I would like to go way out on a limb and make a radical declaration. I am a big fan of reading, books and improving literacy. I even think these things are good for children.
That's why I quickly clicked on the article, "American High School Students Are Reading Books At 5th-Grade-Appropriate Levels", in this fine publication. Boy, was I scared. We as a nation must crush the Finns!
The report is more catastrophic news heaped upon what we are increasingly led to believe is a disastrous public education system minutes away from a meltdown. Parents, kids, teachers, policy-makers and concerned citizens have reason for alarm. There are signs of anti-intellectualism and ignorance everywhere.
However, Renaissance Learning, Inc., the company that commissioned the study has much to celebrate. Their business plan has performed flawlessly!
Allow me to explain. Renaissance Learning's flagship product is a software package called Accelerated Reader. The company claims that AR (as it is called in thousands of classrooms around the world) is "the world's most widely used reading software."
Even if you are silly enough to believe that computers can teach someone to read, AR doesn't even pretend to do so. Accelerated Reader turns reading into game show that rewards speed and facile understanding. Children read actual books and then go to a computer running the AR software where they take a short multiple-choice comprehension quiz about that book -- if the quiz exists and the school owns it.
Based on the difficulty of the book as determined by an algorithm that likely measures word length to determine reading level and the number of correct answers, the student is awarded points. Kids love points, except for the weaker readers in the class who will now be humiliated when their cumulative AR points are hung on the wall or when schools factor AR points into report card grades. Some kids just like to read without feeling rushed. They might even wish to read the book again -- a behavior that wastes time and will cost them AR points.
Clever kids, even those with less reading ability, quickly realize that one way to accumulate points is volume, volume, volume. Read easier books and lots of them so you can quickly take as many AR quizzes as possible with minimal challenge. This competitive race is likely to discourage weaker readers while proficient readers may find the joy and power of reading reduced to vocabulary words and computer-generated comprehension quizzes.
But that's not all!
Schools with limited library or technology budgets need to spend precious resources on Accelerated Reader. Teachers are prone to "leave reading up to the machine" since reading is no longer a social affair where you share, discuss and analyze a text, but a way to beat your friends in a solo competition. If you are a precocious kid and a voracious reader, Accelerated Reader is likely to have a prophylactic effect on your interest in reading. Here are a few scenarios to consider.
- Let's say you are 10 years old and just finished reading a book determined to be at an 11th grade readability level. Your primary school is unlikely to own the quiz so, no points for you!
- You can't wait to read the fabulous new books your D.U.G. (Dr. Uncle Gary) brought back from Australia, but once again -- no quiz, no points, why bother reading?
- You're the kind of kid who gets Amazon gift cards for your allowance and you spend your spare time at the public library reading all of the latest books. However, the quizzes don't yet exist or your school doesn't own them. Even if the school is flush with cash, the laborious process of ordering and installing the new quizzes ensure that you won't get credit this term for the books you've read.
- Thomas Edison is your guy. You don't want to read crappy children's books about him anymore so you buy adult books and go to the local university to read manuscripts in the archives. Foul! No AR points awarded. Read two boring books approved by the Texas Board of Education and take another quiz.
- You read several 600-page manuals about how to use Photoshop and are now busy teaching your teachers how to use the software. That reading was wasted because you won't get points for what you read, learned or shared.
AR gets motivation wrong.
It assumes that the reason kids don't read is that they need to be bribed into doing so with extrinsic awards. Alfie Kohn explores these issues in "A Closer Look at Reading Incentive Programs" and "How to Create Nonreaders."
AR gets motivation wrong when it uses readability as the basis for text selection. What does it mean when a study says that 11th grade students are reading 5th grade books? Perhaps the 5th grade books are complex, beautiful, interesting or d) all of the above? If readability is king, how do you explain all of the 7 year-olds who read the Harry Potter series when AR indicates that they are at a readability level from grade 5 through 7? Should we prohibit first graders from reading about the Ankylosaurus because the word is too long according to an algorithm?
Quantity of books crammed is prized over the quality of books read or the literary experience enjoyed. AR admits to not assessing higher-order thinking skills, but rather whether a kid read a book or not. This can't help but erode trust between teachers and students or contribute to cheating by passing a quiz without having read the book.
One of the world's most esteemed literacy scholars, Dr. Stephen Krashen, has written extensively about in a number of articles, including: "Accelerated Reader. "Accelerated Reader: Once Again, Evidence Lacking" and "Does Accelerated Reader Work? The (Lack of ) Experimental Evidence Supporting the Use of Accelerated Reader."
Every parent and educator wants children to develop superb literacy skills. They also value reading for pleasure and information frequently throughout their lives. However, Dr. Rebecca Constantino, founder of the incredible school library conjuring non-profit, Access Books, has research to prove that the greatest predictor of literacy is access to high-interest reading material -- any kind of text. This evidence flies in the face of the AR approach. Reading is not a contact sport!
While Accelerated Reader suggests that it inspires literacy habits, its primary customer is the bureaucrat impressed by the marketing slogan, "Advanced Technology for Data-Driven Schools."
Data is to reading as oil is to ________