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Why and How to Teach Complex Text

A growing body of research presents a challenge to current K-12 reading/English-language Arts instruction. In essence, we need to “up” the level of text complexity and provide greater opportunities for independent reading. The Common Core State English-language Arts Standards provides a convincing three-reason argument in support of these changes in instructional practice. Following this rationale, I will share ten instructional implications and address a few possible objections.

1. Text complexity is the most important variable in reading comprehension. The level of difficulty is a more important variable in reading comprehension than is a reader’s degree of mastery of inferential reading strategies or critical thinking skills. In other words, what you read is more of an issue than how you read. Now applying reading strategies and critical thinking skills can certainly scaffold a reader’s ability to comprehend difficult text, but vocabulary, text organization, and sentence length seem to be more crucial variables.

From the Common Core State English-language Arts Standards Appendix A…

In 2006, ACT, Inc., released a report called Reading Between the Lines that showed which skills differentiated those students who equaled or exceeded the benchmark score (21 out of 36) in the reading section of the ACT college admissions test from those who did not. Prior ACT research had shown that students achieving the benchmark score or better in reading—which only about half (51 percent) of the roughly half million test takers in the 2004–2005 academic year had done—had a high probability (75 percent chance) of earning a C or better in an introductory, credit-bearing course in U.S. history or psychology (two common reading-intensive courses taken by first-year college students) and a 50 percent chance of earning a B or better in such a course.

Surprisingly, what chiefly distinguished the performance of those students who had earned the benchmark score or better from those who had not was not their relative ability in making inferences while reading or answering questions related to particular cognitive processes, such as determining main ideas or determining the meaning of words and phrases in context. Instead, the clearest differentiator was students’ ability to answer questions associated with complex texts. Students scoring below benchmark performed no better than chance (25 percent correct) on four-option multiple-choice questions pertaining to passages rated as “complex” on a three-point qualitative rubric described in the report. These findings held for male and female students, students from all racial/ethnic groups, and students from families with widely varying incomes.

2. Post K-12 text complexity in college, the workplace, and in popular media has remained constant or increased in terms of levels of difficulty over the last fifty years.

From the Common Core State English-language Arts Standards Appendix A…

Research indicates that the demands that college, careers, and citizenship place on readers have either held steady or increased over roughly the last fifty years. The difficulty of college textbooks, as measured by Lexile scores, has not decreased in any block of time since 1962; it has, in fact, increased over that period (Stenner, Koons, & Swartz, in press). The word difficulty of every scientific journal and magazine from 1930 to 1990 examined by Hayes and Ward (1992) had actually increased, which is important in part because, as a 2005 College Board study (Milewski, Johnson, Glazer, & Kubota, 2005) found, college professors assign more readings from periodicals than do high school teachers. Workplace reading, measured in Lexiles, exceeds grade 12 complexity significantly, although there is considerable variation (Stenner, Koons, & Swartz, in press). The vocabulary difficulty of newspapers remained stable over the 1963–1991 period Hayes and his colleagues (Hayes, Wolfer, & Wolfe, 1996) studied.

3. K-12 text complexity has declined over the last fifty years.

From the Common Core State English-language Arts Standards Appendix A…

Despite steady or growing reading demands from various sources, K–12 reading texts have actually trended downward in difficulty in the last half century. Jeanne Chall and her colleagues (Chall, Conard, & Harris, 1977) found a thirteen year decrease from 1963 to 1975 in the difficulty of grade 1, grade 6, and (especially) grade 11 texts. Extending the period to 1991, Hayes, Wolfer, and Wolfe (1996) found precipitous declines (relative to the period from 1946 to 1962) in average sentence length and vocabulary level in reading textbooks for a variety of grades… Carrying the research closer to the present day, Gary L. Williamson (2006) found a 350L (Lexile) gap between the difficulty of end-of-high school and college texts—a gap equivalent to 1.5 standard deviations and more than the Lexile difference between grade 4 and grade 8 texts on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).

http://www.corestandards.org/

Ten Implications for K-12 Instruction

1. Higher Expectations

Clearly, we teachers need to “up” the level of difficulty of text and provide the scaffolds students need to understand that text. We need to challenge our students to struggle a bit. We can’t focus all of our instruction on the lowest common denominators.

