1/24/2016

Why "AR" Makes me CRINGE: 5 Things You Should Ask Your Child's School About AR

So this is a long article...but if you have school aged children or grandchildren or students, it's so worth your time to read.  Print it, highlight it, save it for later...or just skim down to the five numbered questions...5 questions you can ask your child's school today to help determine if Accelerated Reader is HELPING or HURTING your child.  I promise you won't regret it.

I hate AR.  As I tell my children, "hate" is a strong word, be careful where you use it.  Well, that's why I used it here.  I HATE it...despise it, loathe it, it sickens me...get my drift?  You don't have to agree with me, but I would love the chance to open your eyes to what AR is doing to our children.  My almost 15 years experience with students in grades PreK-5 and degrees in both Education and Library and Information Sciences has enabled me to form a free-thinking opinion.  I believe the more parents we have armed with knowledge about Accelerated Reader, the more parents we will see who feel the same way I do.  It's not okay to let it take over our schools.  After reading this post, if you feel the same, it's time to do something about it.  If you care about your children...your students...you will stand up.  Reading skills are plummeting across the nation because we allow programs such as Accelerated Reader to invade our schools and take over our children's way of thinking.  Not this Momma.  Not this Librarian.  Not this teacher.  It is my hope that if you find yourself feeling the same way I do, you will be able to use this post as a guide in your argument to rid your school of Accelerated Reader.

If you're clueless here and you don't know what I'm referring to when I say "AR" or "Accelerated Reader", then either A) You don't have a dog in the fight or any school aged children, B) You haven't been paying attention, C) Your child's school doesn't participate in AR.  Good for them.  You can find more information about the Accelerated Reader Program and what it claims to be, here.  Go ahead and scroll all the way down to the bottom of the Accelerated Reader page and see how many AR tests have been taken TODAY alone...scary.  Basically, students read books and take multiple choice comprehension questions on the books.  As their reading level/ability progresses, the program gives a range or point system for what level they are reading on and what level books they should read.  So, students are often encouraged or even worse, required, to check out library books and read books within this reading level in order to take more quizzes, become a better reader and advance their level.  They earn points for the amount of tests they take and teachers often use this point system as an incentive to earn prizes, compete with other students and sometimes...God forbid...get grades.

As a PARENT (and in a moment as an educator), I have worked too hard, too diligently, put in TOO MANY HOURS to create a reader in my child for AR to take that from him.  I read to him before he was born, when he was two years old and couldn't sit still, I read to him while he was in the bathtub.  I read to him, I made it fun, I took him to the library, I took him to book stores.  Reading was and is a pleasant time to be together.  He is now in 5th grade and STILL loves to read.  He's an athlete, a boy's boy, a wisecracking kid...but he loves to read.  There was a time a few years ago when he brought home a book from the school library about two girls having a sleepover.  Hmmm...okay...that's fine with me if that's something he truly wants to read about...but I know my son.  And I know better.  When I asked him if that was a book he was interested in, his reply was, "No, but that was the only thing left on the shelf that's my level"...excuse me?  So we have a library full of books, but we're only allowing children to select from one shelf or case or basket or whatever??  I, the Mom and Librarian that I am, kindly requested of his teacher and librarian that he not be restricted to one shelf of books.  While I understand, some books are inappropriate, at the same time, he needs to find what he loves.  I worked too hard to instill a love of reading to have one teacher, one librarian, one individual take that from him in a matter of days.  My letter was not received with the utmost of kindness, but let's get real people.  Sometimes you have students who have younger siblings at home and they want books below their level so they can read to siblings.  Sometimes you have students who want books they CAN'T read yet because they want Mom or Dad to read it TO them.  Sometimes you have students who hate reading, but they're going to find a sports book and be able to read only the captions below the pictures, but they're going to want to find more...and they're going to become fluid readers because they found something they loved to read and invested time in it.  Sometimes you have a 2nd grade student that reads on a 6th grade reading level and I DEFINITELY don't want my 2nd grader reading some of the 6th grade books due to content, so it's okay every once in awhile to read DOWN a level...for pleasure.  Do you see where I'm going with this?

As a TEACHER and LIBRARIAN...I have seen student after student come to the library in tears or passing over a book they truly want to read because it's "not their level" or because "I need more points".  WHAT?!  Sure, we have to have accountability in reading, sure we need some assessments, sure we need to know if students are showing growth and progress, but trust me, AR is not the way to do it.  Reading is intrinsically pleasant...and by MAKING students read certain books or limiting their choice of books, we're creating little robots who are reading to earn something, they're reading for their grades, they're reading to push their name above the other student who is ahead of them on the chart on the wall.  We ONLY have them a short time...once they go off to middle and high school, if that love of reading isn't there, forget about it.  Sometimes someone will fall in love with reading later in life, but usually if that passion is not created early, it never comes.  Reading should be fun, we read to find out information, we read for pleasure, we read to escape, we read to create memories, we read to spend time together, we DON'T read to acquire points.  It's not how it works.  I'm fortunate to say, I now work in a school that DOES NOT DO AR.  Thank the Lord.  My school is in the middle of a very rural community and we circulate between 40,000 and 50,000 books a year to students in Preschool through 5th grade.  They love to read...most of them.  They get books because they're interested in them and they write reading responses or they talk about the book in literature circles or they draw pictures of their favorite parts of the book or they map the characters or they watch the movie and compare the book to the movie or sometimes, just sometimes...they don't do anything but read it.  *gasp*  Imagine that.  They read just to read...because they love the book...and they crave more books like that one book they found that they loved.

