The Kids are Still All Right, Despite What Accelerated Reader Might Say

It’s that time of year again!  Renaissance Learning has released their annual nonsensical study and the media is gobbling it up and spitting out soundbites.  For the next few days we will read about how students are reading at lower levels, there is not enough rigor in English classes, and the world is going to hell in a handbasket as a result. It’s an annual frenzy that dies down after just a few days.  But somewhere out there, a school will purchase a reading program because of the furor around this issue and students will suffer as a result.

I wrote about this last year.  And I’ve written about my problems with AR before.

But seriously, can we stop pretending that the people behind Accelerated Reader don’t have an agenda? Can we stop acting like they are some impartial judge?  Come on, guys.  If Johnson and Johnson posted a study, performed in their lab, saying that Tylenol was the only medication that stopped headaches we would laugh.  Of course they say that, consumers would argue. They want to us to buy their product!

So why is it any different when Renaissance, a for-profit education company that reported $130 million in annual revenue in 2010, earned off the backs of students and teachers, says they have the answers to the reading woes of the world??

According to NPR, “For the fifth year in a row, the educational company used its Accelerated Reader program to track what kids are reading in grades one through 12.” This year’s controversy (centered around a small sample size)?  Students are reading books below their grade level.

Last year, almost all of the top 40 books read in grades nine through 12 were well below grade level. The most popular books, the three books in The Hunger Games series, were assessed to be at the fifth-grade level.

Cue the moaning and weeping because students are reading The Hunger Games instead of Anna Karenina.

You know what?  I’m ok with that.  Classics are classics because they are a common, shared experience.  In most cases, that means they are being read in class and discussed.  I don’t know many teachers who use AR and allow their students to take the ridiculous tests and earn points for class reads.  AR is suposed to be used as a management tool for independent reading, not class reading.  Teachers design their own assessments for whole class novels.  Not to mention, I see classics on the list.  And my own students read plenty of classics alongside their contemporary novels.

So I’m not shocked that students are reading pleasure books for AR.  According to the study, “Renaissance Learning recognizes that not all book reading that happens in or outside of the classroom is captured through the Accelerated Reader software; however, it is reasonable to assume that for users of AR much book reading is captured in this way.”  What an assumption to make!  Let me tell you- in my experience that was not the case.  If it was the case, students told me they were not allowed to read any other books because their schools told them they could only read their selected AR reading level and would not allow them to borrow other books.

And that’s the key here.  The study only tracks books students log for Accelerated Reader, a program that schools pay for.  And a program that ties students to a single reading level for the year (or semester).  Pre-test and post-test.  Not a lot of movement in between.  Want to try a more complex book?  Sorry!  That’s above your reading level!

Accelerated Reader is a carrot-and-stick program, a rewards based one that allots points for every book a child reads (after they take a ridiculous, low-level comprehension quiz). Schools and teachers provide the quizzes, after purchasing them, and tell students what level they should be reading.  Books are then leveled according to AR’s readability test.

Schools tend to assign students to a band of points they must earn in order to succeed.  For example, a reader at level J might need to earn 35-40 AR points per marking period.  Students are responsible for finding AR-leveled books, either at school or at their library.  They then take the quiz and earn the points.  It doesn’t take long for students to realize that the easier, low-level point books help them finish this inane assignment faster.  And for many students, their options are limited to the books and tests readily available to them at school.  This means a district must purchase the texts and the sets of comprehension quizzes in a day and age when budgets are tight and orders are hard to come by.  I have  students who tell me that their middle school library stopped ordered new books before they arrived there thanks to budget cuts.  As a result, they were limited to the books on the shelves for their AR points.  Not a lot of room for choice.

But that’s not even the worst part.  The study mentioned above notes that students in high school are reading books well below their “AR level”.  Accelerated Reader levels each text using the ATOS readability formula, which scans vocabulary and sentence complexity to assign a grade level.  Themes and content are not taken into account.