2. Vocabulary

We need to use a systematic approach to vocabulary instruction including teaching structural analysis, context clues, and rote memorization and practice in what Isabel Beck calls “Tier Two” words that have high utility and applicability in academic language. Our students have got to master frequently used Greek and Latin affixes and roots.

3. Sentence and Text Structure

We need to not only analyze sentence and text structure, but also practice variations and complexities in our students’ writing. Good writers are better equipped to understand the complexities of how ideas are presented in academic text. The reading-writing connection is teachable.

4. Content

We need to teach the prior knowledge that students need to access difficult text independently. And we need to share and coordinate the load with our colleagues. For example, are our novels, poetry, and writing assignments aligned with what our students are learning in their history classes? We need to work smarter, not harder.

5. Reading Strategies

We need to be both content and process-driven. If we do not provide the tools and practice for our students, “reading to learn” will never work. Our elementary colleagues have largely handled the “learning to read,” but we need to apply the basic to the complex.

6. Critical Thinking

We need to teach the elements of logic and higher order thinking are prerequisites to understanding difficult reading text. Recognizing both solid and fallacious reasoning is an essential reading skill.

7. Expository Text

We need to put aside our exclusive love of literature and poetry for the sake of our students. College, workplace, and popular media texts are overwhelmingly expository in nature. We can do both.

8. Novel Selection

We may need to let go of traditional novels. Let’s take a hard look at what we are teaching to maximize content and process instruction. For example, Reading Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry may cover the content and standards nicely for an eighth grade ELA class, but the largely fifth grade reading level does not provide the text complexity that our students need. Additionally, shorter novels, selections, poems, articles, etc. will do the job more efficiently and with greater variety.

9. Differentiated Instruction

We need to recognize that all of students simply do not read at the same levels. Students have  different reading issues that inhibit their abilities to comprehend challenging text. We have to find out who has what issues and adjust our instruction accordingly. It does no good to play the “blame game” on previous teachers. We teach standards, but we also teach students. Diagnostic reading assessment has got to be a given for the conscientious reading/ELA teacher.

10. Independent Reading

We need to stop being co-dependents. The Common Core emphasis on CLOSE READING STRATEGIES can can be overdone. We do have to transfer the demands of accessing text over to students at some point. Plus, we need to fight the hard fight and require students to read at home. The amount of independent reading needed to increase even one grade level in terms of reading comprehension and vocabulary development necessitates reading at home.

Possible Objections and Howevers

We can certainly question the adequacy and accuracy of the tools used to measure text complexity. However, we all know that our students’ biology textbooks are more difficult than the Manga and Twilight that are students are reading.

What about the joy of reading? We want to create lifelong readers, not factory-trained automatons for the needs of academia, the workplace, and popular media. Reading trash can be entertaining. However, text complexity does not preclude reading for fun. The ability to read and understand more complex text should expand and enhance that experience.

What we teach in K-12 is in-it-of-itself valuable and relevant to the needs of our students. It may also be foundational in terms of content and process for greater text complexity. We are not just training students for future college, careers, and citizenship; we are teaching students now. However, can’t we have our cake and eat it, too? If our students need to know about chimpanzee behavior, can’t we replace Curious George with a scientific journal?

Mark Pennington, MA Reading Specialist, is the author of the comprehensive reading intervention curriculum, Teaching Reading Strategies. Designed to significantly increase the reading abilities of students ages eight through adult within one year, the curriculum is decidedly un-canned, is adaptable to various instructional settings, and is simple to use—a perfect choice for Response to Intervention tiered instructional levels. Get multiple choice diagnostic reading assessments , formative assessments, blending and syllabication activitiesphonemic awareness, and phonics workshops, comprehension worksheets, multi-level fluency passages recorded at three different reading speeds and accessed on YouTube, 586 game cards, posters, activities, and games.

