Well, I’ve done it. I’ve had a Twitter-feud. You know you’re not going to change anyone’s mind by arguing in 140 characters or less. But, gosh darn it, Accelerated Reader is not part of an evil plot to overthrow the love of reading. Not only is it not that, but, guess what? There are lots of teachers and gasp (!) students who not only thrive using AR, they like it as well.
You wouldn’t know that if you did a using Google search “accelerated reader opinion.” If you did that, your top two hits would be, “The 18 Reasons Not to Use Accelerated Reader” and “Does Accelerated Reader Work: The (Lack of) Experimental Evidence Supporting the Use of Accelerated Reader.” You also wouldn’t know that if you participate in Twitter chats. Where I’ve come expect tweets that decry it as “a program children hate which kills reading joy and love…” or ask “…if it destroys even one student is it worth it?” (@dylantuet, June 15, 2014.) Um, yes, it’s still worth it. And maybe tone down the rhetoric a bit?! Oh, AR riles its detractors up!
AR is used in over 60,000 US schools. That is almost half of all American schools. That speaks for itself. Still, the arguments against tend to be vehement, self-righteous, and dogmatic. Those who dislike AR can be like school yard bullies making it hard for anyone to admit they like the program. There is a “tool shaming,” a projected sense that admitting you use and like AR and that your students like it makes you a bad teacher.
I have no vested interest in AR or its publisher, Renaissance Learning and believe schools can do all of the good things below without using it. My point here is that despite a lot of voices ringing out the contrary, using it is fine. I’ve worked at successful schools that use AR and successful schools that don’t. My current school does and we’re doing great, thank you very much.
Below are the reasons many of us like AR and think those who don’t might consider being a bit less judgmental. In response to critics of AR, I am going to share the 18 reasons it is okay, or even great to use it. Heck, some of the reasons might even inspire you to try using it if you don’t already.
You Can’t Develop a Love for Reading Until You Develop a Knack for It.
I love reading. I encourage and inspire many to love it too. In my 18 years as a classroom teacher, reading specialist, and librarian, I have always made it one of my goals to show kids the wonder of reading. But, I live in the real world. I have real-world friends. Friends who, gasp (!) don’t like to read. And yet, believe it or not, they live good lives. The idea that every person on earth has to love reading with a deep passion is not only an impossibility, but it is also elitist. Yes, reading is one of my passions and yes, I hope others share it through my example and influence. But, more importantly, as an educator I believe that everyone must possess the skills and abilities that allow them to access complex texts. Do all students need to learn how to read very well? Yes. But, do all students have to love reading like I do? Nope.
1. AR provides a structure for students and teachers to help students develop a knack for reading and maybe even a passion for it. It provides a structure for students to read copious quantities of books. To read, as Richard Allington often suggests, “a steady diet of easy texts” as opposed to the reality where “struggling readers typically encounter a steady diet of too-challenging texts.”
2. AR encourages students to read books they can actually read. One of the accusations people often lob at AR is that is forces students to read at their level. Well, guess what? It turns out that reading texts that you can understand aids learning and love of reading. See my essay about the merits of leveled libraries here. What AR does NOT do is force teachers or students to limit reading to a narrow band. Scroll down to AR For Non-Zombies for more on this.
You Can’t Spell PRACTICAL Without A.R.
Okay, I realize that you can’t spell ‘practical’ without ‘act’ or ‘tic’ either. But, it is important to remember that teachers are busy and they are looking for practical solutions to record keeping and even simple accountability. Most want those records in a digital format.
3. The AR software provides records and reports that help teachers keep apprised of the genres, length, and approximate level of the books students are reading. At a glance, a teacher can tell if a child is not reading enough fiction or nonfiction and can gently guide her students toward those types of books. A teacher can tell when students are consistently reading books that are too hard or too easy for them and then work with students to make a variety of choices. For teachers who serve one small group of students this may not sound like much. But, in my years as a teacher I’ve had groups in the upper 30s in the elementary classroom and up to 179 as a junior high school teacher. In those cases, I needed practical solutions to insure my kid-watching was timely and accurate.