I decided to take a look at some of the whole-class novels read in my school to see where they stack up.  I teach at the #1 STEM high school in the nation and my students are very, very gifted.  They aren’t all enthusiastic readers, but they test well and have the scores to prove it.  They attend Ivy League colleges and other top universities.  I’d say we do a pretty decent job of preparing them for college and the real world. So how does our reading stack up?

Antigone- 5th grade reading level

Romeo and Juliet- 8th grade reading level

Things Fall Apart- 6th grade reading level

Zeitoun- 6th grade reading level

I honestly laughed as I was pulling up these stats, directly from AR’s website.  Zeitoun is written at a 6th grade level? Antigone at a 5th grade level?  The themes and content are not appropriate for those students! But I guess it’s ok if the vocabulary and sentence construction are appropriate for 5th graders.

Look, to put in in STEM terms, the AR readability leveling is like saying, “Hey!  Calculus uses numbers and letters.  5th graders know how to count and can recite the alphabet.  Thus, they should just know how to solve a complex calculus problem!”

Ridiculous, right?

So why are we giving any weight to this study?  And it doesn’t even make any sense!  It bemoans students reading The Hunger Games because it’s rated at a 5th grade level and calls for them to read more Shakespeare and classics.  But then I pulled up classics, like Chaucer’s Prologue to the Canterbury Tales and I had to laugh.  Reading level?  Fifth grade. The study decries the lack of rigor in student reading and calls for more classics, but then the lists of common 9-12 books show plenty of classics.  It’s clickbait and nothing more.  Get districts riled up and they will then turn to AR as a way to get kids reading.  Hmm, sounds like a great way to increase profits….

And while the complete report touches on the fact that language has been streamlined over the past 200 years, none of the articles mention that.  Many classics are ranked at high reading levels because language was complex when the books were written.  Sentences might be 50 words long!  Today, that’s wordy and discouraged.  And guess what?  Texts were more complex back then because education was only for the rich.  The harder it was to read and comprehend, the less of a chance that the  poor would have time to learn to read and then pick up those books.  The lower classes were needed to work in factories and in the fields.  They were not needed in classrooms. Times have changed, Renaissance, and that needs to be taken into account when you put together your study.

I am a voracious reader.  In the last month I have read adult best-sellers, YA, middle grade, and nonfiction.  I’ve read books that I’ve struggled with and books I’ve flown through.  Why should students be treated any differently?  Share reading experiences and books together, help them climb reading ladders.  Encourage teachers to be visible readers.  And lose the carrot-and-stick approach.  The millions of dollars being thrown at Renaissance Learning would buy a lot books for students to read.  Surround students with books, allow them to make reading choices, and read with them.  Encourage discussions, book talks, and debates instead of dioramas, worksheets, and AR quizzes.

I survey my students every year.  You know what they say encourages them to read, without fail? Book talks and talking to all of their teachers about books.  Not one student has ever said, “Man, I wish we had Accelerated Reader”.  And that tells me everything I need to know.

 

Read Forever: By Hook or by Crook, By Book or By Nook

For months I have been reading Tweets, blog posts, and forum postings that divide the world into two camps- those who like e-readers and those who think they will be the end of books.  I admit- I was anti-e-reader for a while.  But then I got my iphone and ipad and realized the wonder of being able to carry a few books with me at all times, without the heavy pile.  I took my ipad on my cruise and read something like 10 books over the course of the week.  I never would have been able to carry them all with me on the plane.  So I am an e-reader convert!

I also have a lot of students who move easily between e-readers and books.  They have no preference, but I certainly see them reading more because their e-reader is always accessible.  And how can I not love that?

Needless to say, I absolutely ADORE the new Barnes and Noble Nook commercial called “Read Forever”.  We can all get along.  Just read forever.

Reading in Middle School: Choice, Independence, and Community

It’s been a crazy few days for reading in the news.  First, I was devastated to learn that Reading Rainbow has been cancelled and its final episode aired on Friday.  I remember watching Reading Rainbow often as a child and singing the theme song even more often.

“Butterfly in the sky, I can go twice as high. Take a  look, it’s in a book…”  I can still picture the opening credits in my head!