Also get the accompanying Sam and Friends Phonics Books. These eight-page decodable take-home books include sight words, word fluency practice, and phonics instruction aligned to the instructional sequence found in Teaching Reading Strategies. Each book is illustrated by master cartoonist, David Rickert. The cartoons, characters, and plots are designed to be appreciated by both older remedial readers and younger beginning readers. The teenage characters are multi-ethnic and the stories reinforce positive values and character development. Your students (and parents) will love these fun, heart-warming, and comical stories about the adventures of Sam and his friends: Tom, Kit, and Deb. Oh, and also that crazy dog, Pug.

Everything teachers need to teach a diagnostically-based reading intervention program for struggling readers at all reading levels is found in this comprehensive curriculum. Ideal for students reading two or more grade levels below current grade level, English-language learners, and Special Education students. Simple directions and well-crafted activities truly make this an almost no-prep curriculum. Works well as a half-year intensive program or full-year program, with or without paraprofessional assistance.

Pennington Publishing's Teaching Reading Strategies

Teaching Reading Strategies

Reading, Spelling/Vocabulary , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

How to Determine Reading Levels

Degrees of Reading Power (DRP)? Fleish-Kincaid? Lexiles? Fountas and Pinnell Leveled Book List? Accelerated Reader ATOS? Reading Recovery Levels? Fry’s Readability? John’s Basic Reading Inventory? Standardized test data? Each of these resources/assessments quantifies student reading levels and purports to offer guidance regarding how to match reader to text. For the purposes of this article, we will limit discussion to why these approaches do not work and what does work to match reader to text for independent reading.

As an MA reading specialist, I have been trained in how these tests are constructed and how they help determine reading levels for students. I also know how some of the publishers of these tests level reading materials to match the results of their tests. Although very scientific, there are eight problems with each of these approaches:

1. They are cumbersome and time-consuming to administer.

2. They tend to be costly.

3. They are teacher-dependent (students and parents can’t pick books at their challenge levels without guidance).

4. They do not factor in reader motivation.

5. They do not factor in reading content, in terms of maturity of themes (Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye has a 4.7 ATOS readability level).

6. When compared, the various formulae each vary in grade level equivalencies (one rates Tom Sawyer at 4.2, another at 6.9, and still another at 7.3).

7. They tend to force librarians into arbitrary book coding systems to conform to the tests.

8. They limit student and parent choice of reading materials. Two examples of the problems of determining readability levels and matching these to “appropriate books” should suffice:

I’m not trying to be a whining, complaining parent here. I’m simply trying to highlight a problem. At our public library, there are bookmarks in the youth department that list suggested books for students in each grade (K-12th). We picked up an 8th grade bookmark to get ideas for (her daughter’s) acceptable reading-leveled book. Found a book. Looked up the reading level  and found that it was a 4.5 (not anywhere near the 8.7-10.7 my daughter needed).

As a parent, I watched my very smart 9 year old work the system. He continually read books very much below his ability NOT because he likes reading them, but because he could read them quickly and get points. Other books that he told me he really wanted to read, he didn’t either because they were longer and would take “too long to read” or they weren’t on the AR list.

Given these issues, isn’t there a better solution that will help inform selection of independent reading books?

Yes. Motivation and word recognition.

Motivation has to factor into reading selection. My own son grew a full year in reading comprehension by reading the fourth Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire over the summer a few years back. The book was certainly above his grade level for a fifth grader, but he was motivated and carefully read and re-read with dictionary and Dad at his side for help. Similarly, thank God for the current “Twilight” series. Many of my below grade level readers (I teach seventh graders) have significantly increased their reading levels by getting hooked on this latest literary phenomenon.

Word recognition remains the best indicator for self-selection of appropriate reading level books. It is book and reader-specific and thus cannot be tested by the above readability formulae. With guidance, parents and students can use the techniques below, in combination with the motivation factor to select books within their proximal zone of development—in other words, books that will challenge, but not frustrate the reader.

Word Recognition Techniques

Primary teachers have used the “five-finger method” for years.  Readers select appropriate reading levels by using the fingers of one hand to count down the number of unknown words on a single page. Any more than five unknown words means that the text is at their frustrational level and another book should be selected.

To update and refine this technique for older students, reading text that has about 5% of the words that are unknown to the reader is the appropriate independent reading level.

