The Works: Anatomy of a City
Poetry Friday Roundup, January 26th

Authors' Tip Sheet: Accelerated Reader

Editor's note: After reading the following article in the Authors Guild Bulletin, I immediately thought of the librarians, teachers, and parentsand especially authorswho frequently have to consider the issues presented by Deborah Lightfoot. I'm so pleased that Deborah has given me permission to run the piece, which first ran in the SCBWI Bulletin, in its entirety here.

Get Your Books AR Listed
© 2007 by Deborah J. Lightfoot

(This article appeared originally in the September–October 2006 SCBWI Bulletin. Used here by permission of the author. All rights reserved.)

“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.”

Being among the ignorant, I set out to uncover the all-powerful AR list. “AR,” I learned, is Accelerated Reader, a computer-based system for tracking reading in schools. It’s owned by Renaissance Learning, a company that sells assessment and monitoring programs for pre-K through 12th grade.

The company calls AR “reading management software.” Under the program, a student reads a book, then sits down at a computer to take a quiz about it. Correct answers earn points that the student redeems for rewards or prizes such as pencils, pizzas, candy bars, T-shirts, or special privileges.

AR’s web site (www.renlearn.com/ar/) says it offers 100,000 quizzes on library books and textbooks. Many thousands of books, however—classics and new titles—are not “AR books.” And there’s the rub. Students don’t earn points for reading non-AR books. They are motivated to reject the non-listed, thus passing up books they shouldn’t miss.

The AR program may further restrict a child’s reading through its system of awarding points. Chapter books earn more points than picture books; long novels get you oodles of points. The harder the book, the more points. To build their totals, students may choose books to read solely because of the number of points the selection is worth—never mind whether it’s the right book or even a readable book for that child.

AR has its critics. At www.frankserafini.com, Dr. Frank Serafini of the University of Nevada–Las Vegas argues against reading as an act “reduced to a thing students do to collect points.” He asks: “Why should we allow a commercial program to decide what books we should purchase for our schools?” Serafini worries about the effect on publishers: “My biggest fear is that AR will influence publishers’ decisions and limit the choices available for students.”

On the other side, Jim Trelease, author of The Read-Aloud Handbook (www.trelease-on-reading.com), says: “I hear ten times more positives than negatives” about reading incentive programs. Among the positives, he cites these: “Students read a significantly larger number of books at all levels as a result of incentives,” and “With the increase in usage and demand, the library now contains a larger and newer book collection.”

With 60,000 schools—half the K–12 schools in the country—embracing AR, writers may be more inclined to participate now and take sides later. I’m favoring the Serafini camp. “Children end up rushing through books,” he warns, “neglecting the aesthetic experience of reading, to get to the computer test to score points.” Agree though I do, I e-mailed Renaissance Learning (answers@renlearn.com) to ask how to get my book onto their list.

They instructed me to send two copies to the Title Selection Coordinator, Renaissance Learning, Inc., P.O. Box 8036, Wisconsin Rapids, WI 54494, with a cover letter describing the book’s awards, positive reviews, and distribution (whether it is available through major school library suppliers).

I complied, and after six months Trail Fever got its very own AR quiz, No. 102632. I checked the list for Magyk, too, and found that AR has caught up with the book’s popularity: Magyk is quiz No. 86518. Because Magyk has ten times more words than my brief chapter book, it awards readers an attractive 18 points, against a mere 2 for Trail Fever. (The Hello, Goodbye Window, like most picture books, rates half a point, and near the other end of the scale Moby Dick gets you a whopping 42 credits. The curious may search for their own titles at www.renlearn.com/store/quiz_home.asp.)

Will the daughter read Magyk, I wonder, now that her efforts will earn her pencils and candy? Can my easy two-point book compete with the more lucrative mega-tomes? Most of all, I wonder, whatever happened to “Reading is its own reward”?

