Here is a report I submitted a few years ago based upon my experiences of implementing Accelerated Reader (AR). While I think that AR is the best programme for tracking reading in reluctant readers, encouraging reading in a secondary school requires a far more holistic approach.
How can the Accelerated Reader Programme best be implemented?
NATE ICT Committee 2016
Monitoring (and inspiring) independent work and thinking in students is difficult. I still remember as an earnest nine year old reading books (The Gay Way Series! http://schoolreading70sbooks.weebly.com/the-gay-way-series.html) until 10pm-11pm on a nightly basis. In a token monitoring book I diligently wrote my (to be unread) one line summary. My reward? To be accused of not reading the books on the basis that I simply couldn’t have read so much (or at least, that my teacher couldn’t have done!).
While we can track the performance of reading through SATs (and SPAG…), actual, quality monitoring of independent reading is inherently tricky.
It is with this in mind that I say Accelerated Reader (AR) is currently the best reading programme commercially available, and one that has adapted itself over the ten years or so I have used it. However, like with text-to-speech technology, the reality never really quite fits its potential, and there are substantive considerations to avoid it becoming an ill-used time sink. Despite this, two of my last three schools have used AR, and I would certainly want to use it in my department in the future.
This report will praise happily the benefits of AR, state forlornly its missed opportunities, warn sagely of the drawbacks, and will advise judiciously on a (more) success implementation in your school.
Benefits of AR – what does it make easier?
Actual tracking of independent reading is possible. Quite simply, it seems that very many students will happily take a book out for a length of time, read in patches where directed, and return without completion. This can potentially continue throughout the duration of a student’s school career. For those parents who don’t have a handle on pushing their children to read, it is difficult-to-impossible to realistically (in a timely fashion) challenge such patchy habits without AR.
AR can provide an external source of credibility to reading. Obviously, cultural capital is needed in students for them to see a benefit (now and in the future) to reading fiction. As English teachers, our job is foster this credibility, as with the parents of our students. However, linked with the next point, AR is another point of credibility for students to read (read this number of points so your reading score goes up!).
Quantitative measuring of reading for those so-minded can be helpful. Some students are just not built for fiction reading, it seems. For me, it seems those whose (financially successful) parents solely read non-fiction can see fiction reading as a ‘nice’ thing rather than something with substantive benefits. For those students, the quantitative measuring of reading can be immensely useful (especially with competitive sharing of word-count exposures to quality language).
Prizes for word-count achievers celebrate a culture of reading. Having a publicly celebrated culture that celebrates students who achieve a million words of reading a year creates an academic tone in a school and grants public performance motivation as prized by Ron Berger (Ethic of Excellence). This prize should be small so as to not be the end-in-itself (certificate and public applause).
AR works especially well with ‘Buzz Reads’ (ideal term for shorter books) and Barrington Stoke for students with low reading ages. For students with low reading ages, or specific reading difficulties, books that are short (1,500 to 5,000 words) yet with a teenage interest level (and British cultural references it seems!) are immensely useful. Modelling the reading of these as a teacher is essential, of course (I’ve read every Barrington Stoke going).
Choosing books of an appropriate level is more likely with AR. Without AR and teacher/peer recommendation, books are well and truly judged by their spines. This usually results in patchy reading and the idea that minutes of ‘boredom’ is reason enough to put that book down.
AR can measure comprehension without requiring students to write. This is an especially useful benefit; normally ‘reading’ tests students require ‘writing’ to show comprehension. It is no coincidence that the International Baccalaureate – created initially for the best international students – measures some aspects of reading comprehension through a spoken response. AR is one of the few ways to measure reading outside the written response.
Can promote whole-school reading policies (and creative writing projects with teacher-made quizzes). If all students in KS3 are on the AR system, it only takes a number of years for all students to have some connection to reading, and for (hopefully) a critical mass to have an investment. In the best reading culture I have seen in a comprehensive school, it was said that it takes years to establish a culture, and only months to lose it. In that school, students can on managed moves to read 30,000 words in a term where before no books had been finished before.