How can you pick a book to read that has 5% unknown words?

1. Choose a book and count the number of words on any complete page found near the beginning of the book and multiply that number by 3.

2. Read a page toward the beginning of the book, counting the number of unknown words. A good guideline would be “if you can’t define it with a synonym, antonym, or example,” it is unknown. Then, read a page near the middle of the book and continue the count. Finally, read a page near the end of the book and finish the count.

3. Divide the total number of unknown words by the total number of words found on the three pages. The result will be the percentage of unknown words. Anything within the 4-6% range is acceptable. For example, a reader counts the number of words on a page and arrives at 225. 225 x 3 = 750. After reading the three pages, the amount of unknown words totals 30. 30.00 divided by 750 = .05, or 5%.

Again, don’t let the word recognition range be the only factor in determining student choice. When in doubt, let the student go higher. Student motivation can overcome word recognition deficiencies (within reason). Try to discourage reading materials below the students’ word recognition levels. Although we want students to love what they read, we are also about challenging them and building reading comprehension and vocabulary development.

As C.S. Lewis once said… the neat sorting-out of books into age ranges, so dear to publishers, has only a very sketchy relation with the habits of any real readers. Those of us who are blamed when old for reading childish books were blamed when children for reading books too old for us. No reader worth his salt trots along in obedience to a time-table.CS Lewis (1952 essay On three ways of writing for children, collected in Of Other Worlds (latest edition, Harvest Books 2002)

The results can be amazing. Reading this level of text will expose most readers to about 300 unknown words in 30 minutes of reading. Learning 5% of these words from the surrounding context clues of the text is realistic. This means that students will learn about 15 new words during a typical reading session. My advice? Ditch the overly complex and limited reading formulae and use motivation and word recognition to guide independent book selection.

Mark Pennington, MA Reading Specialist, is the author of the comprehensive reading intervention curriculum, Teaching Reading Strategies. Designed to significantly increase the reading abilities of students ages eight through adult within one year, the curriculum is decidedly un-canned, is adaptable to various instructional settings, and is simple to use—a perfect choice for Response to Intervention tiered instructional levels. Get multiple choice diagnostic reading assessments , formative assessments, blending and syllabication activitiesphonemic awareness, and phonics workshops, comprehension worksheets, multi-level fluency passages recorded at three different reading speeds and accessed on YouTube, 586 game cards, posters, activities, and games.

Also get the accompanying Sam and Friends Phonics Books. These eight-page decodable take-home books include sight words, word fluency practice, and phonics instruction aligned to the instructional sequence found in Teaching Reading Strategies. Each book is illustrated by master cartoonist, David Rickert. The cartoons, characters, and plots are designed to be appreciated by both older remedial readers and younger beginning readers. The teenage characters are multi-ethnic and the stories reinforce positive values and character development. Your students (and parents) will love these fun, heart-warming, and comical stories about the adventures of Sam and his friends: Tom, Kit, and Deb. Oh, and also that crazy dog, Pug.

Everything teachers need to teach a diagnostically-based reading intervention program for struggling readers at all reading levels is found in this comprehensive curriculum. Ideal for students reading two or more grade levels below current grade level, English-language learners, and Special Education students. Simple directions and well-crafted activities truly make this an almost no-prep curriculum. Works well as a half-year intensive program or full-year program, with or without paraprofessional assistance.

Pennington Publishing's Teaching Reading Strategies

Teaching Reading Strategies

Reading , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The 18 Reasons Not to Use Accelerated Reader

Accelerated Reader™ (AR) is a simple software concept that was at the right time (late 1980s) and right place (public schools during a transition from whole language to phonics instruction) that has simply grown into an educational monolith. From an economic standpoint, simple often is best and AR is a publisher’s dream come true. Renaissance Learning, Inc.(RLI) is publicly traded on the NASDAQ exchange under the ticker symbol RLRN and makes a bit more than pocket change off of its flagship product, AR. As is the case with many monoliths, detractors trying to chip away at its monopolistic control of library collections, computer labs, and school budgets are many. Following are short summaries of the most common arguments made by researchers, teachers, parents, and students as to why using AR is counterproductive. Hence, The 18 Reasons Not to Use Accelerated Reader. But first, for the uninitiated, is a brief overview of the AR system.

