Time, Choice and Love – What Makes a Reader?

Before I start this post I want to make to clear that it was not my intention to purposefully be negative about Accelerated Reader or any reading programme: it may well end up like that, however. I do want to suggest a much better alternative. Accelerated Reader in particular, though, is widely used in UK schools and having used it myself and spoken of it in previous posts, I’m aware that many have their views. Of course I can only speak from my own experience but I’ve yet to be convinced by anything I’ve seen or heard about it.

While it has been around since the late eighties, I think I first came across this reading programme about eight or nine years ago. It was an expensive buy-in so, of course, my school wanted it to work. Classes were set up, plans were made. All my younger classes, and one of my older, more challenging classes would, once a week, read from a choice of books which seemed to be geared towards a specific reading level. My understanding is that if, after finishing a book, a student performed well at a small test – multiple choice, from memory – then they could advance to the next level. Certainly, if you looked through that little window in my class door, you would see children reading. And that’s got to be a good thing, hasn’t it?

Well, what I encountered wasn’t good at all. Books seemed to be limited to those chosen by the company who ran AR. I could create tests for specific books I suppose but that seemed like a whole lot of extra and unnecessary work. Students seemed to be discouraged from reading books which may have been too hard for them and I hated that. When we become readers we dip into books like that, giving us a taste of things to come. This seemed to actively discourage that. I also perceived, amongst the more reluctant readers, an eagerness to get to the end of their chosen books so they could get to the computer test. I had classes full of readers but there was no increase in a love of reading. Those who were readers hated that choices were limited and those who weren’t gave up when there was no quiz at the end.

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If you want your classes to be seen to be reading books then I’m sure this will get them doing that. But what Kelly Gallagher says in his book Readicide is right:

‘Many teachers like Accelerated Reader and similar incentive-laden programs because they see students do a significant amount of reading. What they don’t see is that programs such as AR and others that offer extrinsic rewards often lead to demotivating students after they have left the classroom.  ’(Gallagher, Kelly: 2007, Readicide, Stenhouse Publishers)

If you want the kids in front of you to be life long readers then none of these programmes work. I’d even ask those who are convinced that it does work to explain what it is intended to do for it to work.

Having learned from certain Twitter commentators to be aware of passing my opinions off as fact I delved into the research a little. I even tried to find some arguments for Accelerated Reader. Try googling it. You find very little in praise of the programme. Almost everything I’ve read, beyond anecdotal expressions of relief that kids read, comes to the conclusion that it is in fact damaging.

I mentioned Accelerated Reader very briefly during my #pedagoosunshine workshop and noticed the raised eyes along with the nods of agreement. However my intention is not to criticise teachers who use it but to suggest better ways of encouraging life long readers. You see I think it is the relationship with a significant adult which is the best guide to doing that. If there is no-one at home who does that then it has to be you, their teacher.

I’m going to blog on this further after my workshop at #tmlovelibraries in Edinburgh but kids need three things in place if they are to develop into lifelong readers.

  • Time, every day, to read. If that’s in class then make it so.
  • A choice of good quality books: and that means a choice of anything to get them going. Too hard, too easy, at first it doesn’t matter. The important thing is that you get them reading then it is your job to take it from there.
  • And lastly, they need to know that adults read too, it is not a thing that we get kids to do in school. Read with them; share your passion for books. Develop a reading relationship.

I do these things with my younger classes and, you know, it more or less works. No, not every kid will read for the rest of their lives. But they come back to me for book recommendations. They come back to give me book recommendations.

I worry that departments stick with Reading Programmes because they have invested in them and feel they have to make them work. It is so much more rewarding to forget the marketing and get down to the books. It is what made you the reader you are. Let them have a chance.

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