According to vice president for children’s programming at PBS, Linda Simensky, “research has shown that teaching children the mechanics of reading should be the network’s priority…”  This breaks my heart.  It’s just another example of the mentality that mechanics and how-to takes precedence over why reading (and often writing) is fun and enjoyable.  As a teacher I can promise you that enjoying reading has taken my students to new heights and in my experience is just as important as those mechanics.  If you hate reading it doesn’t matter how well you can read, you still aren’t going to pick up a book.  And if you struggle with reading it’s hard to see a reason to enjoy it. It saddens me that PBS no longer sees teaching the enjoyment of reading as important but I plan to continue teaching and modeling that enjoyment in my classroom.

After reading about Reading Rainbow I was I was thrilled to see the “reading workshop” approach to teaching getting publicity with an article in the New York Times.  Motoko Rich’s  A New Assignment: Pick Books You Like isn’t ground-breaking- reading workshop has been around for decades- but any publicity for this way of teaching is good publicity in my opinion. There are thousands of teachers out there who are unfamiliar with the workshop approach, don’t believe it can work in this age of standardized testing, or don’t feel confident enough to take the plunge. Hopefully this article will encourage a few more to try it in their own classrooms.  Presenting students with choice in reading opens new worlds.  I have the anecdotal evidence from my own classrooms as do many other teachers. You only have to read my literacy surveys at the beginning of the year and the end of the year- you’ll see the difference in my readers.  Speak to their parents.  More importantly?  Speak to my students.  Having a choice in their reading leads to enjoying reading!

I don’t agree with every single thing in the article, just like I don’t agree with every single thing Nancie Atwell or Lucy Calkins preaches.  Lorrie McNeill, the teacher in the article, doesn’t believe in any whole-class novels.  While I use them (very) sparingly, I agree with Monica Edinger (a fourth grade teacher) that they can be very valuable.  Adults read with book clubs, so why not students?  I do agree with McNeill’s opinion that too many teachers overteach whole-class novels.  That’s the problem.  But this is why I love the workshop approach- you do what works for you and your students.

My teaching was shaped by my student-teaching experience.  I was extremely fortunate in that I taught at a Teacher’s College Reading & Writing Project school in New Jersey.  I attended staff development and saw the workshop approach work over my two semesters in third grade there.  My cooperating teacher was an inspiration and I’ve never looked back.  Nancie Atwell, Lucy Calkins, Kelly Gallagher, and so many more have been inspiring me ever since.  But my reading workshop isn’t identical to anyone else’s.  I teach 100 sixth grade students in 55 minute periods.  I have to modify the system to fit my classroom and my students.  For the record, I do think reading workshop works at its best with small classes for larger quantities of time, like McNeill’s classes.  But we all work within the parameters of our district.

Here’s a broad overview of my sixth grade reading workshop:

  • Independent Reading- The cornerstone of my workshop.  All of my students are required to have a book with them at all times.  We read in class, while I model by reading or conference with individuals.  At the beginning of the year I spend a lot of time modeling reading while easing into reading conferences with my students.  Our minilessons are related to each child’s independent book because I focus on comprehension strategies which can be applied to all books instead of lessons tailored only to a specific novel (a la the numerous novel guides out there).  My students begin the year with in-class reading logs while easing into letter-essay responses.  They also keep an at-home reading log that is collected once each month as a quiz grade.  The quiz is pass/fail and everyone passes as long as the log is turned in.  The logs, and later letter-essays, allow me to keep track of each student’s progress and help guide them.  I also have individual reading conferences with each student along with numerous informal chats in the hall, during homeroom, and hopefully online this year!
  • Read Alouds: Can you have two cornerstones?  Because read alouds are equally as important as independent reading in my class  We are always reading a book together.  This is a “for fun” book, as I tell my students.  They aren’t quizzed, tested, or graded.  What they rarely realize is how much they are learning from my modeling, thinking aloud, and our class conversations.  I choose books that they class wouldn’t normally choose to read on their own and the books are always a few level above my average reader.  We usually use Newbery buzz as a guide, trying to read the Newbery winner before it is announced in January.  Of course, we also read picture books, non-fiction related to the content areas, and numerous articles.  This year’s first read aloud? When You Reach Me.  See here if you are interested in what we read last year.
  • Whole class books:  The dreaded whole-class novel.  *shudder*  We do read books together.  These are different from our read alouds because the students are responsible for these books (tests, quizzes, or projects). One of the reasons I grade the activities attached to these books is because my students will experience reading class this way from 7th grade until graduating college.  It’s my job to prepare them.  We normally  read Natalie Babbitt’s Tuck Everlasting as we learn to annotate text and dig deeper. We read literary articles about the novel, including Horn Book’s amazing interview with Babbitt, “Circling Tuck: An Interview with Natalie Babbitt”. We also read Lois Lowry’s The Giver as we debate euthanasia, free choice, and so much more. Every year it is a wonderful experience. And nothing beats hearing kids moan and groan about a “boring book” before we begin reading it and then listening to their devastated reactions when Jesse and Winnie don’t end up together or debating whether or not Jonas made the right decision.
  • Book Clubs- We study the  Holocaust at each grade level (4-8) as part of our district initiative.  We read and research different aspects of the Holocaust before students break off into book clubs of their choosing. The groups read a variety of books, fiction and nonfiction, about different aspects WWII.  They take notes, do further research, and then present what they learn to the class.  Every year I learn something new and the students are able to dig even deeper into aspects of the war they might not have been familiar with before our book clubs.
  • Primary and secondary sources- Our students participate in National History Day each year and I love introducing them to primary sources!  Connecting with history through those who actually experienced it turns on so many students to research and helps them overcome the dread attached to the word “research”.

This is only a brief, very brief, summary of my classroom and my personal approach to reading workshop.  The reaction I get the most when I mention I use reading workshop is a frown followed by, “Don’t your  students just read “junk books?”  Of course.  However, they aren’t junk books to me or those students.  They are gateway books.  I watched this year as one of my most reluctant readers  read Twilight, followed by all of its sequels, every other vampire book she could get her hands on, and then Sarah Dessen, Laurie Halse Anderson, and eventually Wuthering Heights!  One person’s junk is another’s treasure, and that same junk opens up a whole new world to readers.  And that’s also why I am sure to include all the other aspects of my reading workshop- read alouds, book clubs, and even whole class selections.  My students are surrounded by books and words at all times.  Each book connects with each student differently.

Reading workshop works so well because it can be personalized by each teacher.  Every classroom is different.  Just check out some of these other responses around the blogosphere:

-Monica Edinger’s In the Classroom: Teaching Reading
-The Book Whisperer’s The More Things Change
-Lois Lowry’s I Just Became Passe’
-Meg Cabot’s How to Foster a Hatred of Reading
-Kate Messner’s Heading Off Book Challenges

Readicide by Kelly Gallagher

On January 26th, Kelly Gallagher will be here at TheReadingZone answering your questions!  His newest book, Readicide: How Schools Are Killing Reading and What You Can Do About It, will be released on February 10, 2009. However, thanks to Stenhouse, we can get a sneak peek at the entire book before Kelly stops by!

So here is your assignment: Get reading! I have read the book and it is amazing- count on a review in the next few days. However, now I need you to read the book. This is your chance to pick the brain of Kelly Gallagher….when will you get this chance again?

You don’t need to read the entire book. One of my favorite chapters is Chapter 2: Endangered Minds (beginning on page 27). Gallagher presents a flood of information on the dearth of reading material in our schools and the effects on our kids’ reading. Read it, make notes, and come back here to post your questions! Kelly will be here on January 26th and I can’t wait!

Kelly will be participating in a five-stop blog book tour. Each of the following blogs will post either a Q&A with Kelly, or a review of the book, or will give you the opportunity to submit questions to Kelly. So browse the book and then check out all of these blogs in the coming days and discuss this vitally important topic!

Blog tour dates and stops:

1/20 – A Year of Reading 
1/22 – The Tempered Radical 
1/23 – The Dream Teacher 
1/26 – The Reading Zone 
1/28 – The Book Whisperer < span>

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