What is Accelerated Reader?

From the Renaissance Learning website, A Parent’s Guide to Accelerated Reader™, we get a concise overview of this program: “AR is a computer program that helps teachers manage and monitor children’s independent reading practice. Your child picks a book at his own level and reads it at his own pace. When finished, your child takes a short quiz on the computer. (Passing the quiz is an indication that your child understood what was read.) AR gives both children and teachers feedback based on the quiz results, which the teacher then uses to help your child set goals and direct ongoing reading practice.”

How is the Student’s Reading Level Determined?

Renaissance Learning sells its STAR Reading™ test to partner with the AR program. The STAR test is a ten minute computer-based reading assessment that adjusts levels of difficulty to student responses. Among other diagnostic information, the test establishes a Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) reading range for the student.

How are AR Books Selected?

Students are encouraged (or required by some teachers) to select books within their ZPD that also match their age/interest level. AR books have short multiple choice quizzes and have been assigned a readability level (ATOS). Renaissance Learning provides conversion scales to the Degrees of Reading Power (DRP) test and the Lexile Framework, so that teachers and librarians who use  these readability formulae will still be able to use the AR program. Additionally, Renaissance Learning provides a search tool to find the ATOS level.

What are the Quizzes? What is the Student and Teacher Feedback?

AR quizzes are taken on computers, ostensibly under teacher or librarian supervision. They consist of multiple choice questions, most of which are at the “recall” level. Students must score 80% or above on these short tests to pass and receive point credit for their readings. When students take AR quizzes, they enter information into a database that teachers can access via password. The TOPS Report (The Opportunity to Praise Students) reports quiz results after each quiz* is taken.

Both teachers and students have access to the following from the database:

  • Name of the book, the author, the number of pages in the book
  • ATOS readability level
  • Percentage score earned by the student from the multiple choice quiz
  • The number of points earned by students who pass the quiz. AR points are computed based on the difficulty of the book (ATOS readability level) and the length of the book (number of words).

*Quizzes are also available on textbooks, supplemental materials, and magazines. Most are in the form of reading practice quizzes, although some are curriculum-based with multiple subjects. Magazine quizzes are available for old magazines as well as on a subscription basis for new magazines. The subscription quizzes include three of the Time for Kids series magazines, Cobblestone, and Kids Discover. www.renlearn.com

What about the Reading Incentives?

“Renaissance Learning does not require or advocate the use of incentives with the assessment, although it is a common misperception.” However, most educators who use AR have found the program to be highly conducive to a rewards-based reading incentive program.

Criticisms

Book Selection

1. Using AR tends to limit reading selection to its own books. Teachers who use the AR program tend to limit students to AR selections because these have the quizzes to maintain accountability for the students’ independent reading. Although much is made by Renaissance Learning of the motivational benefits of allowing students free choice of reading materials, their selection is actually limited. Currently, AR has over 100,000 books in its database; however, that is but a fraction of the books available for juvenile and adolescent readers.

2. Using AR tends to limit reading selection to a narrow band of readability. A concerned mom recently blogs about her experience with her sixth grade daughter (Lady L) who happens to read a few years beyond her grade level:

I’m not trying to be a whining, complaining parent here.  I’m simply trying to highlight a problem.  At our public library, there are bookmarks in the youth department that list suggested books for students in each grade (K-12th).  We picked up an 8th grade bookmark to get ideas for Lady L’s acceptable reading-leveled book.  Found a book.  Looked up the reading level  and found that it was a 4.5 (not anywhere near the 8.7-10.7 my daughter needed). http://inthemomzone.blogspot.com/2010/01/accelerated-readermy-take.html

3. Using AR tends to discriminate against small publishing companies and unpopular authors. Additionally, valid concerns exist about the appropriateness of a private company effectively dictating the materials which children within the program may read. Although teachers may create custom quizzes for reading material not already in the Accelerated Reader system, the reality is that teachers will not have the time nor inclination to do so in order to assess whether an individual student has read a book that is not already in the system. Thus, the ability for a student to explore books which are neither currently commercially popular nor part of major book lists is severely restricted in reality by the Accelerated Reader program. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Accelerated_Reader

In fact, many teachers are inadvertently complicit in this discrimination as they require students to read only books that are in the AR database. Many teachers include the TOPS Report as a part of the students’ reading or English-language arts grade, thus mandating student participation in AR.

