My Son is Afraid to Read

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.

Stick to Cheetahs and Turkeys kid.

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:

This was all that was left in his cubicle.

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).

Dad’s Disregard for Cooper’s Career Readiness

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.

Suggested Reference
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/

Comments

  1. Great post! While reading it I found myself both laughing out loud and choking back tears. I think you did a great job explaining the dangers of fully automated instructional programs and services. The fact of the matter is, as you mentioned, that we need to sit down with kids and talk to them in depth about the reading.

    1. Thank you! And you are correct. AR will never be a substitute for the power of human conversation about books and reading. I’m 100% in favor of getting kids to read outside of class, but there has to be a better way.

  2. So often I find myself in discussion where I just want to “holla” WHY ARE WE DOING THIS! THIS DOES NOT MAKE SENSE! Think anyone is listening?

  3. I know that a lot of teachers are listening and I know that there isn’t a lot they can do about it.

  4. My favorite part is where you signed Don’t Care for Cooper’s test score. Because of Chris’s same concerns, I can see many of these same situations in our future children’s lives.

  5. It is disheartening to know that our children are being led down a path that may prevent them from learning to read for pleasure. If your son is subjected to an exam each time he reads, how will he ever learn to read for fun? The good news is that at least you (and I) have some ability to instill a love for reading at home.

    1. You are right Elizabeth, but we are also the fortunate ones. Not all parents have the time and/or ability to spend significant quality time talking about reading with their kids. AR has not only taken the parent out of the equation in many cases, but it also provides some people with a built in excuse NOT to read with their kids. AR will take care of it. This is a pessimistic view and I doubt that many parents take this position, but it is yet another example of how the focus on achievement has taken the place of a quality educational approach.

      1. A wiser, older teacher once said, “Be careful of being more concerned about the stopwatch than the race.” We’ve become all-consumed with the stopwatches (AR tests, STAR tests, ACTAAP, etc.) and we’ve forgotten that HOW the students are running the race should be our focus.
        When I returned to teaching 12 years ago, a parent and friend brought boxes of paperbacks to my new classroom. I questioned her, because she had children for whom the books would have been appropriate. “AR killed the love of reading in my children” was the reply. We’re measuring children more closely than we ever have, but is that close measurement actually producing the hoped for “better” and more successful student?
        My thought: No, it’s not. And it’s taking time and effort away from developmentally appropriate learning activities that might produce more successful–and certainly happier and less stressed–students.

  6. Fantastic article! I only wish I had written it. As an educator I, too, have been swallowed up at times by the AR epidemic. I am pleased to report, that I never once became infected. I have always had a leery disrespect for the program and it’s effects on our most vulnerable learners. Hooray for you for writing, “Don’t care,” on the envelope. I do hope this helped to open a few eyes to the issues facing students who are forced to read only certain books at certain levels because a program says that is what they should read.

    1. Amen! There is too much pressure about AR tests. I also find it disturbing that students are told what books to check out of the library. Aren’t readers going to be more engaged, enticed and thus better able to comprehend what they read if they are invested in choosing what they read? I loved perusing books higher than my reading level as a child- that’s part of why I wanted to learn to read them!

  7. Thank you, Jason, for keeping us informed of one of the reading scenarios our kids experience from the “best intentions” category. The most poignant reading moment was Cooper’s excessive concern over a score for his non-fiction reading. My gosh, if he is experiencing this kind of concern over “outside” reading, imagine how that concern is exacerbated in the drive for accountability.

  8. We utilized the AR program as a major component of the reading curriculum in the K-8 district where I used to teach. At first the children were excited to be able to pick out their own books, but after a while the main incentive to read became the prizes they earned for tallying points for successful completion of the AR tests. They world earn the little pencils and bookmarks quickly, then turn their attention to pizzas and the ultimate prize, a large prepackaged fireworks display. Clearly, the prizes became the incentive to accumulate points, not the pleasure of reading. This is not the message we should be sending.