*****

Deborah J. Lightfoot is the author of three books of history and biography, including Trail Fever (by D.J. Lightfoot) and The LH7 Ranch (under the byline Deborah Lightfoot Sizemore). She’s been a member of the Authors Guild since 1995 and a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) for about as long. Her first young-adult novel, Waterspell, is now out with her agent. It’s long enough to score piles of AR points. Follow its fate at http://www.djlightfoot.com/.

Comments

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That's one of the creepiest things I've ever heard of. Ugh.

As a parent, I'm glad that we homeschool and don't have to worry about AR. I personally find it horrifying that some schools restrict children to only reading books that are available in AR, and I've heard that some schools only allow children to read books that are at the "appropriate" reading level.

But as a publisher, I can't ignore it - it has too much influence over what many children read. One thing that helps in getting a title into Accelerated Reader is winning an award. Renlearn has a very large list of awards and tries to include as many award-winning books as possible. When The Dark Dreamweaver won an award, Renaissance Learning contacted me and requested copies of the book and its sequel. You can see the complete list of awards they recognize by going to the quiz store http://www.renlearn.com/store/quiz_home.asp and clicking on "Awards" near the top of the page.

One of the wonders of AR is that it has motivated thousands of students who had never before picked up a book to become students who now are avid readers. Just think of the books they pick up during the summer when they don't have access to AR quizzes -- books like yours they may not yet have been exposed to on the AR list!

Remember, reading is the one life skill that has been proven time and again to take a child from potential poverty and disenfranchisement to a world of potential and success.

Is it so horrible that one book is chosen over another? There are thousands upon thousands of books that deserve to be in the libraries where AR is used. Help spread the word about the process and get those books approved. AR motivates and encourages and it is proven independently and statistically to accelerate learning.

At the age of 9, my nephew was diagnosed with a non-verbal learning disorder (NVLD). He had problems with the written word and with taking information from the blackboard and correctly putting it onto paper. This same little boy, with the NVLD diagnosis, was reading at a 9th grade-level. Guess what his school was using? Yep - AR. He is now 11 and is reading the Lord of the Rings Trilogy.

Is that creepy, too?

Thanks, Sheila. Very interesting.

Cynthia, that is terrific about your nephew's reading!

I might have mentioned this before so please forgive me if I am repeating myself!

I have so many problems with AR. I don't like the point system, I loathe the labeling of kids and books by color, I despise the public charts of student progress (or lack of progress), I hate that kids won't touch a book unless it is an AR book but most of all, I am frustrated that it is recognized as a valid reading assessment. The assessments that kids take for AR books are surface level questions. They really don't get into higher level thinking domains because they are after all, short, multiple choice quizzes. They don't even attempt to delve into the depth and rigor of the English/Language Arts standards at any grade level. The STAR test which accompanies the AR quizzes is also bad. There are teachers at my school who use the STAR test to level their students instead of actually sitting with them and getting a true diagnostic measure of how a child is reading and where they need clarification, remediation or a challenge. The computer can't replace (or even come close to) what I (and other teachers) can do for our students.

I have lived with AR for a long time. In my time as a school librarian I have seen its popularity wax and wane. I think almost ALL books become AR books at some point. The company earns money by selling the tests so they do not want to loose an opportunity to expand the program. Whether there is money to purchase new tests all the time is another issue. There is a lag sometimes between publication date and when new tests are available.

On more than one occasion, I have discovered errors on the tests. AR will send you a “corrected” test but I always wondered about the other folks who bought the test. Seems to me that a test with errors is like a software bug and the company should make sure everyone gets the corrected version. Not sure they do though.

My experience has been that kids are enthusiastic at first and the program CAN help bring readers along. As long as AR is offered as "enrichment" and not "required" I don't have a problem with it because it finds its own level. Kids that are interested use it, the others do not. The problem comes in when books are restricted because they are not within the reader's reading range or there is a mandatory number of points or books that HAVE to be read. I never tailored my library collection to AR.

