Be the change, being a teacher, Literacy, Reading, Reading Identity

On Accelerated Reader and All the Other Computer Programs

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.

That’s it.

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.


34 thoughts on “On Accelerated Reader and All the Other Computer Programs”

  1. I respectfully disagree with AR not helping kids pick up books to read. I don’t currently use it, and my schools haven’t had it for years. However, there was one year that I did use AR, and in particular, I remember a couple students who were introduced to a whole new world of books. They asked for books. They read like they had not read before. There are those kids out there for whom AR was a great introducer of books. No, AR does not help us dig deeper, it does not ask us to think past concrete answers, but for a few kids it was the introduction of AR that helped them open up to being readers. For someone out there, AR was the key. For many, it was not. If it helped someone, can it be all bad? My comment is geared toward sweeping generalities. I do not believe the year I used AR it harmed anyone, and in fact it helped a couple. I definitely believe there are better ways of sparking the love of reading, but for a couple of 8th graders named Jonathan and Angie, the AR book list ignited their love of reading.

    1. Of course, just like using programs like this for all is a sweeping generalization. I am happy to hear that it worked for a few kids, awesome, it shouldn’t be used for the kids it doesn’t and so we figure that out by asking them. And also, speaking about books, bookshopping, and having many books in our school and classroom along with a passionate teacher will also get kids to discover great new books. We don’t need to spend the kind of money on a program like this to accomplish that with kids.

      1. If a teacher is using AR and NOT having deep conversations about other novels, stories, poems they are reading in class, as well as the various pieces of NF they are reading together as a class, that is not a computer program’s fault. Simply chalk that up to very poor teaching! AR is a small supplemental program to get kids reading – not a curriculum. Many schools do not use the STAR system, either – they simply use other data to help students make decisions about their reading goals.

    2. While I appreciate your passion, I have found the book tests keep kids accountable about reading the book cover to cover. Kids are used to faking it thru a book for various reasons. I don’t expect a perfect score, and I offer tons and tons of choice. And when a book doesn’t have a test, we figure something else out. Like someone mentioned above, the AR tests have made readers out of my most reluctant readers bc they finally see they can start and finish a book. The tests are only one way to get them reading. I would argue that what kills the love of reading for a lot of kids are some of the assignments we ask them to do all in the hopes they will critically think about a book. There is no perfect system. I’ve read much on reading engagement and have found with lots of trial and error something that works for my students, and it does in fact include book tests. However, they are not the be all end all either. Thanks for the post.

      1. Hi Caroline! You said, “I have found the book tests keep kids accountable about reading the book cover to cover.” This comment interests me because it’s something I’ve been thinking about recently. As readers, when we (adults) decide a book doesn’t interest us, we abandon it–this is a mark of us thinking about our reading, our interests, and then making an informed decision. We aren’t necessarily even “reluctant” readers–we are readers in search of a book that’s the right genre/topic for us.

        This is the kind of thing we want kids doing…right? This is why I’ve been wondering recently why schools expects kids to read cover to cover, and, often at least, that’s a measure of a “good” reader. Frank Serafini has an article out where he mentions we shouldn’t ask kids to do things as readers that we wouldn’t do–for a meaningful purpose–ourselves. Hence, my re-thinking what we ask kids to do with books–and why–in the last few years.

      2. I don’t think that the meaning of reading from cover to cover meant that students should keep reading a book if they are not enjoying it. They should find a book that fits them. I think that Caroline meant that students often just skim books to say that they are reading and not actually reading all of it even if they like the book. Fake Hustle.

  2. I also have issues with students being expected to get 100% when comprehending a book. I am a enthusiastic reader who re-reads books and even after many years, finds new aspects in a good book. Expecting students to fully comprehend a book on first reading keeps them away from the joy that is found in deep reading.

    1. Excellent point. As to “great” literature, why is there only ONE interpretation to character, meaning, plot? Shouldn’t a truly piece of GREAT literature stretch each person in a unique way–in THEIR way

    2. Students are expected to average 85% as this is based on evidence that they are making the most growth when they comprehend at least 85%. If you have an administration that is stressing 100% comprehension then the materials the students are reading are most likely too easy for them.

  3. I also am grateful that you wrote this thoughtful response. We were required to even put our Kinder students (many of whom were emergent readers) on it. That was the fastest way to frustrate and turn children away from reading. I facilitate for a student book club with our older kiddos where I try instill the passion for reading that you speak of. Quite often a student would not pick up a book that wasn’t in the AR system (we know a lot of newer books are not there yet) simply because they couldn’t take a test on it and get points. These were hand-picked, meaningful, thought-provoking books being missed out on because the kids wanted to win a competition.

  4. I train pre-service teachers and in my Teaching Reading Methods course each year I ask for a show of hands of students who used AR in school as their reading program. Without fail, each year students tell me stories that go something like the following: 1) I didn’t get to go to the Friday ice cream event because I hadn’t earned enough reading points by passing the quizzes…I felt stupid 2) I felt humiliated because even though I was reading I couldn’t earn enough points and my points were on public display, or 3) I actually passed the quizzes and enjoyed earning the point but now that I am older I realize I was just reading to get the points and have my reward; it didn’t create in me an enjoyment for reading. I have literally had pre-service teachers well up in tears when they talk about their experiences in AR classrooms. Many well-meaning administrators requiring teachers to use AR types of programs simply don’t know the research. We can…and we must….do better.