4. Accountability is important. AR tests are not designed to be assessments of students’ critical thinking. The tests take a maximum of 10 minutes and usually take way less. They are designed to make sure students actually read what they said they read. Practical teachers appreciate the simplicity of that.
5. Teachers like it. In a Twitter conversation I was a part of, it was said that, “[Teachers] “like it” is not good reason to use it” (@ProfessorNanna, June 15, 2014.) While it may not be enough of a reason, it is a good start. Despite the outcry to the contrary, mostly fueled by politics, American schools do a pretty good job and have, for the most part, darn good teachers. Their opinions should be valued.
6. Let’s go back to the idea that not everyone must love reading but it is our job to insure every student is a very good reader. Talk about it turning kids who already loved books off to reading is a common argument and to tell the truth, I’ve never seen it happen with my own eyes. I’ve heard tell of it on the internet though. Frankly, it is hard to believe that the teacher’s attitude isn’t muddying the waters here. In general, my students are excited about things I’m excited about. And, let’s flip that question? What about kids who would never read without the accountability of AR?
AR For Non-Zombies
There is a tendency for the arguments against AR to inadvertently (I hope) insult by suggesting that teachers who use it will be a mindless, shambling slaves of the system, you know, AR Zombies. It is a scary picture. In an age where teachers are continually devalued some teachers might lose their sense of efficacy in making choices. It could happen. But, let’s not let it. Remember AR is a tool! It is not the be-all-end all and to my knowledge few ever intended or required it to be used with “fidelity” (my least favorite work in the current education vernacular.)
7. Whether or not you use AR, teachers and students can and should control what they read. Contrary to the way teachers who use AR are often portrayed, they are thoughtful, intentional, and hardworking. They care about students, they love reading, they want their students to love it too.
8. Don’t like the rewards? Don’t use them! Using rewards is not a requirement of AR. In fact, once you buy it, you can use it anyway you want. I do not like most reward systems and do not advocate for giving kids trinkets for reading.
9. AR can be used to turbo charge your school’s reading program. At my school we have a “Book Botique” where students use AR “Book Bucks” to buy used books. The boutique is HUGE and it gets 1,000s of books into our community each year. It was suggested on Twitter that I should just give the books to kids and skip the AR part. But, in general, people value what they earn and their self-esteem grows in relation to their accomplishments. AR helps teachers work with kids to achieve and to be recognized in a book-friendly way for it.
10. Asking students to read texts they can actually comprehend is important. Often, I read about how AR stifles students’ choice by not “allowing” them to read books outside their level. First, I want to remind folks, that AR, as used by non-zombies, suggests, rather than enforces levels. Teachers and students can, as they always should, work together to make good choices about books regardless of the color dot on their spines
11. John Hattie, talks about what he calls,“Visible Learning.” Hattie is a New Zealand professor who does meta-analysis on education research. He writes about the factors that most influence learning. At the heart of his conclusions is the idea that students must be a part of setting, working towards, and monitoring their own learning goals. They must SEE the results of their efforts. AR helps with this. It is an easy way to teach children to set goals, to monitor their progress toward them and to own their own growth. Please check out my work on what I call Data-Based Motivation and my Motivation Toolkit. Get Hattie’s AMAZING book, Visible Learning For Teachers and read it with your PLN today!
Come on, It Does Too Have Lots of Books and No, It’s Not That Expensive.
One of the most common charges against AR is that it limits students’ reading choices to a small set of books. This may have once been true, but it just isn’t anymore.
12. The catalog for AR includes 156,000 quizzes. And, if a book doesn’t have a quiz the teacher can do one of two things: Quickly and easily create a quiz for the book with the AR software (I’ve done it quite a bit for student-written books, it really is quick and easy!) Or, they can give the student credit for reading it through an informal book talk, a book report, or any way they want to. AR does not force kids to take tests. Scroll down to “Just Because AR is a Tool Doesn’t Mean Teachers Have to Be Tools” for more on this.