There are some kids who actually enjoy AR as their "sport" of choice. Some of my best readers enjoyed the challenge of passing all the Redwall book tests and the Harry Potters etc. They may be terrible athletes or bad at math but they have amazing memories and can remember the details the tests demand. At a certain point it was not about the pencils or "first in line for lunch" coupons, they are reading athletes. Other kids like my daughter thought it was sort of interesting for a few months but then decided she would just rather just read another book than prove to a computer that she had REALLY read the entire story.

Ultimately, it takes a huge amount of energy and effort to input the kids' names, to order and organize all the prizes or dog tags or pins etc. and find money to purchase new tests. If someone wants to do all that for me -- great -- but I don't want to spend my time working with the software, clicking and enrolling students or moving them into new classes etc. It all takes so much time.

At some schools it becomes yet another area of competition for parents who sometimes talk about their kids' AR points like it is money in their bank account.

I will just end by pointing out that I am Harry Potter's number one fan but I FAILED the AR test for HP and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Dumb test.

A couple of weeks ago I did a post on this same article. (http://www.gailgauthier.com/2007/01/accelerated-reader-and-school.htm) I had someone comment and make the point that libraries make the choice to limit their purchases to books with AR quizzes, that the company doesn't require it. He claimed the company doesn't encourage the use of points and incentives, either.

If he is correct and schools and school libraries are simply choosing to use the program in this way, then the problem isn't so much with the program itself but with the way it's being implemented. And why do so many schools choose to implement it in this way?

Mr. AR person is correct. It is the school ADMINISTRATIONS who choose how to administer an AR program. I also think RennLearning (AR) has re-tailored how they present the program because of criticism in recent years BUT it is also true that they have sold prizes for the program in the past.

Most principals are familiar with motivating by "points and prizes" and they tend to do what ALL THE OTHER schools are doing so that is the route they take.

Parents, especially in many more affluent areas, also love for their little darlings to have all the laud and honor possible. "Read and you too can go on Destination Unknown at the end of the year."

I do know one school librarian who returned to her library during the summer, a few years ago, only to discover, that the principal had ordered someone to re-shelve all the books by AR reading level. I think the "non AR" books were shelved separately. It took her the better part of a month to get all the books back in order.

Her principal did not understand the role of a school library and that is not always the principal's fault. Librarians are not always successful in communicating with their administrations. We often just think they should "get it." Like students, they have to be taught too.

I hear apocryphal stories about libraries that will not purchase a book unless it has an AR test but I have personally NEVER known a librarian who used AR test lists as a selection tool. It has been my experience that ALL books end up as AR tests. If they do not, you can request they write one or input an original test of your own.

Using the STAR test (not all schools go for this part of the package) to evaluate reading levels is terrible. I cannot imagine that being allowed in my district.

Wrong headed administrators, with the best of motives and trying to maximize anything that will enhance reading scores, sign off on using AR point totals for grades, restrict access to books, for example, "That book is too high/low for you or "put that book back--it is not an AR book" They reduce a school library into a reading laboratory of leveled reading.

Happily, I have never worked in a situation like that.

AR is a tool and it can encourage and motivate kids to read. Like a hammer, it can work beautifully but you have to be sure of your aim or else you end up with a very sore thumb.

I guess I always felt that I was the reading-motivator-in-chief at my school. It was my role and job. Kids respond to passion and enthusiasm and also appreciate an adult taking a personal interest in their reading life. Give me a budget to buy fantastic books and I will not rest until I find the right book for each child.

Camille is so right. Renaissance Learning advocates that schools do NOT restrict kids' reading choices at all. And they do not even push points anymore but instead goals.

They have a STAR Reading test that tests kids reading level and "recommends" a reading range for that child to ensure they are reading in the zone of proximal development. Therefore, they do very much wants kids to read at their readability level.

They then use a goal chart based on the STAR results so that EACH child has their own individual goal to achieve and points are not plastered everywhere. This is a fantastic system that really drives kids toward success.

However, many will continue to use AR the wrong way, sadly. Training for the teachers and administrators is the answer, but sadly many will not receive that necessary training.

