How to Discourage Young Readers: Turn Books Into Numbers

In first and second grades, I had a hard time with reading. There was trouble in my family. My mother had been hospitalized, and my dad was a struggling graduate student, caring for two small children. I got stuck in the lowest reading group at school. I sat with other “under-performing” kids, obsessively drawing pictures of horses.

Oddly, I was a whiz at arithmetic. I’m guessing that numbers didn’t scare me, stripped as they were of drama. But stories? The ever-shifting relations among words and meaning? Too risky.

Decades later, books are my profession. Yet how I learned to read can’t be distilled into an easily reproduced action plan with “metrics.” I’ve been thinking a lot about reading education lately, in part because my seven-year-old son has yet to discover the joys of chapter books. (I’m a little worried, though I know I shouldn’t be.) More to the point, Accelerated Reader, the bane of many a literary parent in the public schools, has clumped into my awareness like a bully with no sense of humor.

In “Reading by the Numbers,” an excellent but disturbing 2009 New York Times essay, novelist Susan Straight reflects on the rise of AR, a “reading management” software system produced by Renaissance Learning.

It’s been around for awhile, so my only justification for ignorance until now is that my son’s just reached second grade and is going to a groovy private school. Still, in an earlier piece that I wrote about Straight’s essay, I was surprised by the loathing for AR expressed by some parent- and teacher-commenters.

Here’s my friend Angela Mann, mother of two teenagers in California: “Ah, the AR system. My pet hate. My kids have been forced to use this hideous reading system for years.”

Here’s another old friend of mine, a long-time teacher in Washington state who wishes not to be named: “As a Title 1 Reading instructor in an elementary school, I have experienced Accelerated Reader and detest it. My opinion, garnered from my 18 years experience in public education, is that teachers who use it are lazy.”

It’s hard to blame public schools for pushing reading as if it’s the answer to everything from McJobs to Global Warming. (They’re pushing math and science, too.) But parents and teachers have every right to be angry about mindless quantification just to “make the numbers.”

The education bureaucracy, lashed on by companies that profit from curriculum “systems” like AR, are trying to trap the equivalent of a many-armed goddess in a soda can.

Accelerated Reader is used by upwards of 75,000 schools around the country, notes Straight. Participating students get points for reading books, with a goal of 50 points for outside reading in a given class.

That means students get a point tally instead of that tingle of recognition when a story speaks to them. As my teacher-friend explains,

Teachers use AR to measure comprehension on “leveled” books. The child says he/she has read a book. The teacher tells them to log on to the computer, answer the questions, and return with a printed-out score. Why not listen to a child read and talk about the book to measure comprehension?

Front cover (1919)

Then there’s the way books are rated. Straight says she delved into the mathematics of the ratings system, which likely has something to do with page length, average sentence difficulty, and percentage of tough vocabulary words. In this scheme, according to Straight, Willa Cather’s My Ántonia gets 14 points, while Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix gets 44.

I like the Harry Potter books just fine, but comparing one to My Ántonia is not only apples and oranges; it’s simply the wrong message about what makes a great book great.

Renaissance Learning’s website carries the tagline: “Advanced Technology for Data-Driven Schools.” But how do you measure character development and emotional catharsis? My friend Angela doesn’t hold back about AR’s banality:

I’ve seen it turn readers into point counters and strategists. What can I read to give me enough points? Why should I read this when I’ve already got my points for the semester? Why should I read this when it is not an AR book and doesn’t count?

My teacher-friend in Washington adds:

A few years ago, shortly after AR was purchased by our school, I took an AR test myself on a book I’d read many, many times. Rather than focusing on the deeper meaning of the beautiful historical fiction story by Joan Lowery Nixon, the historical facts, or the motivation of the characters, the AR test asked me about the color of a dress a character wore. I had no idea. I was stunned. The question had no relevance in the story at all.

Not all parents and teachers hate Accelerated Reader, but as I’ve discovered after googling around, opposition to it is nothing new. On the Family Education Network’s site for parents (FamilyEducation.com), an entry about Accelerated Reader has generated 30-plus reviews going back to 2000. Titles range from “Excellent” and “AR Encourages Reading” to “AR Sucks!!!” and “AR Can Shame Readers.”

The latter review, posted in 2004, opens with, “My son is now in 5th grade. He used to love to read. Hates it now.” This writer concluded, “I am forming a parent organization to fight AR current policy. Anyone want to join?”

For me, the ineffable thing about reading clicked by third grade. My dad had a teaching position at a local college, and we’d moved out of graduate student housing into a suburban tract. Suddenly I was reading chapter books. In my memory, it feels like the Doctor Doolittle series saved me.

