My son, who I will call Cooper because that is his name, isn’t really afraid to read. He loves reading. The title of this entry is purposefully over the top because I want you to read it and because I’m willing to bet that there are many kids out there who actually are afraid to read because of the pressures they are under to score well on standardized tests. If you are still reading this after falling for my bait and switch, I hope you ask yourself if your child is one of them.
Cooper is required to bring a book home from his school library in a manilla envelope every night and read it out loud to us twice. This is great, because reading out loud improves fluency. On the outside of this envelope is a place for Cooper to write the name of the book he reads each night and next to that is a blank that says “Score”. The next day, every single day, Cooper takes an Accelerated Reader quiz and his teacher writes his score on the outside of the envelope.
Accelerated Reader (AR) is a program sold to schools and districts around the country by the Renaissance Learning Corporation. AR provides grade level rankings and comprehension level quizzes for those books. Frequently, AR is used as part of an outside reading program that allows teachers to assign reading to students and then check their comprehension with a 5 or 10 question quiz.
Normally Cooper scores well on these quizzes and the envelope indicates his 80% or 100% score. However, a few weeks ago Cooper brought home a book on Rainforests that was rated as a 2.6 reading level, which is above his “range” of 1.7-2.0 for non-fiction books. His older brother interrogated him about why he would pick a book outside his range, and I was quite surprised that my sons not only knew their ranges, but could tell me what their ranges were last week, last month and last year. Cooper ended the inquisition by declaring, “I just want to read a book about rainforests.” Satisfied with that answer, we listened to him read it to us and he was able to work his way through the book with some help on the more difficult words.
The next day Cooper brought home the envelope and written next to the rainforest title was a 60% score and a message that read “Pick lower level next”.
Think about this for a second. When kids are required to participate in a read-and-test program such as AR, the books they read are chosen, monitored and limited by a computer. Not only that, but they are also limited by an assessment program that pretty much only measures basic reading comprehension. AR quizzes ask questions such as “What did Baby Bear ask Mother Bear?” (Honey for Baby Bear) and “What did Tom offer to do if Jim would trade jobs with him?” (Tom Sawyer). In other words, AR quizzes check to see if students can remember basic, and often random details of the text. If my son doesn’t remember that Baby Bear asked “Who makes honey?” or that Papa Bear said the forest was too “big” (instead of scary) for baby bears then he obviously shouldn’t be reading Honey for Baby Bear because he clearly does not understand it. Since Cooper did not remember 2 of the relatively random details about rainforests, his score was a 3/5 or 60%.
The next night Cooper brought home a 1.5 level book on Turkeys. It was boring. He didn’t like it. But at least he scored a 100% on it the next day. Upon following up with his teacher, as a concerned parent might do, I had a fantastic conversation about the teaching of reading. She told me about all the ways she teaches reading in her classroom and I loved every second of what I was hearing. Cooper is in good hands. She told me that AR is only used by the school to provide a guide for outside reading and as a means to make kids read. I understand the logic behind this. There simply is no substitute for reading if you want to become a better reader. However, when schools turn reading into a factory-like process of read-test-repeat, our kids are in danger of thinking of books as simply a means to an end, rather than a more meaningful literary experience.
Here’s another totally anecdotal story that illustrates what I mean by that:
As an occasional volunteer at my sons’ elementary school one of my duties is listening to students read aloud. Last year I had the chance to read with one young man I’ll call Matt, because that’s not his name. Matt only had about 10 pages left in his book and he wanted to hurry up and finish it because he was going to go down to the computer lab afterward to take the Accelerated Reading quiz for the book. If he scored at least an 8 out of 10 he would get a sticker. It is not unusual for schools to provide incentives for scoring well on AR tests. In the last month alone, my boys have brought home 7 pencils, 3 “Ready Reader” ribbons and a set of Accelerated Reader dog tags that will hopefully allow us to identify Cooper’s body in case he becomes a casualty in the war of College and Career Readiness.
Stephen Krashen, a preeminent scholar on independent reading, analyzed a number of comparison and experimental research studies and concluded in 2003 that,
“research provides inconsistent evidence in support of incentive-based reading management programs”.