My son excelled in Accelerated Reader.  I'm not an upset Mom looking to promote my agenda because my child's feelings were hurt.  My child did WELL with AR.  He's extremely competitive and he continued to be in the top of his class for Accelerated Reader.  He was in the top ten for his school one year.  He's not one of those kids that would be "ruined" by AR, although I firmly believe his love for reading would be at a much lower level than it is now.  He wouldn't wake up and stay in bed for hours reading for pleasure if reading was still "work"...working for points.  That's not the point.  The point is, as an Educator, I saw what it was creating.  I saw where the path was leading, I saw the fruit this tree was going to bear...and I didn't and DON'T like it.

I'm telling you now, if you feel as though Accelerated Reader is pushing your child/children or students to hate reading, you need to take a stand.  Often times the requirement to participate in Accelerated Reading comes from outside the individual school...it might come from the Principal or Administrator or it might come from the county or school system.  It COULD even come from the state or a Reading Coach.  Whoever it is, it would be worth your while to get to the bottom of it and ask them if they have data that Accelerated Reader is helping your child.  They might tell you yes and show you the growth or comparison charts...good for them.  But you see...your child is typically, usually, for the most part, going to show growth in reading whether they're doing AR or not...because they're in school, they're learning, they're being made to read whether they enjoy it or not...so they ARE going to show growth, but while they are showing growth on paper (most children WILL show growth while in school regardless of their reading program), they are silently, internally beginning to associate reading with WORK instead of PLEASURE and that could very easily become what causes them to stop being a reader at all...later in life.  Most studies done with Accelerated Reader are either done BY affiliates of the company in controlled groups or done and compared to groups where no reading is involved at all.  I assure you, if you participated in or held a year or several year study with a random group of students reading using AR and a random group of students actively participating in reading without the use of AR, the group NOT using AR is always going to show more growth.

If you're ready to present your argument for the discontinuation of Accelerated Reader in your school or for your child alone, here are some facts that will help you with your argument, some questions you can ask to see how your child's leaders respond.  Don't go in ready to attack the teacher or librarian or anyone for that matter.  As I stated previously, often times Accelerated Reader is being done per request or at the direction of someone outside of the building.  However, you CAN ask these questions as you go down the path to discover what the best way might be to build upon your growing reader.  If AR is working for your child, FABULOUS.  I hope it's being used correctly as a tool and not as an assessment or end-all, be-all guide to reading.  I also hope the following will give you some insight as far as what to watch for as your child continues to grow in reading.

1.  Ask your child's educators if he/she is being limited as to the selection of books available from the overall pool of books.  In other words, does your child have access to all books in the library?  In the elementary section?  In the classroom?  Or is your child being limited to one section, one basket, one "level"?  Teachers tend to limit students because they must maintain accountability for student progress.  While the AR program has over 100,000 books in its database, that is merely a fraction of books available for young readers.  If a book is not in the AR database, teachers often discourage it from being read because "we can't take a test on it".  I'm getting sick at my stomach already and we're only on number one...

2.  Does my child have any new books available to read - books published this year?  Does my child have access to books from local authors within the state or area?  We need to support our local and up and coming authors and illustrators.  Who knows...you might find a new favorite.  I hope schools are taking advantage of any local authors for school visits.  Students need to meet them, see what they're doing and the process they've had to follow to get there.  It takes time for Accelerated Reader to get quizzes into their system, so many times newer releases are excluded and therefore, discouraged...by all means we should only read books with quizzes because as an adult...that's why I read...NOT.  Come on people...what do children like to read?  NEW BOOKS!  What do adults like to read?  NEW BOOKS!  If your child is being discouraged to read new releases because AR does not have a quiz...that's a big problem.

3.  Is my child who reads on a higher reading level being forced to get books only on that level or can he/she drop down a few levels for some book choices?  Now I hope most teachers, even if participating in Accelerated Reader, are careful with what students are reading under their care.  With that said, the truth is...we can't read every book ever written.  While I try to be a good steward of my readers, sometimes books go unnoticed in the middle of a busy day.  If your child is reading well above his/her grade level, teachers might be pushing for books to be read ON THAT LEVEL.  I don't know about you, but I don't want my first grader reading a book about a middle school crush...but that's just me.  Another thing to think about is the amount of time it takes your child to earn points.  If a class is participating in a points and rewards system, first graders reading on a first grade reading level can read small books at a fairly fast pace and earn points for each book.  At the same time, your child who reads four or five grade levels above them is reading a chapter book that takes a week to read...so while the child on the lower level is acquiring points each day, your child is getting them maybe once a week...and the child who is earning more points because he/she reads lower level books or because he/she has figured out the point system and is reading quick reads to get fast points, they are going to be rewarded for "reaching their 25 point goal" faster than your child who is a better reader.  So we're going to punish our excellent readers while encouraging our strugglers???  In what world does that make sense?  I've seen it time and time again...it's happening...EVERY DAY.

