Reader was in our classroom on the old trusty Apple IIe computers back in the early ’90s and I also worked with a similar program back around 2006 while volunteering in a middle school library during undergrad. If memory serves there wasn’t a limit based on a person’s book level. Students were free to go as low or as high as they wanted and the level was more a guideline than a hard and fast rule.

    “The questions are shallow, and don’t require the critical skills that students should be mastering.”

    From talking with teachers and the school librarian where this program was implemented it didn’t seem like the goal was fostering critical thinking so much as just getting students to read and hoping that the habit stuck.

    As I said before, we had AR in my elementary school back in the early ’90s. I was already a voracious reader at the time, but AR definitely changed my reading habits the year that we had it in the classroom. I won the school AR competition that year by systematically going through the list to find the highest point value books on the list and polishing them off as quickly as possible.

    And I think that was a good thing. I ended up reading classics I enjoyed that I probably never would have touched if it wasn’t for Accelerated Reader bribing me to do so. Going through that list with mercenary intent ended up broadening my horizons and permanently altering my reading habits for the better.

    There were a few kids who read a bunch of books because of the competition but didn’t really read much otherwise. There were many who didn’t want to have anything to do with Accelerated Reader beyond the one book every few weeks that was mandated for their grades.

    As with all educational programs your results will vary based on the student, but AR definitely had a positive influence on me. And I saw the same thing happening with students at the middle school level when I was doing the volunteer gig. For a lot of students just getting them to crack open a book is the biggest battle, and tools like AR and similar programs are a powerful weapon in that fight.

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  4. I agree with Jeff. Accelerated reading, like many test prep programs, seems geared towards quantifying a particular individuals reading level, skills, etc. The problem is that unlike with a math problem, reading is entirely subjective and, for the most part, reading level is generally tied to available materials. For instance, if a student is graded at a 6th grade reading level and all they are exposed to is 6th grade level books than there will be no improvement. If those 6th grade books are also mixed in with books aimed at older audiences than there exists significant room for improvement. I think too much importance is placed upon a reader being able to completely understand the text after one read through. This is both impractical and unlikely. Even now, with an M.LIS and M.A, I need several read throughs before I could consider myself conversant about a particular text. Thus, I do not believe that accelerated reading is a good program, if only because it limits rather than accelerates.

    Regarding the privacy issue, I’m not sure that there is anything that libraries can practically do. We can do all the theorizing we want, but in reality will it be possible to prevent a truly determined individual from seeing what another student is reading? It would be a violation of their privacy if a library employee tweeted about a users particular reading choices, but aside from that there is little that libraries can practically do. Librarians are not numerous, nor should they be, to be everywhere at once.

    Overall, I’d say that applying readicide to Accelerated Reading is appropriate. Quantifying reading is not the best way to improve reader encouragement, nor is it the best way to encourage reading. Nobody every picked up a book because they were told they were too stupid for other materials.

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  5. In elementary school, I was a big fan of AR. It actually did what I suppose it set out to do in my case. It got me reading amd loving the books. Sure, there was a contest to see who could get the most points, but I never felt that AR was sucking the fun out of reading. I would pick a book out from the school library based on whether it looked good, and if it was an AR book, awesome! Excluding 2nd grade, I was the top point-earner in my class every single year. I guess AR was a good supplement to me because I already loved reading, and AR was a good way to show that off and get rewarded for it.

    It wasn’t a required thing in my school, just someone to do with reading. And I liked how the questions were more like a “Did you read the book?” test. It made sure I had caught the key points and wasn’t just reading to win a trophy. Several times I would take a test on a book after only reading a small fragment, which wasn’t very smart.

    I think the biggest reason AR was successful in my case was because it wasn’t required, it didn’t have an agenda (or at least not to six-year-old me), and it made me want to finish a book.

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  6. I’ve been thinking a lot about fostering a love for reading because I work as a teen librarian at Austin Public Library and the majority of kids I see LOATHE reading. I’m not sure how useful AR is because, as you and others have mentioned, the incentives are fairly superficial. I could see, though, that if kids were encouraged to explore all books and not have to take a dumb test it would be better, but that is basically getting rid of the program and instead, just fostering a positive reading environment.

    So what, then? I’m a fan of not having kids do things for extra credit or bonuses or anything, and just letting the “peer market” (so to speak) work itself out. So maybe offering opportunities for kids to do book talks (and providing them the resources to do them) or letting them lead a story time or read a chapter out loud to the class — just for fun.

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  7. Let me first say that I too am not a school media specialist although I’ve helped in two school libraries watching and learning why I helped cataloging and processing new books; I am a mom of three children, two of which did not like reading for a bit — one still doesn’t and my daughter is now reading a ton. My two read books using a system similar to AR, but in a small group setting with a reading specialist.

    Reading Teresa’s post, I, too, had concerns about confidentiality. I also remember when my daughter was coming home with self-chosen books from the library meant to be at a much higher reading level–I held my tongue and embraced that she was thinking “reading” was now fun.