I hear the moans from the children coming into our school library when they need AR books. They have trouble finding books that they really want to read at the "correct" level. They find it tedious to search the shelves for a book that they actually want to read with the correct color coded spot on the spine. They know what they like and want to read but if it isn't the correct level then they can't have those books and have to keep sifting through all the other books hoping to find something of interest. I see kids wanting to read and the AR program limiting them.

My nephew had a terrible experience with AR. He was assigned a large number of points that had to be reached each week or he wouldn't get to go on the wonderful reward trip at the end of the year. The only way he could reach that number of points each week was by reading simple "baby" books and he hated them. He could read longer, harder books and he enjoyed those longer, harder books, but he couldn't read them fast enough to accumulate the number of points he needed. So he speed read the simple books. The summer following that year he refused to read even one book. He was so disgusted with reading and he had always enjoyed reading until that year.

I think reading will flourish when children are allowed to read books that interest and excite them and will languish when children are forced to read books they dislike. We're all like that. We want to read a good book and what we consider good certainly varies amongst us.

I'd much rather have our school spending it's limited library budget on new books instead of AR tests. There is only so much money to go around and the AR tests take their cut of that money. I think it's running at 40% of the library budget right now. That means there would be quite a lot more books on the library shelves for the children to select if AR wasn't used. The bottom line is that AR is making a profit and it's coming from our school libraries. Libraries that have lots of tests but less books for children to read.

Kay, thanks so much for writing about your experiences with AR. This post dates back to January of this year (2007), but it gets repeated hits. I'm glad to know that Deborah Lightfoot's fascinating piece is still attracting readers. We all need to be aware of the issues that she raises.

I am a Media Specialist in an AR school and my policy is to make sure that each child borrows one AR book in their range for reading practice and one book just for fun. Our faculty was lucky to have an AR rep do an inservice last summer but were shocked to learn that they'd been implementing it wrong. The rep. insisted over and over that a point driven program was not acceptable, but a goal-driven program should take its' place. Soon into the school year, however, the parents began to complain quite loudly. Their Johnny or Jill had read so much more last year when reading for points. They see how less motivated the students are. No matter how unhealthy we feel giving points for reading is, kids need that competition to sit down and read those books. Maybe we need to start giving points when children reach their personal goals?

Now that we are getting to the end of another school year, I wanted to give my input on the AR program. This is the first year my son's school has used this program and at first I was pleased with how the program worked. When I got a chance to watch my son and some of the other kids work on the quizes, I was not so excited. He is almost a 3rd grade reader but if I challenge him with longer books that he loves, he has trouble passing the quizzes. So he will instead read the books that require 5 minuted worth of reading rather than 2 hours of reading to get his AR points met. I am ambivalent about the next school year. I would rather my son read books that delve into an interesting topic and provide a real love for reading than earning points with some quick reading junk. I would rather provide a personal reward for just sitting down and reading a whole chapter book in one or two days for my child.

Julie, thanks for writing in with your experience. Very interesting indeed. I'm inclined to agree with you.

AR took the fun out of reading for my son. In return, now he has one more thing to stress about--reaching that goal. And the goal is a moving target, if he succeeds, the bar goes higher! If he doesn't succeed, then he is punished. Yes, punished... you have to realize that to a forth grader, not getting a reward equals being punished. I used to read to my son every night from the time he was born. Now my wife says not to, that he has to read to himself. Stupid, stupid, AR. I truly hate it. That company turned something wonderful and fun and turned it into a contest. We have enough competitiveness in sports. We don't have to spoil reading in the same way. Geez. What can a parent do? Wake up people and smell the mortification.

My son in fourth grade at an AR school. He struggles with reading comprehension. He is required to read a certain number of AR books this year. His teacher will only allow him to read books at the lowest level of his AR range (2.4) until he scores 100%. He has read several books that he has not enjoyed and because he scored only 4 out of 5 she will not let him read even a 2.5 book. He is very discouraged because he has a big project and he has to do it on a 2.4 book, but he feels these books are too simple to be the basis of an interesting project.