Earlier still, there are family photos of me as a toddler looking at books with my father. He says “leopard” was one of my first words, because I loved animals. One of my favorite books in elementary school was The Golden Treasury of Natural History. (It took awhile before fiction ruled my universe.) Regardless, I didn’t lack encouragement from my parents.

But fiction or non-, I always hated the canned reading assignments in school. By fourth grade, I was really hating the SRA program, which involved a series of color-coded stories and assignments that you worked through, moving up the levels. It was a competition, getting up to Gold or Purple.

The current promotion of AR has made me curious again about SRA—aka the SRA Reading Laboratories. These materials have now been used by more than a 100 million students, claims McGraw-Hill, their current publisher. On the publisher’s website in 2009, the beginnings of the SRA reading program’s 50-year history are described this way:

A lesser man would have given up…. [H]is oversized shoe box with its sections of coloured story cards and questions, which the students could mark themselves, didn’t look like a text book; and that’s what the educational publishers he took it to said…

Never mind that SRA ended up with McGraw-Hill, a textbook behemoth. According to this telling, the humble author of these shoebox materials, Don Parker, finally hit up a small publishing company called SRA (Science Research Associates): “It wasn’t the sort of name you would associate with a schoolbook publisher, and indeed it wasn’t—it produced aptitude tests for soldiers returning from the Korean wars trying to find a job.”

Parker was supposedly doing battle with old-fashioned textbooks like “Dick and Jane.” But the “Science” in SRA’s name and those aptitude tests for soldiers tell the real story. When publisher Lyle Spencer of SRA agreed to take on the shoebox project, “It was the best decision he ever made.”

Financially, no doubt. Yet for a self-motivated reader like me, nothing could have been more beside the point. I lived for free library days.

So how do we—or the schools—spark a love of reading in children? What matters most? I believe teaching students to be critical thinkers about what they’re reading, whether it’s a Twilight book or Pride and Prejudice, is crucial. But giving kids points for reading books neither encourages analysis (although Renaissance Learning would claim its AR system of quizzes does just that) nor a love of reading.

Consider this excerpt from Straight’s essay and all it says about how novels expand our notion of the world in ways that can never be quantified:

One day last spring, after my eighth-grade daughter finished reading “To Kill a Mockingbird” (assigned reading for class), she sat on the couch, thoughtful and silent for a long time. Then she looked over at me and said: “I think that was one of the best books I’ve ever read. And not everybody could understand it. But I do. Especially Tom Robinson.”

Her father is 6-foot-4, 300 pounds and black. We talked about how American society has historically projected racial fear onto innocent men, and about how Harper Lee portrayed the town of Maycomb so vividly that you could see the streets and porches…

“To Kill a Mockingbird” is worth 15 points.

As I sensed at six years old, numbers are safer than stories; they can be pinned down. But a mom in the hospital? Racism? That requires something very messy—a lot of thinking and feeling.


Another version of this post originally appeared in Talking Writing as “My Antonia Vs. Harry Potter: Crunching the Great Books.” Thanks to writer Jeanne Schinto for sending me the link to Straight’s essay.

2012 Update: Because readers still occasionally find this post, I’ve made some small revisions to eliminate outdated links. I’ve also included new book covers as images, which constitutes fair use. My son is now ten and loves to read chapter books—and, no, he has never been exposed to Accelerated Reader.

 

8 thoughts on “How to Discourage Young Readers: Turn Books Into Numbers

  1. I understand people’s problem with AR. However, I believe if used properly it can create a love for reading. I tell my students all the time, you may think you hate reading, but I know you love stories, but the only way you get to access the greatest stories is to read. I tell them the two keys to loving reading is to find a story that interests you, and reading at your reading ability. Being a person who hated reading as a kid, and now love to read, I think the problem I had was that my exposure to reading was short cards with questions at the end, SRA, books out of my reading level, and no one guiding me through strategies that readers of chapter books need. For example, we expect that kids can figure out that we can be reading about one set of characters and setting in chapter one, and it can completely change in chapter two. Teaching chapter book reading strategies along with the freedom of book choice-any level- combined with the motivation of feedback through taking quizzes has created many avid readers in my class–all thanks to AR. I’ll tell you, I never had success with book reports, oral reports, etc. For me the key to AR is letting kids pick books and having them all start by reading really easy books getting the excitement of passing quizzes and then having them gradually moving up in reading levels and book difficulty–with self selected choices.

  2. Jon — Thanks for writing in about your experiences. I think good teachers use whatever “tricks” they have to inspire a love of reading, including AR. My sense of the continuing debate about AR is that it feels most limiting when schools impose it wholesale on teachers. It’s also true that the quest for quantitative measures have dogged teachers–and readers–for decades.