    I may not have a good appreciation of the issues and/or benefits re this and like programs, but I know my kids would have been self-conscious carrying around a book with a big label on the spine identifying that the book was lower than many in their class.

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  8. I teach at a school that uses AR extensively, and I think it is useful when used correctly- as one of many tools for supporting reading comprehension and an enjoyment of reading. Like you said, AR quizzes are mostly recalling details, so it cannot stand alone as a reading program. It should be used to supplement a literacy curriculum that focuses on inference, summarizing and critical thinking, through read alouds, anchor texts and vocabulary.

    AR can help teachers to understand a student’s reading comprehension, but a good teacher(or librarian) is still able to evaluate a student’s interests and determination to recommend books that are higher or lower than a student’s AR book level. Like Andrew said, book levels are not concrete. A good teacher or librarian also teaches students to flip through a book, read the back cover and read the first page before deciding if they are interested in a book, not just to look at the book level.

    I also think that AR is a good tool for students who struggle with reading comprehension and don’t enjoy reading. It makes picking out books less intimating. Students who are not strong readers don’t tend to have a strong grasp of genres they enjoy reading, so AR provides another way for them to pick out books that work for them. As their reading skills strengthen they become less dependent of book levels to pick out books. Like so much of technology in the classroom, I think AR is a good tool to have but it couldn’t and shouldn’t ever replace a passionate and thoughtful teacher or librarian.

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  9. Hi Teresa,

    The only reason why I found your article on Accelerated Reader is because you used the image of the A.R. color-coded book level labels I created for my school’s library and am now selling at http://www.teacherspayteachers.com.

    I am a National Board Certified teacher and received the “Excellence in Teaching Award” from the Los Angeles Unified School District and the Los Angeles Educational Partnership. I am also the chairperson of our school’s Accelerated Reader Program in which more than one hundred students read after school and take Accelerated Reader tests four days a week.

    Today we had our monthly Accelerated Reader presentation in which almost two hundred prizes were given away for being in the 5-Point Club, 10-Point Club, 25-Point Club, etc. We usually begin our after school reading program on the third week of the new school year. However, this year we didn’t begin until January because we received a $49,000 grant from the Golden State Foods Foundation to purchase 32 flat screen Apple computers. The G.S.F. Foundation gave us the money primarily to continue our successful Accelerated Reader Program when our old broken computers almost brought our after school reading program to an end. In two months, our students have read more than 9,000 books.

    I am a product of the Los Angeles Unified School District. When I was in third grade, I would get up at 6:30 in the morning and read by the light of the hallway. I loved going to the library with my dad and siblings. I loved to read. Most of the students in my inner-city school do not have a personal library of books at home. Their parents do not take them to the public library. Before the Accelerated Reader Program was implemented at my school, the students would read “Chapter Books” even though they were reading at a first grade level. At the same time, there were many students who could read a fourth grade book, but would read first grade books during “Sustained Silent Reading” time.

    The Accelerated Reader Program at my school helps a student find just the right book level. If the student receives 80% on an Accelerated Reader test for a book which is at a 3.5 book level, that book level is perfect for that student and will find another book which has a 3.5 book level. If the student receives 90% or 100% on the Accelerated Reader test, the student will find a book that is at a 3.6, 3.7, or 3.8 book level. If the student receives a score below 80%, that level is too difficult for the student, and the student will find a book at a 3.4, 3.3, or 3.2 book level.

    I have created color-coded labels which also has the book level on it. Many school libraries use colored dots on the spines of their Accelerated Reader books. I have found that my book labels with the actual book levels are much easier for the students to find their books. Half of the library has the Accelerated Reader books arranged by book levels. Students can easily see the 3.6, 3.7, and 3.8 books right underneath each other on three shelves. We also have the other half of the library with our non-Accelerated Reader fiction and nonfiction books. I once had a district librarian come to my school and directed me to use the Dewey Decimal System to arrange the books on the shelves. She told me that I didn’t have a “working library.” I told her that I had the best “working library” in the district because I have students who are actually reading books on their own after school. Luckily, I have had principals who have already seen the value of the Accelerated Reader Program and have allowed me to keep the books shelved according to book levels.

    Many of my third grade students begin the school year reading at a first grade level. However, by the end of the year, they are reading at a second, third, and fourth grade level. Our kindergarten and first grade students do not know how to read in the beginning of the school year. We have upper grade students read “The Story of the Day” to the kindergarten and first grade students and then read the Accelerated Reader tests to them. Once these students are able to read 250 words by themselves, they are able to leave the “Story of the Day” group and join the upper grade students in the school library and the computer lab. It is heartwarming to see in January, February, and March our first grade students…one by one…learning how to read on their own and joining the “big kids” in the library.

    Yes, we have monthly prizes. Yes, we have a huge end of the year presentation in which the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place trophies are given to students who have acquired the most points in each grade. Yes, I use extrinsic rewards to motivate the students at my school to read…but it works. Many of these students become such good readers that they eventually learn “the love of reading.”

