As an MA reading specialist, author, and frequent blogger on independent reading, I am constantly receiving posts and emails regarding the Accelerated Reading™ program. I frequently joke that I wish I had had the foresight to develop an AR-style program years ago. I’d be living in my castle in the Loire Valley fending off critics when not visiting my offshore tax haven in the Cayman Islands. But I’d feel a bit guilty knowing that schools could implement their own independent reading program for free (relatively speaking).
However, I’m pretty sure that the effectiveness of my AR-style program would not have been judged as following:
“Accelerated Reader was found to have no discernible effects on reading fluency, mixed effects on comprehension, and potentially positive effects on general reading achievement.” What Works Clearinghouse
“A hypothetical example may help us understand whether AR should be used or not. Drug A and Drug B are both designed to cure a specific disease. A is known to be effective with highly beneficial long-term effects. There is little evidence for or against B, but suggestive evidence that it may be harmful in the long run. A drug company produces AB, more expensive than A alone, and justifies it by providing studies showing that AB tends to be effective. A scientist reviewing the research shows that no study has compared AB to A alone. Clearly such studies are called for before the medical establishment endorses or even approves AB. A is providing access and time to read. B is tests and rewards. Accelerated Reader is AB.” Dr. Stephen Krashen
So here’s a recent post to my The 18 Reasons Not to Use Accelerated Reader article and my response including a free alternative for an effective schoolwide independent reading program:
“I am a new principal of an elementary school that uses AR and honestly am not a fan however my teachers “love” it. I’m really puzzled by what they “love” about it. Our school spends over 5K for this program a year which in my opinion could be better used purchasing more books for the library or assisting teachers with classroom libraries. How do I get my teachers/staff as well as parents to see this?”
Yes, many teachers and parents love the AR program. Why so?
- It’s well-organized.
- It requires no prep–just place and use.
- It’s motivational and competitive.
- It gets kids to read.
- It works with so many books at so many reading levels.
- The school has been using it for years. If you stopped using it now, all the previous money spent would be “wasted.”
- Many other schools use it.
- Teachers, administrators, and parents know of no other schoolwide independent reading programs.
Of course, many teachers and parents (add in students, administrators, and reading specialists) do not love the AR program (Check out the comments on my The 18 Reasons Not to Use Accelerated Reader article for plenty of examples.
And, yes, I completely agree that the 5K per year “could be better used purchasing more books for the library or assisting teachers with classroom libraries.” So here’s my answer to your final question: “How do I get my teachers/staff as well as parents to see this?”
By offering a more enticing alternative.
How to Implement a schoolwide Independent Reading Program (IRP)
(Apparently every schoolwide independent reading program must have an acronym (AR, SSR, DEAR, etc.) Were I smart, it would be named the PIRP (Pennington Independent Reading Program).
- Buy tons of good books.
- Teach students and parents how to select appropriate reading level books.
- Teach students, parents, and teachers where and when to read books.
- Teach students and parents how to read and discuss books.
- Teach parents, teachers, librarians, and administrators how to motivate independent reading.
1. Buy tons of good books. A good school librarian is an indispensable asset. Good librarians and teachers read what their students read and pay attention to what their students are and should be reading. They are “in the know.” What works for their school culture is not the same as what works for other schools. They pay attention to publisher marketing, but they exercise solid judgment. Librarians and teachers are patient and crafty. They know that good school and classroom libraries aren’t “built in a day.” They know when and where to shop for bargains. They know how to solicit parent and community donations. They know how to lobby administrators and district personnel for book money. They buy a wide variety of books to appeal to the interests and needs of their readers. For example, a shameless publisher plug: they buy low level, high interest decodable books for older remedial readers, such as the author’s Sam and Friends Phonics Books.
2. Teach students and parents how to select the right books. We really need to take the mystery out of book selection. There is no such thing as a sixth grade reading level. Lexile levels do not provide adequate criteria for book selection. Same for the Degrees of Reading Power (DRP), Fleish-Kincaid Fountas and Pinnell Leveled Book List, Accelerated Reader ATOS, Reading Recovery Levels, Fry’s Readability, John’s Basic Reading Inventory, standardized test data, etc.
