Thursday, February 23, 2006

Reading Thursday: The Accelerated Reader Experience

In many areas of the country, (including ours) districts have implemented a self-paced reading program called "Accelerated Reader," in which students read books (usually of their choice) and then take computerized tests for points. Oklahoma's Muskogee Phoenix writes:
Sixth-grader Lukas Hill says he had no problem at all tallying up enough points to reach his Accelerated Reader goal. “I already read 50 books and I have 220 points,” he said. “I made my goal, 160 points, in the first month of school.”

Hill may well be the most voracious of hundreds of area school students who earn reading points through the Accelerated Reader program. A product of Wisconsin-based Renaissance Learning, Inc., Accelerated Reader is marking its 20th anniversary this year and is considered the nation’s leading reading management program.

Schools across the Muskogee area use Accelerated Reader for at least part of their reading program. One aspect of the program has students taking a computer quiz on a book they read and earning points for successfully answering questions. Many schools offer such incentives as pizza parties, prizes and opportunities to do crazy things to their principals for reaching goals.

Some reading specialists, including Muskogee Public Library’s youth services coordinator Liz Hanley, question using points and prizes as a reading incentive.

“Every day, if it’s not a parent, it’s a child coming in looking for books with point values,” she said. “I prefer a child come into the library and look for a book that’s really something they want to read.”

Officials at Okay Elementary and Muskogee schools say the program helps instill a love of reading that goes beyond getting points.

“What it does is provide incentive for kids to want to read,” Okay Elementary School Principal Pam Littlefield said. “When we do our Drop Everything And Read time, students will pick up a book they have not picked up in the past.”

“I like it because you learn more,” said Okay third-grader Destry Lawrence. “If you get a book and you don’t know the words you can ask the teacher.”

Lukas Hill’s mother, Jazzlyn Hill said Accelerated Reader is just part of what motivates her son to read.

“Luke always has been a voracious reader,” she said. “The thicker the book the better. He was reading before he even knew what an accelerated reader point was.”

Sally Daniels, mother of a sixth-grader at Grant Foreman Elementary School, said she has loved the program since her son was in kindergarten.

She said her son is motivated by both the love of reading and the desire to score points.

“He loves to challenge himself by making 100 on the quiz,” she said.
Daniels, vice president of the school’s Parent Teacher Organization, said that while the school offers prizes, the program also is part of a child’s reading grade.

“It may make the difference between getting a B-plus instead of a B,” she said.

Hanley said the library has different schools’ Accelerated Reader lists detailing what books are on the quizzes and their point values.

“And just because a book is on the list, it doesn’t mean the book is an award-winner,” she said. “Some child comes in and says “oh, I’ve got to get some points. To me, that’s not digesting the book or learning to love the book.”

The multiple-choice quizzes also focus on specifics of a book, rather than a child’s impression of a book.

Grant Foreman Principal Denise Curtis said that while educators want to believe kids will read on their own, many need extra motivation.

Grant Forman has used Accelerated Reader for 15 years and uses Reading Renaissance as a main educational focus.

The school’s Web site says: “Reading is crucial to everything we do as active members of society. Our goal is to develop lifelong learners who love to read and have an appreciation for quality literature.”

Grant Foreman reading specialist Sheila Rolland, said Accelerated Reader is geared to different students’ reading levels.

“They get to choose library books that fit their level,” she said. “Just because a child is in fifth grade, that doesn’t mean he reads fifth grade. Some read at third-grade level, some read at 12th.”

She said the school library has more than 6,600 books on which students can take quizzes. She said students often want to check out more challenging books.

The school has all sorts of other incentives to get kids to love reading, especially classics such as “Little Women” and “The Chronicles of Narnia,” Rolland said.

“Our teachers do novel studies,” she said, adding that students do book reports and share what meaning they gleaned from the books.

The school also promotes love of reading through such programs as Book Buddies, in which older kids help younger students read, and Lunch Bunch, in which students can read in the library during lunch recess.

Curtis said her school and the district use other programs as well as Accelerated Reader. They include Four Blocks, a program that incorporates writing, working with words, self-selected reading and guided reading.

Okay also supplements Accelerated Reader with such programs as a basal reader, a reading textbook, Littlefield said.

Littlefield and Curtis say Accelerated Reader has helped their schools improve reading test scores.

Roller reported more personal results.

“When I was teaching sixth grade, there was a student who was reading on probably first-grade, second-grade level, but the more books she read, the more it became a spark to her, and she ended up reading on her grade level,” she said. “She worked really, really hard. It was just beautiful.”
In our junior high school here in California's "Imperial" Valley, we've been using Accelerated Reader for some eight years. The reviews have been mixed.

When we initially purchased the program, each child received a two-hour block of language arts instruction. There was sufficient time built into the schedule for children to read silently in class a few minutes (about 15-20) each day, which is what the folks at A.R. recommend. (Actually, they advocate longer periods of in-class silent reading, but that's not possible.)

The students read a phenomenal amount of books and passed a huge number of tests. They earned a great number of points which were redeemed for small prizes. AR scores were also factored into their language arts grade.

One of our teachers (who has since moved on) performed a study that showed students were reading at measurably higher levels.

But due to district-mandated downsizing, our school has lost a large percentage of its teachers over the years with a proportional increase in class sizes. The result is that each child now has one period of language arts, and so in-class silent reading is no longer possible due to time constraints and administrative directives.

This is the vulnerability of the Accelerated Reader approach. The company that promotes the program strongly emphasizes the need to have structured in-class reading time, which is simply not possible on many campuses.

But in our school's case, AR has now become an "enrichment" activity, with testing done in homeroom with no grade given.

Because Accelerated Reader is no longer "tied" to an academic class (with grading) the number of books and points earned has taken a dive. The prize budget was reduced substantially, so that the only prizes of note are sodas and ice cream sandwiches.

Generally, I feel that it's a good program which we are unable to fully take advantage of due to the realities of scheduling and budget.

Still, our school's motivated kids do take advantage of what Accelerated Reader has to offer. And for that reason, it's a good thing.
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