Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Accelerated Reader

I’d like to comment on Susan Straight’s essay in this past Sunday’s The New York Times Book Review section. It made me realize what a reward-conscious society we are. We’re driven by metrics. And it starts in elementary school. I understand the importance of establishing percentiles for math and reading scores. Children need to acquire basic competency in order to move along in their nascent educational careers. Regent exams will gear them for advanced placement and the SATs, GREs, LSATs, MCATs will hopefully prep them for life. If only it was that easy.

I’ve heard of Accelerated Reader before, but didn’t really know its mechanics. They use a software program to rank books by complexity and page total and spit out a number. That number represents the point score kids will chase to outrank their peers. There are prizes to be won too. Kids obviously want to gobble up books with the highest points and I’m not blaming them. What troubles me is the attempt to quantify something which is supposed to be a visceral joy.

A quick peek into titles showed me that Harry Potter piled on the points. Reading “Goblet of Fire” earns 32 points, “Deathly Hallows” adds 34 points, and “Order of the Phoenix” rakes in 44 points. Now, “Prisoner of Azkaban” only garners 18 points, but s does “Huckleberry Finn”. Startling as this may seem, Stephen Meyer’s “Twilight” earns just as many points as Twain's magnum opus. Software that makes these computations needs to be revamped. If the goal is to get kids excited about literature they need to read classics. Especially, ones that are lively, voice-driven that have inspired generations of writers— and readers.

How can you quantify a book’s worth? It’s a task I wouldn’t leave to a number, a book report maybe and for the precocious young mind a thoughtful critique. Focusing solely on the number squeezes the ethereal joy from reading great works. It makes me think of Oscar Wilde’s apt quote describing cynics, “A man who knows price of everything and the value of nothing”. Is literature about quantification, page numbers, word count? How does one measure the poignancy of sentence or weigh the emotional resonance of an image? I think there might be a fear in today’s educational community that children will one day lose interest in reading with all of the distractions out there.

There’s a great Bernard Malamud short story called “A Summer’s Reading” about a teenage boy who wants to read his way through the library. His neighbor is impressed and says that one day he’d love to sit down with the boy to discuss the books. Well, the kid doesn’t read as he said he would, but feels terribly guilty every time he passes his neighbor. Late one night, while the kid is loping through the neighborhood he sees his neighbor who’s drunk. The man gives the kid some change to buy an ices. Not necessarily a transformative moment, but it is for the kid. The weight of his own worries and a grave need to take personal responsibility and better himself overcome him.

I identify with this story because I was never a big reader when I was a kid either, but when the day arrived that I was engrossed in books I couldn’t get enough. The words, the sentences, the emotions that erupted in me from reading challenged and changed me. In my mind, ratings would have made no difference for me. Maybe I'm being a cynic. I don’t know if this is the case for all kids, but I truly believe that reading for a literary experience should not be grounded in the metrics of scholastics, but should lean toward the sublime.


  1. How can I not respond to this one, being that I spend an exponential amount of my time trying to figure out how to tackle this double-edged sword? I think the secret lies in exposing emerging readers more to the sublime than to the metrics. I read enticing excerpts from the heavy-weights, such as Ellison's Invisible Man, then read empty blurbs of the pop fluff de jour--ie Twilight--then have them sit around in Socratic circle-type discussions and hash it out. The passion starts igniting, especially when they begin to realize that authors have different purposes, and usually the purpose for pop fluff is the dollar. Exposure coupled with in-depth discussion is key. Thanks for the read, now back to grading...

    "You cannot depend on your eyes if your imagination is out of focus." Mark Twain

  2. How do you propose to teachers to set quantifiable goals for students without metrics?

    Thanks for the ivory-tower comments. Come join us in the real-world. Try to manage a classroom of 30 kids once before you slam Accelerated Reader or teachers for that matter. Accelerated Reader has been a godsend for me. And rewards are a choice of each school and teacher, not something the software requires. How would software require that anyway? I choose to not use extrinsic rewards with my students, but I can see where doing so would be very effective, especially with kids who don't get much encouragement at home (and there are LOTS of them). Yes, it would be a great utopian world if kids just read for the joy of it, but they generally don't. At least by getting them to read, we have the chance of getting them to read for the intrinsic joy of it. Susan Straight doesn't know what she is talking about and her story is based on her subjective opinion which doesn't even include her actually using the software herself. Be careful before you just swallow her story, hook line and sinker...

  3. I have 119 eighth graders, 24 in each class (except one w/ 23). I have to work really hard in my ivory tower to do what I do, but nonetheless, I do it and it produces what PaperCut here is yearning for...an extrinsic love (or at least acceptance) of fine literature. I remember being a victim of Accelerated Reader in school, and being severely dyslexic, I grew to despise reading, especially when we were timed to do so. It wasn't until 11th grade that I began to love
    literature...thanks to Ms. Gerber, an unconventional teacher who did our classroom of 35 exactly what I'm doing now in mine.

  4. Well it only takes a fifth grader using common sense to understand Susan Straight's article.

    Hmmm let's see: It's bad to make kids set goals, measuring and accountability are a cardinal sin, we should make 7th graders read Hamlet and not something they like to read like Harry Potter, and the drivel goes on and on. Does she even realize that very few schools use AR over 7th or 8th grade. She thinks gradeschool and middle school kids are going to learn to love reading by trying to read the classics at an early age? She's just lashing out at AR because no one buys and reads her books - LOL. The software is just a tool. Teachers are responsible for what their students read, the goals they set for them and for intervening if they need reading intervention. And, the software helps to do all of those things. The beauty of this software is that it doesn't purport to teach your kids and it lets teachers teach.

  5. Like surgeons, we have to be able to use the best tools to get the results we want.

  6. 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: