I have two grandchildren, ages seven and nine, who live with me and are, respectively, in second and fourth grades.
At their school, second graders are introduced to what I believe is the executioner of reading for the love and pleasure of reading — the Accelerated Reader Program. For those of you not connected to the school world either by students or employment or interest, Accelerated Reader is a computerized reading evaluation program created in 1985 and marketed by Renaissance.
From the Renaissance website:
“Accelerated Reader 360 engages K12 students in independent and close reading practice. They complete close reading activities built into nonfiction articles, choose their own independent reading books, and take short reading comprehension quizzes. Students work toward personalized reading goals and grow!”
Students may “grow” in some form or another, but I see no evidence that they grow their love of reading.
Books are given ratings based on the length and complexity of the book. Students are given an evaluation quiz at the start of each year to determine their “AR level” of reading. That is the level of book they should start reading. Students read books and then take computerized tests. Each test gives them points. The number of points to achieve in a quarter is determined at the beginning of each school year. I, honestly, am confused about how that determination is made, but there is some predetermined number of points for the student to reach 100%. In my grandchildren’s school, achievers of 100% or more attend a pizza party.
I would prefer my grandchildren read books without AR ratings and without taking standardized tests and I will give them a party with much better pizza than their school can afford.
What is wrong with Accelerated Reader? First, not all books are on the program and rated, something I did not realize until I gave my grandchildren unrated books to read and for which they got no credit for reading. That led to my near termination as their grandmother.
An elderly neighbor saved all his daughter’s childhood books and gave them to my grandchildren when he moved to another state. The books are mostly outstanding classical books; many I read as a child. They must have been good enough for his daughter who went to Princeton and has an excellent teaching and research position at a prominent university. But, it turns out, many of these books are not good enough for Accelerated Reader and do not have the all-important AR ratings, so they sit lonely and untouched on a bookshelf my house.
Our local library district has semi-annual book sales that are extremely popular with shoulder-to-shoulder crowds searching for books on long tables and high bookcases. I took my grandchildren to the sale for the first time this year. With prices less than $1, we were able to buy 45 children’s books for a small amount of money. In the crush of the crowd, it was not possible to research AR ratings on my phone, so I mostly looked for the newer books hoping they were rated and the children naively looked for books that appealed to them. As Accelerated Reader luck would have it, about half of the books are not rated and hence have been relegated by my grandchildren to the “we will never waste our time reading” pile. The very books that excited them at the book sale were discarded like empty pizza boxes.
They read for points; not for pleasure, for points — and pizza.
A book may be appealing in every way — compelling subject, lovely artwork on the cover and creative illustrations within, easy to read font, an accomplished author, many good reviews — but none of that matters if the book is not included in the all-important, all-powerful Accelerated Reader program. The lauded and lovely book is treated like rubbish.
The children actually choose the easier books so they can read more books faster and take more tests. They prefer books that they don’t find too engaging, thereby eliminating the “wasted time” lingering over subject matters that fascinate them or beautiful prose that engages them. It is all about reading fast, taking tests, and getting points. Often they have absolutely no interest in the books they read. The books become vehicles to get from point A to point B; the scenery along the route is not only irrelevant, but often an obstacle.
And, this is not just my experience. Other parents have told me the same. A woman who is close to my age but had her two, now-adult, boys later in life is an avid reader and hoped her sons would be too. The oldest one started off reading voraciously when he was young, but when Accelerated Reader was introduced to his school when he was about nine, his reading became about the points and the prizes for reaching the AR goal. He stopped reading for pleasure and started reading for competition, trying to get a higher percentage than his friends (as does my grandson)and trying to get the prize. Now, as an adult, he never reads. No one gives an adult a pizza party to celebrate the books he reads, so why should he bother?
It is all about the points and the damn pizza party! I really, really hate that pizza party. Kids read for pizza — cheap, greasy pizza. Is that any different than a sign saying “Will work for food”? It is demeaning to make reading about food. I want my grandchildren and all kids to read for the journey, not the destination.
I want my grandchildren to read for adventure and humor and joy and knowledge and romance and exposure to new ideas and other cultures. I want them to see an interesting book, pick it up, and read it. Actually read it for the joy of reading it and without checking its AR rating. I want my grandchildren to read for the sake of learning and loving to read, not for pizza.