AR can connect with in-school creative writing projects. I’ve run several creative writing projects where students can create their own quizzes on their own stories, and grant such vanity publishing external credibility via the possibility of readers gaining points for their AR totals. http://gregorycanderson.wix.com/librarylessonstories
Ideals that don’t really come off/missed opportunities
Reading scores/ages are not entirely accurate. To accurately measure reading requires a battery of tests over several hours by an expert with post-graduate qualifications. The AR Star Reading can only be seen as a tracking test. Therefore, I often only give the standardised score, or the recommended reading level (its ‘ZPD’). The NC level and the reading age are misleading. They can be nice to celebrate students who work hard and overachieve, or to challenge students and parents who believe that their reading is good enough (when their reading age is 8 or 9). It is important, too, to ensure students are in the right mindset the test, as results can vary wildly. Taking the test myself, I found questions that seemed to have multiple legitimate answers that required real concentration. While I scored the maximum reading age (luckily for me!), I certainly didn’t hit the maximum standardised score.
The reports for students are almost entirely generic. If they could take into account how much the students had read, or a student’s reading in previous years, then they would be better. As has been said elsewhere, they also recommend 45 minutes of reading for struggling readers who may have no reading culture, which, when given in the form of an A4 page, is beyond aspiration and would seem more punitive for some. If this report could be personalised in relation to how much the students are reading at the moment, it would be more ideal.
Physical prizes for the best readers help to celebrate reading. However, multiple studies show that extrinsic rewards for mental aspirations can be harmful long-term (see Dan Pink for the generic YouTube summary on motivation in schools). Often such prizes are better for celebrating a reading culture than for inspiring the student. Of course, the teacher-student relationship can mitigate this: reading should be intrinsic (even though winning iPads is nice for everyone!).
Measuring reading stamina is not an explicit part of reports, even though ‘minutes read’ can be measured. I have seen students maintain a steady ‘reading age’ of 10 years or so, yet read 750,000 words of fiction a year. Reading stamina in such students needs to be recognised and celebrated.
Testing to measure comprehension can ‘put-off’ students who fail. Of course, there is an extent to which a student can enjoy a text that they don’t understand (Finnigan’s Wake, anyone?), but enjoyment and other gains need to explicitly discussed with students. Of course, students who don’t understand what they are reading need to given straight scores: there are students who want to read books that they don’t understand and are entirely outside their ZPD through some perceived ambition (usually to keep up with friends). Again, judgement is essential.
It is expensive. As with any subscription-based online model, the cost can add up massively over the years – expect to budget for several thousand pounds. I’ve tried to use free tracking software (goodreads.com, for example), and have found them just not functional enough. With reduced budgets across schools, it is perhaps to pump money into easier, more visible projects, especially with less-academically-minded SLTs (shock, horror!). Training is, in my humble opinion, overpriced, but probably the industry rate. I would have charged near to such prices for tuition amongst the elite of Beijing, but would still balk at the hourly rates. Maybe I need to be more capitalist! Of course, if seen as a whole-school project, with a whole-school budget, then the cost is put into perspective.
No trial is possible. You have to put a thousand pounds on this to see if this is for you. That’s the way of the world, and is probably necessary in order to commit to a successful implementation.
You really require an AR expert/someone with time to manage the data. The data, especially when consolidated at the end of the year, is useful. It also requires someone with the skills and persona to promote reading amongst all demographics (including reluctant readers amongst parents and teachers!). I had to spend an hour or so a week keeping reports ticking over and providing them to teachers, and I knew what I was doing. Training is over a phone or a computer, and hugely expensive. It is useful and necessary, but just so expensive (did I mention that already?). The cost really needs to be a whole-school investment.
AR can reduce reading to turning pages to get points if left unchecked. It takes teacher-student relationships to avoid diligent, yet reluctant, readers reverting to this default state of being. This is a programme that requires wider reading initiatives to work: paying the money is just the start of its implementation.
AR can put off great and natural readers who see this taking a test as the dominant ideology of reading (which is not a bad thing for great readers and thinkers!). I’ve seen a great reader take only two tests all year. I have seen a student accepted into Oxford for Literature read ‘only’ three million words a year in a token nod. Again, use judgement, and laugh with them at their rebellion against the programme.
Following on from the previous point, AR can put off students who want to read books outside the system. It is clearly foolish to stop a student from reading a book they want to read. Not stating this principle explicitly is as good as stopping some students. However, I would ensure that those who aren’t comprehending what they are reading (yet like taking ‘big books’ are guided to read within their ZPD – it is their choice if they do, or not, of course!
