One of the questions, I am asked the most often is, “What do you do if you don’t have Accelerated Reader?” Or insert whatever computer program here. It is a question filled with emotion, after all, change is hard, and for some kids, AR and programs like it seem to work. For some teachers, it works. And yet, it doesn’t work for all, it is expensive, and in my opinion, it is not worthy of the precious time we have with students every day.
Last night, as I sat surrounded by incredible passionate educators and leaders in the Imperial Valley in California, I was asked that question again, and here is how I answered it.
Giving up AR can be scary. After all, it is a program that seems to tell us things we need to know; has this child read the book? Have they understood it? It is a program that allows us to chart progress, to reward growth. To have an understanding of the complex process that is often hidden from view. And yet, how much of AR is actually a true view? How often are kids able to take the test without fully reading the book? How often do they fail the test despite having read the book? How often do we end up policing the testing, the book choice, the kids without actually doing meaningful work?
Our job as teachers is not to police reading, it is to support the love of reading. There is a huge difference.
So we start by looking at the components already in place. Every child deserves a classroom library, a school library staffed with a certified librarian. Every child deserves a teacher who read children’s literature, who is knowledgeable and excited about reading. Every child deserves time to read a self-selected book in a supportive reading environment. Every child deserves to do meaningful work once they finish these books, building a reading community one book, one conversation, one connection at a time.
If we hold these components as rights, then the only thing AR really fulfills is the check off when it comes to whether a book has been read. When we remove that, we must find other ways to see whether children are reading and whether they understand what they have read.
In my own classrooms, we have different methods to see whether kids are reading. I have gone into more details about this here and also in Passionate Readers, but the first component is to simply kid watch. How are they picking up books? Are they picking up the same book day after day? Are they making progress in the book? We use Penny Kittle’s page tracker to help us see the page kids are on in class. That way if a child is on the same page day after day, I know a conversation is waiting to happen. Perhaps the book is boring, perhaps they don’t understand it, perhaps something is happening outside of class that is affecting them in class. Either way, that small sheet of paper allows me to see if they are making progress. I don’t need it as a reading log, I need it so that kids can take control over their own reading habits and see whether they are making true progress as they challenge themselves. That way they have tangible data when we reflect at the end of every quarter.
We also set meaningful goals. I recently wrote about what that looks like at the beginning of the year, but it is these goals that I discuss with kids. While some may be quantity based, others are based on habit. You may notice that so much of what we do is conversation based. Not having a computer to tell me these things forces me to speak more to students, for them to actually reflect on their lives as readers, this is always a great thing.
When students finish a book, they often do what we adults do. They recommend it. They put it back on the shelf. They hand it to someone to read it as well. Sometimes they write about it in a reading response, but not often, because I have found that it is often all of the things we have kids do with their reading that actually makes them dislike reading. This year, I will also have them do reading ladders, an idea created by Teri Lesene, explained here, so that students can ponder whether they are challenging themselves or simply reading at the same rung. They also keep a list of books they have read, finished, or abandoned in their notebook and at any point, I can ask to see that. This list is something we update in class so that the kids that forget also have a chance to do it. For kids who are motivated by competition, I try to make it an internal one. Can they beat last year’s numbers of books or some other goal? I do not believe that reading should be rewarded with a prize because it tells kids that reading itself is not worthy of their time. That it is something they are being bribed to do because it has no value on its own. Reading is its own reward.
And finally, when it comes to the assessment of skills, I don’t need a test on a book to tell me whether they comprehend it. I can either discuss the book with them even if I haven’t read it or I can use a common text, such as a short story, read aloud, or picture book to assess their skills of reading. After all, all of the independent reading we do is for practice, for building the love, it is not to be graded, the skills we are developing are what we need to grade and that can happen with any text that we know together.
Getting rid of any component that has been a cornerstone of instruction is scary, it takes work, and it takes a change in practice. But it is worth it for our students and the reading experiences they deserve. I would recommend anyone who is looking to get rid of a computer program to really speak about the experiences that need to replace it. How will that look on a day-to-day basis and also how it will help the students.
Teaching is hard work, it is easy to see how we can be persuaded to place children in front of computers to help us out. To see the short-term gains sometimes from these programs. And yet, what about the long-term? At what point do children, and adults for that matter, need to internalize what reading really is? A discovery of self? A discovery of the world? A transport into more understanding, more empathy, more imagination? Removing AR is a process, but one that is worthy of our time, because kids deserve rich reading experiences at every level, and computers, no matter how well-tested their programs are, cannot provide the same meaningful interaction as we get from a conversation, real assessment, and building a community of readers.
To see more thoughts on AR please see Jen Robinson’s posts which showcase 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.