Pardon me while I write what is on my mind for a little bit.
I just took an Accelerated Reader practice quiz on Elephant and Piggie’s There’s a Bird on Your Head. A picture book I have read so many times I think I know it by heart. A picture book series that my 7th graders end up loving too as we perform plays based on them. A picture book series that made me cry when the last book came out and they told us all “Thank you for being a reader.”
You know what AR wanted me to know about the book?
It wanted to know what happened and what was said.
Not why Gerald didn’t like the birds on his head. Not what the message of the book was. Not what they could learn from the book and apply to their own life. After all, that doesn’t prove they have read it. That doesn’t prove they have understood, right?!
Sheer memorization and retelling.
Of Mice and Men wasn’t any better. Again, memorization was the key factor here. Not deep thinking. Not deep conversation about the ultimate decision made at the end. Not how this book will change you or make you think about the world you live in.
An American classic boiled down to remembering minute details.
All in the hands of computer programs which purport to help readers grow.
And before, someone tells me that for some kids programs like this works, I would like to know what we define as “works?” Do we define “works” as rushing to read another book? As sharing the incredible experience a book just provided them with others? Do we define “works” as cannot wait to read another book, outside of class not because they have to but because they want to? Do we define “works” as continuing to develop a positive reading identity that will carry them into adulthood?
Or do we define ‘”works” as kids doing it because they are rule followers and don’t want to cause a stir? Do we define “works” as a computer telling us how much a child remembered from the book they just read? Do we define it as how many points they have gained this year as a supposed reflection on how they have grown as readers? Or as now we know which book a child should read next because the computer told them so?
Because if that is what we mean be developing lifelong readers then I must have lost my mind.
When people ask me why I dislike programs like AR so much, it is hard to know where to start. My problem with these blanket programs are many; we rob kids of actual true choice not determined by a reading database that only allows you to select books that have quizzes on them.
You know which books don’t have AR quizzes on them right now? Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds and Dear Martin by Nic Stone. Arguably two of the most important books for adolescents to read this year. I hope they never add them, I can’t even begin to imagine what types of low-level questions they would ask.
We rob kids of the chance to have conversations with others about the books that are changing them. We rob kids of the messy process that it is to get to a deeper meaning within a book, even when they are young. We rob kids of the chance to be seen more as the points they are given. We rob our most vulnerable readers, those we label struggling, low, or whatever other harsh terms in our data meetings, the opportunity to have the best possible chance at becoming a reader through the determined instruction of a knowledgeable teacher.
In our eagerness to make sure every child is reading the right fit book, we have forgotten about the very child reading those books.
Reading was never meant to be about points. Or scores. Or correct answers.
It was never meant to be about levels or data or rewards for goals met.
Reading was never meant to be easy either. It was meant to be a complex process in which we discover parts of ourselves that we didn’t know before. A process that brought us closer together as a community of learners, as we felt the growth we made not because a test told us but because the very book we just finished was an accomplishment in itself.
Don’t believe me? How can simple computer programs really be so bad? Why don’t we ask the very kids we subject these programs to? A novel idea, I suppose, as what would kids really know? And yet, I am here writing about this because of the very things kids (and their horrified parents) have told me over the years.
“AR means my child picks the smallest books they can in order to get the points they need…”
“AR means I am not allowed to read the book I wanted to…”
“I am a bad reader because I cannot get the answers right…”
So what can we do instead of these programs?
We can start the conversation first. We can ask the very kids we subject to the reading programs and then do something about what they tell us.
We can ask parents and caregivers how this program either hurts or harms their child.
We can invest all of that money spent on this program into great books and then put them in every single classroom. And then we can read them and speak about them and help kids find great new books.
We can give teachers training on reading workshop and how to have meaningful conversations about books with kids.
We can tell our teachers to go back to common sense reading instruction.
We can tell our teachers that teaching to fidelity doesn’t mean fidelity to the program but to the kid in front of them.
We can evaluate everything we do with kids and see if it really gets to what we hope they become; kids who read books because they want to!
If we want to know whether a child is reading, we can look at them while they read.
If we want to know whether a child understands what they are reading, we can ask, sometimes face to face, other times on paper.
If we want to know how a child is progressing as a reader, we can assess them, hearing them read out loud, conferring with them and asking further questions. And sure, use a computer to give them a test but make sure that the test is actually giving you valid information. Let the data be a part of the conversation, not the whole conversation.
If we want to know what book a child should read next, we can ask them. Then we can bookshop. If a child doesn’t know how to select a great book then that is where we start.
If we want to know whether a book is a good fit for a child, we can ask them. And we can remember the words of Fountas and Pinnell who said, that “Levels are a teacher’s tool and not a child’s label.”
You know what helping a child figure out their reading identity is? It’s hard. It’s messy. It’s exhausting at times.
It’s not easy.
But it’s worth it.
it’s worth it every time we see child realize that they, too, can be a reader.
It’s worth it every time we see a child realize that they, too, can get something out of a book.
It’s worth it every we see a child realize that they, too, can understand what it means to want to keep on reading.
Not because a computer told them to select another book from their level.
Not because they were given points for their work.
Not because they were given rewards.
But because to them, it mattered, beyond the computer, beyond the quiz, beyond the task.
But because to them, they became readers because someone cared about their reading journey and protected the very hope they carry for being a reader some day.
A computer program will never do that for a child, no matter how “research-based” it is.
PS: Whoa, apparently this post which was just me thinking out loud has struck a chord for many. I encourage you to reflect on it and see where it fits into your reading philosophy. As I have said before, if a program harms even one child’s love of reading then we need to question it, which is what I am doing here. I am not shaming teachers, I am a teacher myself, but instead asking us to really reflect on whether the thousands of dollars spent on these computer programs are really helping us achieve our goals in the long-run, because of course programs like these can garner compliance in the short run, but we are in this reading life for the long run.
To see more thoughts on AR please see Jen Robinson’s posts which showcases other work on it. Donalyn Miller’s post on it and do take the time to read Stephen Krashen’s discussion of the research that AR uses as a selling point.
If you like what you read here, consider reading my newest book, Passionate Readers – The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child, out August 2017. This book focuses on the five keys we can implement into any reading community to strengthen student reading experiences, even within the 45 minute English block. If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first book Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students. Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.