    The students in the after school reading program are actually reading in the library; they are not just socializing in the library. They are reading one, two, and three books a day. I doubt very much that they will be reading that many books if we did not have the Accelerated Reader Program at my school. I do not go home until 6:00 because I am working on the after school reading program. I do it because I know I am helping to change my students’ lives. When they go to middle school and high school, they will have a chance to be reading on grade level and they will be able to read the texts and take the tests. If students cannot read the high school textbook, there is little wonder why we have so many of our students drop out of school.

    If Bill Gates wants to change the future of America, he should buy Renaissance Learning, the company which created the Accelerated Reader Program. He should give all of the schools in America and around the world access to all of the Accelerated Reader tests online for free. Schools may copy my after school reading program or implement my individual class’ Accelerated Reader Program. Our students will be able to read on grade level and have the tools to succeed in school and later on in the workforce.

    Is my Accelerated Reader Program readicide? I invite anyone to my school so than you can judge for yourself. You will see forty kindergarten and first grade students intently listening to “The Story of the Day” so that they can answer comprehension questions even though they cannot read books on their own. You will see a smiling third grade student proudly tell you that she has made it to the 25-Point Club. You will see fifteen students, parents, and teachers volunteering their time to read the “Story of the Day,” check out books in the library, or help in the Computer Lab. And yes, you will also see a fifth grade student who has already made it to the 100-Point Club in two months. This student quite simply loves to read…and she also reads books that do not have a corresponding Accelerated Reader test.

    If you would like to know more about my Accelerated Reader Program for the entire school or for your own personal class, feel free to email me at vleon999@yahoo.com. You may also write me if you would like to know more about the Golden State Foods Foundation.

    Wishing you the best,
    Victoria Leon

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  12. At my son’s school. the sudents are required to meet trimester AR goals and must do so to avoid corrective actions. The students are required to be at 25%, 50%,75% and 100% to goal at specific points during each trimester. If they do not achieve the needed percentage on time, they receive an “accountabilty” check (a mark against them on their school record). Our kids have the highest AR goals in their district and nearby districts. Parents at the school abhor the high goals and short period in which to achieve them. Students merely receive a charm for achieving their points….yet punitive results for not achieving them. I definitely feel that at our school AR goals cause readicide.

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  13. My daughter’s school uses AR and it is a wonderful tool. It does not cause readicide. Most of the kids are motivated to read because they see other kids reading and taking test. I find it very misleading when people say that a child has a limited number of books to read. There is not a limited number of books that a child could test on. For example, for a 2.3 book level there are 1,549 books to choose from. There is a good mix of ficition and nonfiction to choose from. I actually am astonished when I find a book that is not AR. Most of the popular books that my child has an interest in reading are AR books. I think the most important thing about AR is that each parent and teacher need to realize that it is the students’ own personal journey in learning to read.

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  14. My children, 3, were all exposed to AR in elementary school. They absolutely loved it and I believe read much more because of it. We and the teacher helped them set reading goals and meet them. The meeting of the goal was 10% of their grade. When they went to middle school they started to be exposed to “group” reading projects and one after another of mind numbing “reflective” reading activities. They all have maintained 3.5 GPAs or better and began to hate reading in the middle and high schools because the things that they had made automatic in their thinking by reading A LOT were cumbersome to whiny other kids. I disagree with the article and am very glad that the elementary school had AR, I just with the middle school had continued the process.

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  16. My child’s school just instituted AR this past year. She tested and was a 3.4 level in December, which was the 55th %ile and was representative of her education level – she was a 3rd grader in the 4th month of school and the level was appropriate. She figured quickly that if she cheated and tested without reading the entire book or tried to test on a book she read over the summer and had forgotten, she failed the test and lowered her average and didn’t receive points. She learned how hard it was to get those points back up and began reading harder books and working at understanding them. She started to receive better grades on the quizzes and more and more points. She met her goal and was thrilled. Before the next “period” she was retested in March. She was at a 4.8 reading level in only 3 months. That was all AR. It may not work for some children, but my daughter is rewards-inspired. The AR format of testing, earning points and incremental assessments of reading level and watching hers improve and go up has really inspired her. Again, it may not work this way for all children so schools must assess this accordingly. Her school uses AR as a supplement and it is part of their reading grade. We are pleased to see her improvement and so is she. I believe this also boosted her confidence for her FCAT reading, the Florida state standardized test that they must take in 3d grade. She still has choices. There are plenty of times she wishes to read a book below her level and she does so, but knows she needs to balance it with one above her level to keep her average. She has choices to read short books or long books and the system helps her to balance her reading choices to her available time and is really assisting her with time management.

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  18. Reading is intrinsically rewarding. AR teaches students that they must be rewarded for reading (or punished for not reading enough or passing their lame tests). This sends the message that it is NOT intrinsically rewarding. It kills the love of reading. I dislike AR with a passion.

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