  3. AR is purely evil and wrong.

    Why? It gives school the means to torture youth.

    We’ve been to 2 different schools in the last 3 years, and in both my daughter’s goal was set with very little input from her. The teacher set it to make the class goals, period.

    So, my daughter was forced (stressing that word) to read and we were .. forced to force her.. for a year. If she fell even a little behind this imagined goal, she was punished and made to stay after school and in from recess.

    She, rightfully so, came to hate reading. This was especially painful as my wife and I share a deep love for reading and do it “automatically” instead of TV.

    So, as my daughter entered a new year, we pleaded with the new teacher to not use negative reinforcement in an attempt to force the completion of a goal. We were promised this would never happen.. right up until it happened. My daughter is re-living the hell that was last year thanks to the hammer that is the evil that is AR.

    AR is absolutely the greatest evil a school could possibly commit on a youth.

    Anyone that disagrees with the above statement is (forgive me) an uninformed idiot living in a dream world. Works for you? Yippee. But you need to understand it’s being misused to an insane degree, which (overall) removes any goodness from it. It needs to be removed from all schools and a national apology should come forth, starting with my crying daughter.
    Shame, Shame, Shame on any that would promote this reading-killer.

  4. While I know nothing of the AR method, I grew up with SRAs. I admit that I excelled at them and that I had always been an avid reader. Lacking opportunities to compete at sports or costly academic ventures, the SRAs afforded me the chance to “one-up” my classmates. I was never very good in lit class when I got older as I failed to arrive at the preconceived notions that should have been “apparent”. I read and READ for the story and to allow my own imagination to provide images. To this day, I still read 15-20 books monthly and I credit my 4th grade teacher, Mrs Swanson at King Middle School in Galesburg, IL for fostering my desire for knowledge, understanding and just a good tale.

  5. Michael, it’s great to hear your perspective on what SRAs meant to you as a reader. Like any kind of supplemental curriculum, they were and are a tool, and I bet in the hands of a good teacher, they (and maybe even the AR method) could spark students to love reading. The trouble comes when these systems are followed in lockstep fashion, and promoted by administrators or teachers who have no feel for the written word. They end up emphasizing the “rack up the most points!” or “work your way through the colors!” mentality rather than an appreciation for books and writers in themselves.

    I see the same trouble with the use of computers and educational software programs in schools, something I was very involved in in the early days of personal computers in the ’80s. Computers, word-processing, the Web, iPads—they are all great tools for stretching learning and supplementing curriculum in the hands of good teachers. But in other classrooms, the focus ends up being on “cool apps” and the machine rather than on the educational material that really matters.

  6. My middle school age son has been complaining about his required AR reading. In his words ‘the exams are not fair’. After talking with him I decided there were two main reasons for this vague feeling: 1) He thinks the questions are trying to “trick” him and 2) if he reads a book and doesn’t do well on the exam he feels like he has wasted his time. Apparently if a book is worth, say, 5 points and he misses questions on the exam he gets a reduced number of points.

    I was curious what these exams were like so I read a book at my teenager’s age level (Tucket’s Gold by Gary Paulsen) and at parent teacher conferences last night I requested to take a test over it. My son’s frustration is warranted.

    It felt to me like the questions were trying to see if I was lying about having read the book. They are specific, for example, “what happened to Francis as he was sneaking up on the Indians in the dark”. (that’s close but not an actual test question… sorry kids). There were several plausible responses and it took me a couple seconds to re-imagine various scenes and figure out which they were talking about.

    On one particular question I imagined the scene differently from the person who authored the question. While true that I may have drawn the scene differently in my mind that the author had intended I don’t think my mental picture was “wrong”. This is a fiction book, its supposed to be entertaining, if I embellished the scene with images I remember of climbing rock bluffs then what is wrong with that! A fiction book is supposed to allow us to conjure images – we shouldn’t be forced, judged, or told our images aren’t right. Anyway, because I hadn’t imagined the scene the ‘right’ way I missed the question.

    Wish I had time to write the rest of my thoughts, add a bit of polish, and be more clear. I am frustrated with AR tests now for the same reasons my son is! I’m not lying, I actually read the book. I do get a subtle feeling that I wasted my time as a result of having imagined various scenes differently than the question writer.

  7. Eric, your perception of the AR test is fascinating and probably right on target. I couldn’t agree more than the imaginative worlds that fiction conjures can’t be quantified or subject to “right” or “wrong” answers.

    Your comment makes me want to write an update on my original AR piece, something I may do in my next blog post. Would you allow me to quote you in such a piece? Let me know — and thanks for weighing in.

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