The two key criteria for effective book selection are reader interest and word recognition level. Reader Interest: If the student is not interested in the genre, subject matter, author, book title, or book jacket, it’s the wrong book. Students have their own literary tastes, but also like what their peers like. Adults can expose students to new tastes, but cannot make a seventh grader like Pride and Prejudice. Choice is important, but within certain common sense limitations: Word Recognition Level: On the technical side, books are made up of words. Readers have to understand words to understand sentences and ideas. Glad to clear that one up for you:) Students need to understand about 95% of the words to comprehend and enjoy what they are reading. The 5% unknown words are just the right amount for vocabulary acquisition through application of context clue strategies. For how to select books using this criteria, click here; for why the 5% is the optimal percentage, click here. So simple, but effective. And, most importantly, both parents and students can apply this criteria to help select appropriate books. No rocket science required.
3. Teach students, parents, and teachers where and when to read books. I’ll step on a few toes with my recommendations here. An effective schoolwide Independent Reading Program (IRP) does not have to involve independent reading at school. I’m not a fan of wasting instructional time with what can best be done at home: independent reading and discussion of that reading. For my lively debate on the merits of reading at home with Dr. Stephen Krashen (Free Voluntary Reading) and Donalyn Miller (The Book Whisperer), click here. Teachers just have too much to teach and too little time to do so. With the proper student and parent training, independent reading is the perfect homework.
4. Teach students and parents how to read and discuss books. Without proper training, a schoolwide Independent Reading Program (IRP) will fail. Parents are the best resources we have to monitor and engage students with their independent reading. Reading at the 5% unknown word level will help students increase vocabulary, but we also need to increase reading comprehension. Teachers need to teach independent reading comprehension strategies and practice these in the classroom; however, the extensive practice needs to take place at home with daily student-parent discussions of what the child has read that day during independent reading homework. I recommend a 3-minute student-led book discussion with the parent following 20 minutes of independent or guided reading for primary children and 30 minutes for older readers, four or five days per week. To guide independent reading and the book discussion, I recommend using the SCRIP Bookmarks. Yes, you have permission to print, share, and distribute these.
The SCRIP acronym refers to the five reading comprehension cueing strategies which work equally well with expository and narrative text. The SCRIP acronym stands for Summarize, Connect, Re-think, Interpret, and Predict. Good readers learn how to carry on an internal dialog while they read. To train students and parents how to self-monitor and increase reading comprehension, click here for five lessons from the author’s Teaching Reading Strategies reading intervention program. These SCRIP strategies provide teachers with the language of instruction to teach and model reading comprehension. Librarians can use these to do effective book talks.
5. Teach parents, teachers, librarians, and administrators how to motivate independent reading.
Yes, I recommend accountability for independent reading homework. I have parents award points for the quality of the student-led book discussion. I also “require” the same amount of reading and discussions over vacations and summer recess. Call me a fascist.
I take a balanced approach and recommend such in the development of a schoolwide Independent Reading Program (IRP). On the one hand, we want our students to become lifelong readers. We want them to intrinsically enjoy reading and choose to read on their own. See Alfie Kohn’s Punished by Rewards for the pitfalls of reading incentives. Also take a look at the heart-breaking teacher, parent, and student comments as to how AR tests, grades for books read, and reading motivational ploys have destroyed students’ love of reading following my The 18 Reasons Not to Use Accelerated Reader article.
I do see the value in some marketing and promotion of a schoolwide Independent Reading Program (IRP). Students work well when pursuing goals and everyone likes rewards. Students also like competition. I would offer these guidelines from years of experience “running” IRPs as a a school reading specialist: If you’re going to reward based upon quantitative data, do so by page numbers read, not by books read. Emphasize class competitions, not individual competitions. Reward with literacy-related incentives, e.g. books, bookmarks, posters, not toys or candy. Get your students to review books in class, on schoolwide posters and in newsletters, and especially in the library. Keep schoolwide competitions limited in time: Several two-month competitions or challenges work much better than one year-long competition or challenge.
Would love to see your thoughts.