    1. Like any program, if it is not used wisely, it will not garner results. AR is meant to do two things: allow for choice with accountability. My school uses AR (I teach 6th grade). My students each have individualized goals (not a one size fits all goal which is simply a lazy scoring method), they do not “buy” anything with points (no parties, no ice cream) because the “treasure box mentality” is against my philosophy concerning motivation. Even AR doesn’t want kids to get 100% on their tests and use 85% as their own measure. If students’ scores are being posted, that is against privacy rules and should not be allowed. My kids read and finish books at a much higher rate than the other schools in my district who do not use it … and my kids read whatever they want. Their goals allow them to read books not on AR because we make them very reasonable AND I allow them class time to read. If we value the act and practice of reading, we must give it time in the classroom. Lastly, the program PURPOSELY does not ask questions that can have varied answers, like the theme, or message the book may bring to a reader. Theme is something very individual as a person since we all come with prior knowledge, different backgrounds and experiences. To expect every reader to take the same message from a book is poor teaching.

      1. So as Krashen writes in his discussion of the reading research surrounding AR, is what you are describing a result of using AR or of using best practices in reading instruction. Because what you are describing without the AR components is best reading practices, so then I wonder whether it really is the use of AR that is pushing kids to read so much?

    2. This is so powerful. Takes my mind to how many “normalized” sorts of rituals/procedures schools enact that go “unseen” and un-problematized, but they’re “silently” having unintended, costly impacts on children’s lives.

  5. Thank you for writing this. I have never used AR… but when I hear kids talking about books in terms of AR points and quizzes… it makes me feel sick. I’m glad to hear people speaking up about this.

  6. Thank you for your post. My experience with AR started back when I was teaching 6th grade and decided to take the quiz on a book I had taught for three years in 6th grade. Needless to say, I failed the quiz which asked me surface level questions. Many years later, I witnessed students enter the media center and go directly to the computer to look up a book. I was saddened as I listened to these elementary age students discuss the book to read according to how many points it would earn them when they took the AR quiz. As the new principal of this fairly new school, I was determined to help students gain a love for reading. I realized AR had to go. It turned out to be a great decision.

  7. I am a 1st grade teacher and my 29 students love AR. I do not use the gimmicks for prizes-points, etc. I read a lot on reading research and I am fully aware these are not Bloom’s taxonomy questions and the program is controversial. I have never used AR as a determination of grades even as an upper grade teacher. My goal is “winning scores” for my kids. My emphasis is they read all books 4x to develop fluency and as they become more fluent they drop off the repeated readings bit by bit. (they think I don’t know that 🙂 ) I do not use “just AR” books – I probably have as many AR as not AR books. I use scores only to determine how they are doing independently- no grades or connection to grades. If I see “losing” scores we confer quickly to find out what’s happening. They analyze their scores weekly and set personal goals for the week. So for me, they are a type of monitoring. For the kids, it gives them a little intrinsic commendation when they “win.” They love to “win!” Really, I don’t think they are that much different than the old SRA when I was a kid. Sadly, I do think a lot of teachers use it as a monitoring device because then they don’t want to grade anything else, confer with kids, and it’s just easy. Also, I think there may be a lot of teachers who don’t personally care about reading themselves, so it’s a convenience.

  8. We can tell our teachers that teaching to fidelity doesn’t mean fidelity to the program but to the kid in front of them

    This strikes a chord with me. In my district our vision, our goal, our mantra is “every child every day” and so your statement about fidelity to the kid in front of me hits home. We need to find out what kids will and want to read in order to instill that love of reading; to do that may take some time, but it’s time we’ll spent.

    Thank you for your insights into what is best and what works for our young readers.

  9. I concur fully with your distaste for AR and for the same reasons you mention. Unfortunately, because I adhere to the “to thyself be true” mantra and share these feelings at all of my summer workshops and PD sessions, I manage to make a lot of enemies in the process. I know of no other “poor practice” that still has so many rabid defenders. Keep up the good fight, Pernrille – and I will as well. (I’m too old to change at this point of my life.)

  10. I love that you choose the E&P book my daughter most recently finished reading at-home. (We took turns reading Gerald and Piggie’s parts over the course of a few days until she mastered each part. But that’s another story.) Of all of the things we talked about, I don’t think I ever asked her what happened and demanded a retelling of what was said between the characters. Sounds like AR is robbing the richness of this story — and so many others — in attempt to “help” readers.

    Thanks for shedding light on this important issue AND for pointing your readers to other places where they can go to learn more about AR. I appreciate the thought-work you continue to do around the teaching of reading and best practice.

  11. Thank you for this! I despise AR!! It was a program tied to my child’s grade in Reading and it absolutely destroyed his love of reading. The district I was teaching in did not allow teachers to use the program. For this reason, I went straight to the top of my son’s district to fight this and I won the battle. You just reiterated everything I told them. Thank you!!!

  12. What you fail to mention is that each Accelerated Reader book has multiple quizzes. The Reading Practice quiz is simply measuring the student’s comprehension. That is it’s purpose. The Literacy Skills quiz tests a student’s higher order thinking skills. There is also a Vocabulary Practice quiz that quizzes students on new vocabulary as well as review words from past books.

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