Today we went to the book store, armed with a list of acceptable books and after a long, painful search. We left with two books NOT at the "appropriate" level.

I am really frustrated.

What's so frustrating is that there are lots of books that he wants to read - and when he does read something that interests him, his comprehension is fine.

Tom and Jana, my heart goes out to you--and to your sons. You're describing frustrating situations.

Have you talked to the teacher? Maybe just starting a conversation and making him or her aware of the frustrating situation will help open up a constructive dialogue.

For what it's worth, my son (also a fourth grader), who loves to read, is not so terribly enthused about describing what he's been reading. If he had to take a quiz, he would be mighty unhappy.

I am a Third grade teacher in a Ren.Learning School.We too used to have students compete for points,but have since been re-trained to focus more on reading goals. The book levels are designed to help students feel more successful when taking a test. If a child reads a book and takes a test beyond his/her ability level,it can lead to poor scores and not be a true measure to use as an evaluation tool.When Ren. Reading is used correctly,it is but one source of evaluation used by teachers to assess student needs.

My classroom is filled with non-A.R. books,magazines,comic books,puzzle books,and kid-friendly newspapers.A.R. is just a small portion of my reading curriculum. I encourage my students to read anything and everything that they enjoy. I set A.R. goals for my students to use as a diagnostic tool to monitor their growth in certain areas. The tests are multiple choice and are not always higher level thinking questions.That is O.K. with me because I provide "Higher-Level" skilled activities for my students throughout the day.

My biggest complaint about AR is that my 3rd grader is placed at a 5.8 reading level, and is expected to read at that level. Many of the books he brings home are, in my opinion, not suitable for a third grader. They contain some violence and more mature themes than I feel are healthy for him. Does anyone else have this concern?

Hi Katie,

I am a librarian in an AR school. The problem you have may be that those in charge of helping your son find books think that the reading level also indicates content, but it doesn't. The content of books with AR quizzes is indicated by the following labels: LG for lower grades, MG for middle grades and UG for upper grades. LG has content appropriate for grades(K-4) , MG for grades(5-8)and UG for grades(9-12). If you go to AR Bookfinder available on the internet to anyone, you can see the content level of the books your son is bringing home. There are picture books in that reading level with an LG content level, but fiction chapter books will be a problem. There are a lot of nonfiction books that your son could read that would have an appropriate content and reading level.

Hope this helps,

Sandra

AR in now in England. It is horrific. My seven year old (nearly 8) son reads a wide range of books at home, fiction and non-fiction. He loves books, reading and bookshops. As a result, he is a strong reader and can ask very interesting questions about plot, grammar, characters. AR is taking the life out of reading for him. The books he reads at home are sometimes outside of the level given at school, and he has been anxious that he shouldn't be reading How to Train Your Dragon series because they are not what he can select from the level given at school. The teachers says he can't understand them because they are surely too difficult; yet he DOES understand them (comprehension, not sight reading) - he talks about these books a lot to me. They interest him, so he spends much time reading them. Yes, he can't race through one - they are long - but he loves them. But racing is what the school appear to value - to show progress (yes, well level all the kids down to the same level - which is what they did!!! - and you will get progress!) At school, he is given book after book to 'get up up the levels'; it is bizarre. So he scores 100% each time, shifts up a point, yet he is skimming the books to take the stupid test. I have refused to particpate in this stupid scheme. At home, I let him read what is appropriate but what he enjoys, knowing how much he is learning from reading many different types of books. Therefore, at school, he is 'behind' the target to get him right up the levels. Tough.

Sue, thanks for telling us readers about your experiences with AR. My kiddo is now at a school that uses the program, and it doesn't work for him either. He does not like the choices very much, and is completely uninterested in taking quizzes. Meanwhile, like your son, he loves to read at home--mostly Harry Potter and nonfiction. I figure that's what's important.

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