He ultimately concluded that providing more access to books and giving students time to read were widely supported by research while incentives for reading may ultimately cause harm. In his words, Krashen lamented that instead of providing students access to high interest reading materials and time to read,
“we rush off to purchase a more expensive, complex package that may have long term harmful effects.”
Back to Matt. We finished the book in the hallway and I’ll admit to becoming more interested in how he was thinking about reading rather than his actual reading. We walked over to the computer lab and he logged on to take the quiz. He agonized over the 10 questions and so did I. He was struggling because the comprehension level questions asked him details about the book that he couldn’t quite recall. The names of characters that were related to the main characters, the reason why the main character lied, the game the children played after school… etc. I was struggling because these questions represented the end of this child’s reading experience with this book.
Under normal circumstances there would be no opportunity for this young man to actually discuss, analyze or evaluate the book he had just read. I personally don’t remember the character’s names, story sequencing, and plot details from the books I read in elementary school. What I do remember about books like The Call of the Wild and Bridge to Terabithia are the lasting themes of survival, strength, and the power of friendship. It saddens me to think that our students may not get a chance to talk about these themes because they will have scored their 8 out of 10 on the quiz, received an honorable discharge from further thought, and moved on to the next book-quiz combo. Coincidentally, one teacher tells me that she is no longer allowed to read Charlotte’s Web to her first grade students after recess because the curriculum overlords have determined that it is too difficult for them to pay attention to longer books while thinking and feeling about enduring themes such as life, death, friendship and sacrifice. It is far better to solve that Honey Bear mystery that has plagued America for generations.
In the end, Matt only managed a 7 out of 10 on his comprehension exam. There was not going to be a sticker in his future. He was visibly disappointed by this and I tried to cheer him up by asking him the questions that a computer is incapable of asking because the answers cannot be measured in multiple-choice format. We talked about the story for a few minutes and I’d like to think he forgot about his missed reward. Either way, he’d have a chance for another one with the next book.
I’ve been stewing about this issue for quite some time, but it was another Cooper experience this past weekend that finally brought me to post this entry. Cooper “accidentally” took a non-fiction 2.7 level book called Henry’s Heart from the book basket in the library that he swears was for books between 1.0-2.0. He is well aware that he is allowed to take fiction books that are in the 2.7 level, but he is only supposed to take non-fiction books that are below 2.0. Somewhere in the bowels of the Renaissance Learning Corporation there is a computer server telling my son what to read. Hopefully it doesn’t become self-aware and morph into the lamest Terminator scenario imaginable.
On 5 separate occasions this weekend Cooper mentioned how worried he was about passing his AR quiz on Monday. He read the book before bed and was fixated on memorizing as many of the details from the text as he could. After he was finished reading he reiterated his concern for passing the quiz and you’d think he was prepping to take the SAT exam or the Bar Exam instead of a 5 question reading comprehension quiz.
This morning I took the AR envelope out of Cooper’s backpack and preempted his anticipated failure by filling in the score blank myself (see picture).
Many people might say that this was the wrong thing to do and that I’m sending the wrong message by showing blatant disregard for Cooper’s achievement. I’d prefer to think of it as not allowing a corporate computer that is programmed to see if my 6 year-old can remember cardiovascular anatomy to tell him what to read. My kids, and yours, should not be afraid to read a book they are interested in, regardless of what AR tells them. They shouldn’t have to stammer out excuses when they bring home a 2.7 level book that was accidentally placed in the 2.0 basket. And they sure as hell shouldn’t be held accountable for memorizing the details of a book they chose because they wanted to pursue an interest or because they thought it looked cool.
If we continue down this path, then we shouldn’t be surprised if all of our kids become afraid or resentful of reading. It would be tragically ironic if the long-term effects of a program like Accelerated Reader was an increased ability to comprehend books and a decreased desire to actually read them.
Endacott, J. L. (2012, November 6). My Son is Afraid to Read. Retrieved from http://www.edusanity.com/2012/11/06/my-son-is-afraid-to-read/