Tests are more to do with recall than comprehension. They measure understanding, but still do so less so than explicit questioning. They do not replace the other methods for measuring comprehension.
Advice for implementation
Repeatedly, explicitly and loudly promote reading for the sakes of reading. Coach students on their reading and engage students in library games for the social sharing of reading experiences. The programme will not do this for you; the inspiration only comes from the culture the school community nurtures. Getting tutors, Heads of Year/House on board is utterly vital. Data would need to be provided for them, of course, which is easy enough to do if you have a dedicated AR person in your school.
Use it across the board, not just with those who are less able. Reluctant readers exist across the range of ability. The celebration of reading should be universally shared, and allocating AR to only those who are less able will undermine its implementation. If you are really stretched in your budget, I suggest implementation amongst Year 7s and 8s, and then perhaps select students in Year 9 who really benefit from the extrinsic motivation (not ideal, but judiciously realistic).
Acknowledge that 15 minute per day at home on average is ideal for most fiction. Touch base with parents via planners that this is happening. See this as a long-term project and allow parents and students to create time to foster the reading on their terms (again, something that takes experience, credibility, skill, charisma, and luck amongst teachers!).
Push fiction reading for its benefits. Refer to studies, link to future success, and make explicit how those most success in leadership can use language in an expert, literary fashion.
Train an AR expert and give them time to manage the data, classes, etc. Perhaps ideal for an ICT-minded NQT, or (ideally) for an aspirational librarian with less contact time, your AR expert needs to be able to have the time to familiarise themselves with the programme. The training is useful/essential, but nothing replaces time spent. I have found the support to be timely and helpful, and they reply quickly to email and the email chat function. They want to help.
As with any mark relating to a test of language use, make it entirely clear that it cannot measure passion, ideas, thinking or anything that is really important (beyond basic literacy). Measuring language use solely with a number of grade is damaging and misleading; measuring language use even just by effect is also somewhat monstrous for beyond-functional language awareness.
Promoting non-fiction reading is still essential. Read Lemov’s ‘Reading Reconsidered’ for a contemporary (and American) curriculum that links non-fiction to fiction. However, be aware that a good number of students desire to read the Guinness Book of Records, with its less taxing demands on structural awareness. I recommend to students that they read such books for a (teaching) ‘five minutes’ (that lasts, of course, for as long as I need it to).
Use judgement in your implementation, and place passionate reading of fiction at the heart of your policy. Tear up the reports publicly if necessary to demonstrate this point! You need to be a walking and breathing example of the enrichment that reading fiction provides. Dampen adult voices that do not read fiction (something that no-one ever mentions at interview, of course!) by overwhelming (and maybe inspiring?) them with your positive reading culture.
Utilise parents with AR’s Home Connect function (the ability for parents to see student data and to receive emails when their child completes a book). Easy to set up with batch-printable .pdfs of personalised letters (with an easy log-in box to insert onto any school website or VLE), the home connect is a wonderful way for parents to connect with their kids about their reading without nagging. I’ve had countless parents speak effusively when they (or Granny!) receive an email at work about reading success. This function alone, when played well by the parent and teacher, can be transformational for some families. As has been stated repeatedly, this is due to the human relationship, not the programme itself per say.
Conclusion and Recommendations
As with all leading apps, AR scores peculiarly in an app review. While I put it is as a 3/5 due to the costs in money and time to make it work effectively, there is really no competition – this makes any score relatively meaningless.
Only establishing a reading culture will lead to better reading. Purchasing this and implementing without extensive initiatives elsewhere will lead to frustration and only pockets of success. Seeing this as an easy win with pupil premium money may work on paper; actual, long-term gains need a more cohesive and ambitious strategy.
I have used Accelerated Reader in two schools. Both benefits from its implementation: in both there was always a sense that more could be done, and that managing AR could be a time pit. Both are manageable points.
Finally, remember that two philosophies of of the NATE ICT Committee is that you should only use technology if it actually enhances what you are doing, and that the power of ICT comes in how the students use it (not necessarily the teacher).
With this in mind, I would recommend the use of AR in any school, albeit with the awareness that it requires an investment beyond the English department (and ideally a budget outside the English department!).
© Gregory Anderson 2016