Do no Harm

When used casually, AR helps students’ reading abilities grow. When used thoughtfully and with proven techniques, it leads to tremendous gains and a lifelong love of reading. – Getting Results with Accelerated Reader, Renaissance Learning

I am currently reading aloud Millions by Frank Cottrell Boyce to my 10 year old son. It is an interesting “what if” story: the main character and his older brother find a bag of money thrown off of a train in England. The problem is that England’s currency is soon transitioning from pounds to the euro. To add a wrinkle to the narrative, the main character’s mother recently passed away. To add another wrinkle, the main character can speak to deceased saints canonized within the Catholic Church. This story is nothing if not interesting and hard to predict.

Reading aloud to my son sometimes leads to conversations about other books. For instance, I asked him about a fantasy series that also seemed to stretch one’s imagination. I thought it was right up his alley. Yet he declined. Pressed to explain why, my son finally admitted that he didn’t want to read that series because he failed an Accelerated Reader quiz after reading the first book. Here is our conversation:

Me: “When did you read the book in that series?”

Son: “Back at my older school.”

Me: “Why did you take a quiz on it?”

Son: “Because we had to take at least one quiz every month.”

Me: “Did you not understand the book?”

Son: “I thought I did. It was hard, but I liked it.”

This is an educational fail. When an assessment such as Accelerated Reader causes a student to not want to read, this should be a cause for concern. To be clear, Accelerated Reader is an assessment tool designed to measure reading comprehension. Yet it is not a valid tool for driving instruction. What Works Clearinghouse, a source for existing research on educational programming, found Accelerated Reader to have “mixed effects on comprehension and no discernible effects on reading fluency for beginning readers.” In other words, if a school were to implement Accelerated Reader, they should expect to find results that were not reliable, with the possibility of no impact on student learning. Consider this as you ponder other approaches to promoting independent reading.

It should also be noted that none of the studies listed took a look at the long term effects of using Accelerated Reader on independent reading. That would make for an interesting study.

I realize that it makes simple sense to quiz a student about their comprehension after reading a book. Why not? The problem is, when a student sees the results of said quiz, they appear to attribute their success or failure to their abilities as a reader. Never mind that the text might have been boring and only selected because of points, that the test questions were poorly written, that the teacher had prescribed the text to be read and tested without any input from the student, or that the test results would be used toward an arbitrary reading goal such as points. Any one of these situations may have skewed the results. In addition, why view not passing an AR quiz as a failure? It might be an opportunity to help the student unpack their reading experience in a constructive way.

What I would say is to take a step back from independent reading, and to appreciate it as a whole. What are we trying to do with this practice? Independent reading, as the phrase conveys, means to develop a habit of and love for lifelong, successful reading. This means the appropriate skills, strategies and dispositions should be developed with and by students. Any assessment that results in a student not wanting to read more interferes with that process and causes more problems than benefits. The Hippocratic Oath in medicine states “Do no harm”. Sounds like wisdom education should heed as well.

Suggestion for further reading: My Memory of The Giver by Dylan Teut

Author: Matt Renwick

Matt Renwick is a 17-year public educator who began as a 5th and 6th grade teacher. After seven years of teaching, he served as a dean of students, assistant principal and athletic director before becoming an elementary principal in Wisconsin Rapids. Matt is now an elementary principal for the Mineral Point Unified School District (http://mineralpointschools.org/). Matt tweets @ReadByExample and writes for ASCD (www.ascd.org) and Lead Literacy (www.leadliteracy.com).

3 thoughts on “Do no Harm”

  1. Matt, I could go on and on about how much I agree with you. One of my schools (I travel to 2) has adopted AR as graded. I think the move is completely counter-productive. Reading has become a punishment rather than a joy. I understand the original intent to get kids to read more, but it has turned reading into a school chore, not a lifelong love. I wish my administrator could see more clearly what you have seen.

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  2. Thank you, Matt, for your insight. Years ago, I was expected to use AR in the classroom, and it was to count for 10% of the English grade. While I was lucky enough to convince my principal to move away from that practice, it is still used as part of a grade in many schools today. Because Accelerated Reader was being incredibly misused in their school, I watched my own sons, now grown, lose the spark to read. While I continue to buy them books for Christmas, rarely will they pick one up. It was heartbreaking to watch and a fairly heated battle to fight, even when independent research identified negative effects of AR on older students’ reading. Unfortunately, I still see that often, AR (or Scholastic Counts) has become the center of a reading program and culture of a building, and we lose sight of why we want kids to read in the first place.

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    1. That had to be frustrating, Lisa, to witness your kids not wanting to read anymore. That’s probably an understatement. Hopefully, your boys will someday renew their interest in reading.

      Interesting that you commented at this time…our school is moving away from Accelerated Reader, starting next year. At my last school, I would question the pedagogical benefits of AR with teachers. Pushback would occur because the assessments and results are so easy to administer. A deeper issue was that teachers’ beliefs had formed within and around the resource, instead of literacy beliefs driving the adoption of technology. Regie Routman discusses this in her book Read, Write, Lead.

      This time, I took a financial approach to discussing Accelerated Reader. It’s pretty expensive, almost $10 a student, which does include the 360 features such as Subtext. The kicker is that a school has to purchase a minimum of 250 seats. No classroom licenses. My theory is Renaissance does this intentionally, knowing that some teachers or an administrator will push hard to keep it in the building. When I broke it down by actual usage in the building and communicated the numbers, the actual cost was incredibly high per student. Thankfully, our teachers did not feel this was cost feasible. In its place, we are looking to incorporate Biblionasium, which is like Goodreads for kids. Kidblog might be another tool, a blogging platform, we use to connect reading and writing with an authentic audience in a digital space.

      By avoiding the pedagogical discussion and focusing on dollars and “sense”, this seemed to be a more effective approach to nonrenewing Accelerated Reader for our school.

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