Editor's note: After reading the following article in the Authors Guild Bulletin, I immediately thought of the librarians, teachers, and parents—and especially authors—who 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.
(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
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 (firstname.lastname@example.org) 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/.