Wednesday, September 23, 2009

What's Wrong With AR

Accellerated Reader, produced by Rennisance Learning, is the worst thing to happen to English education since we stopped speaking English in this country.

People who disagree with me will say: "It gets kids reading when they wouldn't have otherwise!" So do book reports. "It makes kids read at their level." So do book reports. "It rewards kids for reading." So do cookies.

Any other arguments?

If you set a number of books to read, or the reading level of books kids should read, you get the same result--kids have to read for school or their grades suffer. If you're worried they aren't reading, then make it a real English assignment and make them write a little summary. Then read the summary...see where this is going?

AR makes kids hate reading, even more than they did before. Previously, they didn't read if they didn't have to. And no one made them. So they were all bad readers, because they didn't read. And reading makes you a better reader. But there were always times when kids would rush out to the shelf in a race to see who could get a copy of Mr. Popper's Penguins or The Bears of Blue River or now, Harry Potter. Kids would read them because other kids were reading them. And I would join in, because it was the only time I could talk to people about books when I was in elementary school.

Kids read at level when they're bored. But research on this tells us that kids who are really excited about a certain subject or a series of books will read far above their level because they're really paying attention. Because contrary to popular belief, your reading level is not a constant.

You might pick up a book that relies on math a lot, that is written at eighth grade level. However, with your tenth grade reading level, you will not be able to understand it because you don't get math or you don't like math, so you aren't really paying attention.

Your friend picks up the same book. He loves math, but he has a fifth grade reading level, and he struggles a lot. But he likes math so much that he pays extra close attention to all the mathy goodness, resulting in your friend comprehending the book better than you did despite the fact you are a better reader.

Now, the two of you liked reading something together. But your taste in books is supremely different, and you don't know what to pick. You figure out that you are indifferent to penguins. You don't hate them, but you don't want to cuddle one and shower it with adoration either. So you pick up the same book written at the sixth grade reading level, just like the math book.

You read it and aren't bored, and it isn't hard for you. Your friend reads it and struggles. Because when we aren't trying, our reading levels are what they are when we're tested.

In the sixth grade, they tested reading levels. I scored college level, which was explained to my mother as being open ended.

"She can read anything," the teacher explaining the test said.

"I know," my mother said.

Then I went on to the seventh grade, and they told me to read books with the yellow dots on the spines, but only if they were at my reading level. I read them. Then one day I raised my hand.

"I'm out of books," I said.

The teacher laughed.

"I really am."

So he took me to the bookself and we went through one by one and we discovered I had read all the books at my reading level that we had tests for.

That was when we reexamined the AR program for me. I was given a point level for a goal and then they let me go to town. When I finished eighth grade and was done with AR, I had the highest amount of AR points earned in North Miami's history. And I didn't really try very hard. I just read two books at once, one I wanted to read and one for AR points.

But not all schools are that understanding. I think if they were, there would be more problems with parents arguing that their kids should get to read whatever they want too. I had a mom come into the library today, we get them all the time, looking for books for her fourth grader.

He reads at a 7.4, which is pretty darn good when you consider that most kids are reading at or below level most of the time.

But he has what I consider the "Christian Mom" type. She loves to police what he reads. I get that you don't want your kid reading brutal violence or sex, but when you are saying no to books and the kid's teacher is saying no to books, pretty soon there aren't books you both can agree on. And then the kid is getting pulled in two directions and he quits reading.

Who could blame him? When reading isn't interesting or is a source of conflict, you're out of luck. You just stop fighting for it, because you can just go play video games, right?

We went through the whole of our downstairs collection and found only books like Sherlock Holmes and Black Beauty to amuse him. Or nonfiction. That isn't going to last very long.

The mother left, and this started stewing in my head. Then she came back for C.S. Lewis (that's okay for Christian Moms), and I told her to talk to the kid's teachers so that they can work something out. This is just horrible for the kid. If someone gives, the kid might make it through school better off than if he just gives up. He might make it through college.

This situation is the kind of thing that ticks me off no end. We encourage the average child and discourage the below average and above average at the same time. I understand that we can't make the world a happy place for every kid, but we can do better than this, can't we?

The problem is, it works well for teachers. It works well for schools. I just wish it could work well for kids too. And for school librarians that have to censor books all the time, not for content, but for reading level. "No, you can't read that," should not be in a librarian's vocabulary.

Poor kid. I know how it feels. I hope it gets better.


  1. I agree. Throughout highschool I was forced to read the simple books just to hurry to get my AR points so that I could read books that I wanted to read.
    If anything, this only lowered my reading level AND the wasted time spent when I could have been reading something intelligent and not books about teenagers in love with vampires.