4. Using AR tends to encourage some students to read books that most teachers and parents would consider inappropriate for certain age levels. Although Renaissance Learning is careful to throw the burden of book approval onto the shoulders of teachers and parents, students get more points for reading and passing quizzes on higher reading levels and longer books. Although an interest level is provided as is a brief synopsis/cautionary warning on the AR site, students often simply select books by the title, cover, availability, or point value. Thus, a fourth grader might wind up “reading” Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (4.7 ATOS readability level) and a sixth grader might plow through Camus’ The Stranger (6.2 ATOS readability level). Hardly appropriate reading material for these grade levels! Content is not considered in the AR point system and students are, of course, reading for those points.

Reader Response

5. Using AR tends to induce a student mindset that “reading is a chore,” and “a job that has to be done.”

“As a teacher and a mom of 4, I do NOT like AR. As a parent, I watched my very smart 9 year old work the system. He continually read books very much below his ability NOT because he likes reading them, but because he could read them quickly and get points. Other books that he told me he really wanted to read, he didn’t either because they were longer and would take “too long to read” or they weren’t on the AR list. I finally told him to stop with the AR stuff, took him to the bookstore and spent an hour with him finding books he would enjoy. We have never looked back and I will fight wholeheartedly if anyone tries to tell any of my kids they ‘have’ to participate in AR.” http://englishcompanion.ning.com/profiles/blog/show?id=2567740:BlogPost:161876&xg_source=activity&page=3#comments

6. Using AR tends to replace the intrinsic rewards of reading with extrinsic rewards.

AR rewards children for doing something that is already pleasant: self-selected reading. Substantial research shows that rewarding an intrinsically pleasant activity sends the message that the activity is not pleasant, and that nobody would do it without a bribe. AR might be convincing children that reading is not pleasant. No studies have been done to see if this is true.
Stephen Krashen Posted by
Stephen Krashen on December 17, 2009 at 10:40pm http://englishcompanion.ning.com/profiles/blogs/does-accelerated-reader-work?xg_source=activity&id=2567740:BlogPost:161876&page=2#comments

Again, Renaissance Learning does not endorse prizes for points; however, its overall point system certainly is rewards-based.

7. Using AR tends to foster student and/or teacher competitiveness, which can push students to read books at their frustrational reading level or create problems among students. In some situations, this competitiveness can lead to hard feelings or outright ostracism. Students mock other students for not earning enough points, or “making us lose a class pizza party.” Here are two recent blog postings by moms who happen to be educators:

My son is a voracious reader, but AR had him in tears more than once. I had to encourage him to NOT participate in AR (which meant that his class didn’t get the stuffed cougar promised as a reward to the class with the most AR points!) in order to protect that love. He took a hit for his non-participation in school (he started reading books off the list and not getting points for them) but it preserved his love of reading. In my estimation, this love of reading will take him further in the long run. Stupid that he had to choose between school and what was best for his reading life. http://englishcompanion.ning.com/profiles/blogs/does-accelerated-reader-work?xg_source=activity&id=2567740:BlogPost:161876&page=5#comments

As an educator, it concerns me when I see students being punished with reading, as can be the case when I visit sites on a Friday afternoon, a day many grade levels offer students “Fun Friday” activities. Students who’ve completed their class and homework assignments for the week and have had no behavioral problems get to sign-in for fun activities. One teacher volunteers to monitor those who did not earn a Fun Friday, including students who did not meet their AR requirement for the week – and as a result, will be punished with staying in the non-FF room to read.

http://englishcompanion.ning.com/profiles/blogs/does-accelerated-reader-work?xg_source=activity

8. Using AR tends to turn off some students to independent reading. Countless posts on blogs point to the negative impact of this program on future reading. From my own survey of sixty blogs, using the “accelerated reading” search term, negative comments and/or associations with the AR program far outweigh positive ones in the blogosphere. Of course there are those who credit AR for developing them into life-long readers; however, would other independent reading programs have accomplished the same mission? In Kelly Gallagher’s Readicide, he cites a few studies that demonstrate that after exiting an AR program, students actually read less than non-AR students. Plus, all instructional activities are reductive. Having students spend hours skimming books in class to prepare for AR test takes away from other instruction. Check out why sustained silent reading in the classroom doesn’t work here.

