Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Teaching Tools - Accelerated Reader


The year of 2008 had many good moments, but on the school district front, many amazing events unfolded, and as a result life in the fast lane became even crazier! I hope you were too busy with the holidays to notice I did not update Link2Literacy in December! This will be a December/January posting, okay?

I decided to write about teaching tools over the next few weeks because I believe many educators hope such tools will enhance instruction and learning while simplifying their lives a little. Additionally, much time, energy, and money has gone into rolling out two tools that the language arts department predicts will support teachers and students in pursuit of improved literacy.

The tools I want to focus upon are part of the technology world, and for that reason they are both revered and feared. The first of these popular tools, however, has been part of the reading programs of many of JSD's schools: Accelerated Reader. The other two are Scholastic Reading Inventory (SRI), an assessment program; and MY Access!, an online writing program. It's also interesting how each can be a source of unifying or polarizing language arts communities. Therefore, I want to examine various aspects of these programs and how they can enhance and/or detract from educators' literacy goals.

Accelerated Reader has been long been a part of most elementary and middle schools in Jordan School District. I must admit that I was among the first to jump on the AR bandwagon back in the mid-nineties. I approached the administration and submitted grants to get the program into West Jordan Middle School, and then I pleaded with the PTA to help round up all kinds of prizes to motivate students to rack up their Accelerated Reader points. (My favorite was a basketball, autographed by all the Jazz players who were on their way to the NBA finals that year. It went to the top reader at our school, as determined by the number of earned AR points.)

Initially, I felt like I had finally found the answer to getting seventh graders to read more, but as time went on, I realized that good readers were reading more, but many struggling or reluctant readers were not. In the beginning, some of the reasons were connected to the limited number of tests in the our computer system, and students felt limited in what they could choose to read. No matter how many more tests our school purchased, however, students still complained that they disliked having to read an "AR" book.

I even wrote up a score of quizzes to placate their complaints. That meant that I had to read the proposed books before writing up the questions, and I'm a slow reader. Sometimes I even thought my quizzes were better than the program's, but the task significantly added to my workload. Next, I invited students to create quizzes for non-AR books they loved, and some tried it. However, they learned that it was more difficult to write questions than to answer them. In addition, the questions weren't particularly good, so I had to revise them in order to use them with confidence. (I did try to teach them how to write multiple choice questions, and that was darn tough!)

It was also a lot of work to obtain prizes. Unfortunately, I set the standard really high with the signed basketball and pizza lunches I purchased with grant money or through various connections. Soon, raising money and obtaining donations became a big part of my job description. Whew!

As my energy level dissipated, I reluctantly decided to incorporate AR points into students' grades, thinking that route might serve as motivation to keep them reading. But how was I to determine the number of AR points for all my students? Should 25 AR points per quarter be required with a weighted value equally 10% of their reading grade? Twenty-five points was nothing for some students but Mt. Everest for others - a mountain they could never climb. Once the 25 points were earned, many of those readers stopped reading! Others didn't even try, figuring 10% of a failing grade made little difference.

A few read books but could not pass the tests, and they became so discouraged. What did I do with my struggling readers I knew had read the books but could not pass the tests? Sometimes I directed them to easier books, but those weren't the titles that interested them. I read the tests to them and finally, I resorted to discussing the books with them. Wow! What a novel idea!

On top of that, my male students were more than happy to read during Sustained Silent Reading if they could read car or sports magazines. Wasn't that reading, they asked. Of course, it was, but I didn't have any AR quizzes for articles about Maseratis or Michael Jordan. So I started making exceptions, but that meant creating rubrics for the exceptions. Next I feared the exceptions would become the rule and that led me back to where I was before: book reports, projects, responses, etc.

Eventually, I had to ask myself about how this program would best fit into my classroom. Before I answered that question, I summarized what I learned.
  • First of all, there is no perfect tool out there. AR's questions are recall questions because the purpose of the program was and is to "see if the kids read the book."Claims that this program measures comprehension are questionable because of the lack of inferential questions. That means it's up to teachers and students to delve into the higher order thinking questions and answers about their reading - which isn't a bad thing!!!
  • Second, basketballs, pizzas, and grades are examples of extrinsic motivation. These types of incentives may bring about success in the short term; but if developing life-long readers is a teacher's goal, reading for the prize or the grade will not promote that.
  • Third, it may be a cliche, but "one size doesn't fit all." Kids not only need choice in what they read, but they also need choices in how they respond to that reading. Their talents and needs require that they have options. Furthermore, a variety of assessments are also needed for the varieties of students who sit in our classrooms' desks.
  • Fourth, research is mixed. I perused several sites and documents to determine whether or not research supports Accelerated Reader as a program that improves reading. The Renaissance Learning website lists independent research that indicates significant gains in reading achievement. But other reports question the lack of or the types of comparison groups used in the studies; the size of the effects for different grades and for the various reading skills; and which aspect of the AR program is responsible for the claimed gains.
As with all tools, teachers need to examine how they use them. I know that once upon a time, Accelerated Reader constituted the entire reading program in some classrooms, but the emphasis upon incorporating comprehension strategies into teaching reading has changed that. Once again: Assessing gains in reading necessitates a variety of assessment tools.

To develop life-long readers, teachers need to share their love of reading with their students and help them see the joy and the reasons for reading. This is not easy, but allowing students to have choice in what they read and how they respond to their reading are two more necessary elements. Getting books into the hands of students and providing time for them to read are two others. And of course, giving all students the tools they need to become strong readers, regardless of the text, is most critical.

Many teachers in our district work the AR program into reading classrooms that possesses these elements, and thus it becomes a useful tool for teachers and students. Remember my friends, this posting represents only one educator's experience and opinion. I would love to entertain other ideas and read of other's experiences. Please comment!

Thanks for reading,