13. AR is not expensive. A district license for the Enterprise Version of the program costs approximately $4 per student per year. That’s a good deal and not out of the range of many if not most schools. Remember, money is allocated in complex ways. You often have pots set aside for technology-based learning programs and cannot spend it on anything else. This is the way school funding works. One could not, as The Book Whisper author Donnalyn Miller suggested in a tweet, “Spend money on books, instead” (@donnalynnbooks, June 15, 2014.)
It should be noted that I LOVED Miller’s books (one linked above) and found that we had similar view points across the board. I highly encourage folks to buy them and read them. But, it should also be noted that her book sells on Amazon.com and yet she admonished me when it comes to AR, that I should, “follow the money” and choose” kids & teachers & books & research over multi-million $ corporations” (@donnalynnbooks, June 15, 2014.) Amazon? You want to talk about “following the money?” Ever heard of living in a glass house?
Yes, there is research that supports it. Even if you don’t like what it says
14. Ross, Nunnery, and Goldfeder researched the effects of AR and found it to have at best strong effect strength and at worst some effect strength. Of course the study results are contested as all study results are.
15. The What Works Clearing House rates AR as having medium to high effects on reading comprehension.
16. While there is not much in the way of research against AR, the critic often mention two things. One, the lack of experimental evidence that shows AR is effective. Although the study above is compelling, I am told by critics that there are “problems” with the methodology. But, here’s the thing, there is not a lot of experimental evidence to support any particular reading tool. So, I’m just not buying this as a big problem. Two, Stephen Krashen and Alfie Kohn and their work on the harmful effects of extrinsic motivation are favorites of detractors. I’m just not going to say anything about that at all. It’s been argued for years and no side is ever going to “win.”
Just Because AR is a tool doesn’t mean teachers have to be ‘tools’!
Despite the fact that I am currently engaging in this debate I have to point out that the problems are bigger than what tools we use or don’t use. We should be arguing about how to fix larger social ills. Our neighborhoods, our economy, racism, the criminal justice system, unequal funding in schools, the list goes on and on and on. But, here I am arguing about it, so, take the above for what it’s worth.
17. AR is not meant to be a thorough evaluation of a student’s general ability or deep comprehension of a specific book. It is meant as a tool for accountability, record keeping, and motivation. Teachers are not stupid, or should I say we’re not total ‘tools’. Just because we use AR for those things doesn’t mean that we don’t also engage students in deep discussions of good books. I’m going to say it again. AR is a tool. Most teachers? Smart, thoughtful, caring, in other words, NOT tools!
Kids Like It!
18. Here are some quotes from real kids. Let them speak for themselves.I love AR because it pushes me to read and you can learn a lot from books. ~3rd Grade Boy It helps me learn! I believe the tests help me improve. I set goals and love getting closer to them! ~2nd Grade Boy I like coming to the library in the morning and choosing a book. Then I like reading it. When I come back and take a test and pass I feel so proud. ~3rd Grade Girl GREAT to earn my own books! ~1st Grade Girl I like AR because I think it grows my brain and I do not think I would ever finish a book without someone telling me to. ~4th Grade Boy The system helps me finish book. To be honest, I probably wouldn’t finish the without it. I’m just so busy. ~4th Grade Girl I am really competitive with myself. When I get all the questions right I feel like I can do ANYTHING! ~4th Grade Girl The quizzes are hard but fun. I like the challenge. ~3rd Grade Boy
I look forward to the comments this gets. I’ll bet there will be some who share great points and ideas—things I may have never thought of, and believe me, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it. I know there will be some blowback and perhaps even some unkind comments to this piece. But, that’s okay! Give me all you got! I love the debate, even though, I’ll be honest, you’re probably not going to change my mind.
Rita Platt is a Nationally Board Certified teacher. Her experience includes teaching learners of all levels from kindergarten to graduate student. She currently is a Library Media Specialist for the St. Croix Falls SD in Wisconsin, teaches graduate courses for the Professional Development Institute, and consults with local school districts.