9. Using AR tends to turn some students into cheaters. Many students skim read, read only book summaries, share books and answers with classmates, select books that have been made into movies that they have already seen, or use web cheat sites or forums to pass the quizzes without reading the books. Pervasive among many students seems to be the attitude that one has to learn how to beat the AR system, like one uses cheat sites and codes to beat video games. Both are on the computer and detached from human to human codes of conduct. Students who would never dream of cheating on a teacher-constructed test will cheat on AR because “it’s dumb” or “everyone does it.”

In order to take Accelerated Reader tests without any reading at all, many students use sites such as Sparknotes to read chapter summaries. Other websites offer the answers to Accelerated Reader tests. Students regularly trade answers on yahoo.com. Renaissance Learning has filed lawsuits against some of the offending websites and successfully closed them down after a short time. An AR cheat site is currently the ninth Google™ listing on the first page for the “accelerated reader” search term.

AR is Reductive

10. Using AR tends to supplant portions of established reading programs. In my experience, teachers who use AR spend less time on direct reading instruction. Some teachers even consider AR to be solid reading instruction. However, AR does not teach reading; AR tests reading. The expectation of many teachers is that students are learning to read on their own or are dutifully practicing the reading strategies that their teachers have taught them.

11. Using AR tends to train students to accumulate facts and trivia as they read in order to answer the multiple choice recall questions. Students receive no extrinsic “rewards” for making inferences, connections, interpretations, or conclusions as they read. Reading is reduced to a lower higher order thinking process. Students read to gain the gist of characterizations and plots. The Florida Center for Reading Research noted the lack of assessment of “inferential or critical thinking skills” as weaknesses of the software. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Accelerated_Reader

12. Using AR tends to takes up significant instructional time. Students have to wait their turn to take quizzes on the classroom computer(s) or the teacher has to march the class down to the library or computer lab to allow the students to do so.

The incentives schools develop with the AR program also take away from instructional time. One parent details her frustrations with the program:

When the librarian tallies up all of the people who have passed a book (not a goal, but just ONE book), everybody gets a chance to come to the library to select a prize (these are dollar store purchases to include child-like toys and snacks). The English teachers are asked to send the students when the coupons come (a disruption of classroom time). The reason for this is to send a clear message to the students who did not pass a book. It is to make them feel bad, I presume. Tell me how this fits into anything that looks like motivation. This includes students who took a quiz the day before coupons were made and distributed who now have to sit in class while all of their classmates go down to collect a prize.

AR recommends a minimum of 20 minutes per day of in-class reading on its website. The National Reading Panel’s conclusion of programs that encouraged independent reading was “unable to find a positive relationship between programs and instruction that encourage large amounts of independent reading and improvements in reading achievement, including fluency.” p.12). There are other options for independent reading, such as reading at home, that do not take up significant amounts of class time.

13. Using AR tends to reduce the amount of time that teachers spend doing “read-alouds” and teaching class novels. Jim Trelease, chief advocate of the “read-aloud” was an early advocate of AR, even keynoting three national conferences for AR. However, in his sixth edition of his popular The Read-Aloud Handbook, Trelease turns quite critical.  AR teachers tend teach fewer core novels and to limit class discussions because of the time considerations or because a discussion would give away AR quiz answers. Besides, the computer can ask the questions instead.