4.  Is my child competing for points in the classroom or school as a whole?  As I stated above, my child is a competitor.  He is driven by it.  Some students are not.  They shut down.  In some situations, competitiveness can lead to hard feeling among classmates who are supposed to be living daily life in the classroom as a family of learners.  Students can begin mocking other students who don't get as many points as they have or they can become angry at students who haven't taken many tests because those students "made us lose the class pizza party" or "made us lose our movie day".  So while I love competition in sports and I'm not one of "those moms" who believes everyone should be rewarded equally, I do believe that in the world of learning and education, we should not reward SOME students for doing what we expect them to do when OTHER students are trying EQUALLY as hard to be successful or maybe they're one of those higher readers and not able to earn points as quickly.  Ultimately, we want students talking about the books they read...we want them discussing, getting excited...do you see AR encouraging this or discouraging this? With each student reading different books instead of doing a novel study or partner reading, the social nature of reading is minimized.  Research shows time and time again that having communities of readers, not isolated readers, is KEY to developing a love for reading.  They're too anxious to move on to the next book in order to earn points...who has time to show a favorite book to a friend?  I've got points to earn...you're on your own!  Do you see the problem with this??

5.  How long does the class as a whole spend on AR each day?  Okay...this is important.  Sometimes teachers allow Accelerated Reader to soak up WAY TOO MUCH TIME.  Instructional time is precious...think of all the lovely things your child could be learning during the day instead of running around catering to AR.  Often times, students have to wait their turn to take quizzes because classrooms only have one, two, maybe three computers.  If students are sent to the library to take quizzes, that's time spent walking to the library and back...hey, every second is precious.  Usually students are told things like, "Just read the book again while you wait" or "Put your head down until it's your turn".  What a waste of instructional minutes.  Don't get me wrong...if the teacher has been told to do this or has not been trained properly on the most effective use of his/her time, I don't blame the teacher for this AT ALL.  Accelerated Reader is the enemy here, not the teacher.  If it's AR incentive day, then teachers and/or librarians spend time tallying point totals, passing out prizes or, excuse me...incentives.  If students are being sent to the library to collect prizes, that's an entire day the librarian has spent on handing out prizes instead of ordering books, doing book talks, teaching students how to use the newest technology...you get where I'm going with this.

Another key factor is the $$$ issue.  This has nothing to do with your child's teacher and again, it might go above school level, but Renaissance Programs (the company that created Accelerated Reader) are EXPENSIVE.  Many times the school library which is underfunded or not funded at all (another story for another day), is expected to pay for Accelerated Reader.  I had rather be purchasing books for my students, bookmarks to make them want to come to the library, art supplies to set up an Illustration Station, paying authors to visit and meet with students...rather than paying for Accelerated Reader.  If a school participates in Accelerated Reader, they probably also have students taking periodic STAR Tests...this is the test that will tell them your child's reading level...give or take...trust me...take it with a grain of salt...and it is separate from AR as far as money is concerned.  There's STAR Math and all kinds of other programs that add up to THOUSANDS, yes THOUSANDS of dollars EACH year.  Accelerated Reader in and of itself is a subscription service.  Schools pay yearly, it's not a one time purchase deal, and it costs thousands of dollars EACH year.  Think of all the books that could be bought, materials for science experiments, cleaning supplies...just saying.

Everyone is certainly entitled to an opinion and this is mine...based on years of experience spanning multiple states, schools, economic areas, ages, based on parenting both a male and female child with VERY different personalities, based on years using the program (because I was forced) and years NOT using the program...I have come to the conclusion that Accelerated Reader is just not helping our children...scratch that, it's HURTING the majority of our children.  The sad news is...I don't see it going anywhere unless we as parents and educators FIGHT to make it go away.  In order to fight, we have to come into battle armed with knowledge.  We can't make an argument "just because", we can't ask that it be taken out of the school because "we don't like it".  We must have concrete reasons.  I bet many of you have your own AR horror stories and I bet many of you have children who have had great success in the program and you have celebrated their "points" as I have with my child.  Push all that aside and look at the big picture...no matter how AR has hurt or helped your child, I promise you...when your child is engulfed in an active reading program that encourages a love of reading, discussion and discovery...they're going to soar higher, read better, rise above anything you ever IMAGINED in the realm of reading.

WHEN WE HAVE CHILDREN LOOKING INSIDE BOOKS  TO SEE IF THEY CAN READ THE BOOK, TO SEE IF IT'S TOO EASY, TO SEE IF IT'S TOO DIFFICULT, TO SEE IF IT'S EVEN INTERESTING INSTEAD OF LOOKING ON THE SPINE OF THE BOOK TO SEE WHAT THE LEVEL IS, THAT IS WHEN WE WILL BEGIN TO TRULY CREATE READERS.

Share it, be an advocate for it, live it.  Happy Reading...RR

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