Reading Programs: News and Ideas

Over at Educating Alice, Monica Edinger expresses some skepticism about Renaissance Learning's so-called "groundbreaking" report on what children are reading. Monica writes,

Please.  All this report tells us is what books kids are reading for their school’s Accelerated Reader program.

Accelerated Reader is Renaissance Learning's school-based computerized reading incentive program. Last year I ran Deborah J. Lightfoot's "Get Your Books AR Listed," an article that previously appeared in the Authors Guild Bulletin and the SCBWI Bulletin. Given permission by Deborah to reprint it here, I thought her instructive piece brought up issues that authors needed to know about.

“I bought this book for my daughter, but since it wasn’t on the AR book list at school, she never got around to reading it.”

Magyk: Septimus Heap, Book One, by Angie Sage, was the book not read. An online reviewer posted that comment in 2005, shortly after Magyk's  publication.

The reviewer’s remark troubled me. It was the second time I had heard the mysterious “AR book list” blamed for a young reader’s rejection of a book.

The first instance involved work of my own. While visiting a clutch of elementary schools, I asked whether their libraries had (or would acquire) my book Trail Fever, a biography for readers 9 and up. It complements fourth-grade history studies—one of the main reasons I wrote it.

“I’ll check,” said the librarian. Then, with an apologetic shake of her head: “It’s not on the AR list, so we won’t buy it for our library. The students don’t read books that aren’t AR books.” She added: “A lot of authors don’t know that.”

Read the entire article by Deborah J. Lightfoot here. (Note: Magyk is now listed at AR.) The comments section of that post includes positive remarks about the AR program.

Jim Trelease, author of The Read-Aloud Handbook, also addresses these kinds of reading incentive programs in the latest edition of his book. You can read an excerpt here. He writes,

I have written and spoken both favorably and negatively about these computerized programs but in recent years I've grown increasingly uneasy with the way they are being used by districts.

In other reading news,  Reading First, a key component of No Child Left Behind, has been found "ineffective." From USA Today:

A $1 billion-a-year reading program that has been a pillar of the Bush administration's education plan doesn't have much impact on the reading skills of the young students it's supposed to help, a long-awaited federal study shows.

The results, issued Thursday, could serve as a knockout punch for the 6-year-old Reading First program — Congress has already slashed funding 60%. Reading First last year was the subject of a congressional investigation into whether top advisers improperly benefited from contracts for textbooks and testing materials they designed, and whether the advisers kept some textbook publishers from qualifying for funding.

Read the whole article by Greg Toppo here.

From my own, admittedly limited experience as a volunteer in two elementary schools (one a city school where NCLB is very much a factor, the other suburban with generally high test scores), I see evidence of lots of children reading. At the city school, I particularly enjoyed some fourth-graders' essays inspired by Patricia Polacco's Mrs. Katz and Tush. I stopped by a hallway bulletin board and read the neatly typed pieces about the kids' own favorite older people. One girl wrote about her 21-year-old sister, another about her uncle in the Army who had died. (I'm guessing in Iraq.) I loved one from a boy who talked about his grandmother, his "oldest friend" who played "checkers and Xbox" with him. "The best thing she taught me was how to climb a tree," he concluded.