  9. The truth is this kind of reading does KILL (or at least maim) the reader in many children. My sons (now grown) had this program as well… they were often found reading books easier than they could because in 5th and 6th grade they were “not allowed” to read the “Junior High” books in AR because their school only had bought the tests for K-6…. so they read books they didn’t want to read instead of those they wanted to read to get the required points… no “credit” or understanding for their passion, ability and interest… I find it very sad that YEARS later (like 8-10 years) this is still happening.

  10. I loved reading this. My 4th grader just finished a book that was a very high level book…. upper Jr. High, more likely high school reading level. She is supposed to accumulate somewhere around 20 points per 9 weeks. This was a 500 page book and took her over 2 months to read. She struggled, especially at first, but absolutely LOVED the book, and is now reading the sequel… at twice the pace. She got grief from her teacher until she finished her AR test with a 19 out of 20, which blew my mind. I couldn’t have done that well. Her teachers problem, however, was that she was making no forward progress on her AR goal. She finished the book way before it was “goal time” and the book was worth 19.5 points. She had already read several boring “Tip the Dog” or “Cat in the Hat” books just to stop getting hassled about having no points. Her reading level has jumped dramatically… just from one book that actually challenged her and didn’t bore her to death. Luckily, my little one isn’t too concerned about the little things, like AR goals and stupid pencils and dog tags, she just like to read. But for a kid with a little self esteem problem, this would have never happened. AR tests are for the birds. Thanks for sharing your story.

  11. Thank you all for sharing your thoughts and experiences. I think Tonia’s experience points out the pressures that programs like AR often put on teachers and the effect that can have on the way they have their students read. It should be clear that Cooper’s teacher is an excellent teacher of reading and he is lucky to have her.

  12. Jason – Missing you as a colleague here at Keene State College. Your article is sadly hilarious…right on target. Have you read [Texas teacher] Donalyn Miller’s “The Book Whisperer”? Cooper needs to be in her class! (We all do.)

  13. Thank you for the “Don’t Care”! So often as teachers, we are charged with “making” parents and kids care about things that are in the long run insignificant!
    Teachers in our school use AR, not as part of their reading curriculum, but as an ‘extra’ thing to do. Some teachers give points, some keep track of the quiz grades, and some just let the kids have a go at whatever they choose to read. There are quizzes and leveled book lists for first grade, but I choose to NOT expose my first graders to this insanity. There is nothing that will kill a love of reading more than a “GOTCHA” quiz that makes a child feel as if they hadn’t read a book at all.
    I was reminded of the time my then 4th grade son got a low grade in Library because “He reads too many non-fiction books.” How sad that I had to teach my son how to “play the game”. I told him to check out a fiction book, return it, and then take a non fiction book. It kept the teacher off his case, and we went to discount book stores and loaded up on non-fiction!

  14. So spot on. How about sending home the books in a manilla folder and that’s it! I did. My k-1 kids checked out a book daily…WHATEVER book they wanted. Wasn’t tested, graded, etc. just kept a log so I didn’t lose any treasured titles. THe idea of kids staying in their range angers me…how would children ever learn to speak, walk, etc. if we made them only use movements they have mastered? It makes no sense. My son, who has a PROCESSING SPEED disorder, hated this program and frankly, when I took a few of these to see what they would be tested on, I was flabbergasted at the minutiae that was asked. One question asked what color dress the mother was wearing and all I could think was how is that important to the MEANING of the story? I am an avid reader. I could’nt tell you half the characters’ names in books I am currently reading, but I can tell you the plot and message. I am a reading specialist and mother of two children who absolutely loved reading when I sent them to school and now hate it. Neither would pick up a book on their own anymore which is like a knife to my heart and teachers who implement this and schools that support it, can own it.

  15. AMEN! I have a 17-year old son who refuses to read for pleasure because of the day-to-day pressures placed on him by grades K-4 teachers to excel in the AR Reading program. It was all about moving his little sail boat across the ocean with higher and higher AR scores than about what he actually was interested in reading~it literally killed his love and spirit for reading for pleasure. To this day, he only reads out of necessity~breaks my heart~ :(