14. Using AR tends to make reading into an isolated academic task. With each student reading a different book, the social nature of reading is minimized. Research on juvenile and adolescent readers emphasizes the importance of the book communities in developing a love for reading. Fewer Literature Circles with small groups sharing the same book and discussing chapter by chapter, fewer Book Clubs focused on Harry Potter or Twilight novels, fewer class Book Talks, and fewer oral book reports (well, maybe AR does have some value here :))

15. Using AR tends to drains resources that could certainly be used for other educational priorities. The program is not cheap. As librarians are losing their jobs in the current economic downturn, the pressure to build up the AR library collection grows. For each $15 hardback purchase, there is an additional cost of close to $3 for the AR quiz. This amounts to a de facto 20% tax on library acquisitions. Another way to look at this is that a school library able to purchase 300 new books a year will only be able to purchase 250 because of the AR program. AR costs that library and those students 50 books per year.

16. Using AR tends to minimize the teaching and instructional practice in diagnostically-based reading strategies. The STAR Test is hardly diagnostic in terms of the full spectrum of reading skills, despite its flimsy claims to point out potential reading issues in the teacher reports. AR neither assesses, nor teaches phonemic awareness, decoding/word attack, syllabication, vocabulary, or reading comprehension strategies.

17. Using AR tends to limit differentiated instruction. Students are not grouped by ability or skill deficits with AR. The teacher does not spend additional time with remedial students for AR. Students do not receive different instruction according to their abilities. Worse yet, many teachers wrongly perceive AR as differentiated instruction because all of their students are reading books at their own reading levels. Again, there is no reading instruction in AR.

Research Base

18. Although a plethora of research studies involving AR are cited on the Renaissance Learning website, the research base is questionable at best. Few of the AR studies meet the strict research criteria of the Institute of Education Services What Works Clearinghouse. Control groups are always the sticky point when evaluating reading programs. The AR program is no exception.

Stephen Krashen summarizes the research findings regarding AR as follows:

Accelerated Reader consists of four elements: (1) books, (2) reading time, (3) tests, and, usually, (4) prizes. Because there is clear evidence that factors (1) and (2) are effective in encouraging reading and promoting literacy development (Krashen, 1993), the obvious study that needs to be done is to compare the effects of all four factors with (1) and (2) only. After reviewing the research on Accelerated Reader, I have concluded that this has yet to be done: Accelerated Reader studies usually compare Accelerated Reader to doing nothing, and the few attempts to do the needed comparison have been flawed (Krashen, 2004) See www.sdkrashen.com for more analysis.

According to the United States Department of Education Institute for Educational Sciences (IES What Works Clearinghouse, August 2010), Accelerated Reader was found to have no discernible effects on reading fluency or comprehension for adolescent learners.

But, are there any free, schoolwide independent reading programs that do work? Click here to learn How to Develop a Free Schoolwide Reading Program.

Mark Pennington, MA Reading Specialist, is the author of the comprehensive reading intervention curriculum, Teaching Reading Strategies. Designed to significantly increase the reading abilities of students ages eight through adult within one year, the curriculum is decidedly un-canned, is adaptable to various instructional settings, and is simple to use—a perfect choice for Response to Intervention tiered instructional levels. Get multiple choice diagnostic reading assessments , formative assessments, blending and syllabication activitiesphonemic awareness, and phonics workshops, comprehension worksheets, multi-level fluency passages recorded at three different reading speeds and accessed on YouTube, 586 game cards, posters, activities, and games.TRS

Also get the accompanying Sam and Friends Phonics Books. These eight-page decodable take-home books include sight words, word fluency practice, and phonics instruction aligned to the instructional sequence found in Teaching Reading Strategies. Each book is illustrated by master cartoonist, David Rickert. The cartoons, characters, and plots are designed to be appreciated by both older remedial readers and younger beginning readers. The teenage characters are multi-ethnic and the stories reinforce positive values and character development. Your students (and parents) will love these fun, heart-warming, and comical stories about the adventures of Sam and his friends: Tom, Kit, and Deb. Oh, and also that crazy dog, Pug.

Everything teachers need to teach a diagnostically-based reading intervention program for struggling readers at all reading levels is found in this comprehensive curriculum. Ideal for students reading two or more grade levels below current grade level, English-language learners, and Special Education students. Simple directions and well-crafted activities truly make this an almost no-prep curriculum. Works well as a half-year intensive program or full-year program, with or without paraprofessional assistance.

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