Q: My child’s school, which has a reputation for high student achievement, recently did away with its Accelerated Reader program. They used it for many years. Why would they drop it? What’s wrong with it?
Accelerated Reader (AR) is a reading program that has been around since the 80s. It meets two key criteria for a quality educational program: it has a clear objective and a simple means of accomplishing it.
The purpose is to make kids better readers. But it is not a program just for low or reluctant readers. It is for every student. Any child at any level of achievement can become a better reader by using AR.
First, the system tests each student to find their reading level. Every book in the library is assigned a corresponding level. Kids then independently read books at or above that level. As kids continue reading, their level improves, and they are able to read more difficult books.
For example, let’s say Layna tests at a third grade reading level. Ideally, she would select a book within the third to fourth grade range.
Interestingly, AR doesn’t force kids to read those books. The world is their oyster. If Layna wants to read Dr. Suess (let’s say at a kindergarten level), she can. If she wants to read Moby Dick (say 11th grade), she can do that, too. AR encourages students to read for both pleasure and to be challenged.
The next part is critical. When Layna finishes her book, she takes a quiz. The quiz is computerized, and she gets instant feedback on her performance. So does her teacher. So do her parents, if they choose to receive it. The quizzes are short, usually 20 questions or fewer, and are multiple choice. If she fails to score at least 80%, she doesn’t get credit for reading the book. This ensures that the student actually reads.
Students can earn points for each quiz they pass. Teachers help the student come up with a yearly points goal. Higher level books earn more points while lower level books are worth less. So a student could reach their goal by either reading 100 Captain Underpants books or one Henry James novel (or any single paragraph in The Ambassadors). But usually students read a reasonable number of books within their reading level.
Some schools use AR as an incentive, with students earning prizes for attaining their goals. Some teachers don’t like this, saying it’s “bribing” students to read. I can see that. But if you don’t like the prizes, then just make it a part of the student’s grade. I wouldn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.
Some parents complain that their kids don’t like it. The only sensible response to that is 'LOL.' Do kids generally like being challenged by school?
Lest you think AR has me on the take, I will tell you it has problems. One is customer service. I tried to contact them three different times in preparation for this article. They never responded, so if any of my details are wrong, I blame them. Also the program is ridiculously expensive. So if I could find a knock-off program that does what AR does more cheaply and with better customer service, I’d take it. If not, it would still be worth the investment.
The major complaint I hear from some teachers is that the level of questioning isn’t “deep” enough. They don’t like that the quizzes ask basic, detail-oriented recall questions like “How did Old Yeller rescue Little Arliss from the bear?”
But that’s the genius of the system. It tells us if the student read the book, and that’s all we need to know. They can’t cheat or do it halfway. They have to read it. Period. And teachers should understand that it’s the book − not the quiz − that develops the student’s mind.
Poor reading skills are plaguing our educational system. We have kids graduating high school who can’t read half the words on their diploma. Even students who are at the top of their classes are utterly perplexed by texts written with any sophistication or challenging vocabulary. And every school in America is searching for an edge to gain even the slightest advantage in making students more literate.
So why a school with a history of reading success would drop one of the few programs proven to bring results is a question that I cannot answer. But if I were a school looking for an edge and I could afford it, I would pick it up in a heartbeat. As they say, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.”
And that adage or at least a form of it, is from Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, 12th grade reading level, worth 27 AR points. Just saying.