Thoughts on AR

This info is more for parents and teachers, because I hear lots of conflicting information about AR and how it is used.  Here are some of my thoughts on the program and how it works (or is supposed to work, at any rate): 

You may have noticed that I have been posting AR levels for the books I’ve been reading.  I used to be completely anti-Accelerated Reader, but then over the last year or so, I’ve gained more training and instruction on how to use it more effectively, and that has changed my mind a bit.  Most of my negative feelings came from others trying to rigidly enforce the program without actually using it correctly.  I’m sure this is due to lack of training, because I had never been taught how to manipulate the program. (In fact, at one of my previous schools the librarian ran the whole shebang and I never saw any of the inner workings at all.)  I’ve also heard many sad stories from frustrated parents who have kids being told that they “can’t” read particular books because they are over/under their reading level.  This year we arranged to do an online support seminar with a consultant who taught us some tricks for making AR work correctly.  I’m still not 100% behind using points to motivate reading, but I have seen many positive results after implementing AR in my classroom over the last year.

Complaint: Teachers tend to assign a random number of required points to ALL students, regardless of reading level.  That’s not fair!  (Points are related to the length and complexity of the books, and then students earn some or all of the possible points when they take an online quiz after they have finished reading the book.)  Some students will never get close to 30, 40, 50+ points over the whole year, let alone over a trimester.  And then to hinge a reading grade upon such a lofty goal can set students up to fail, even if they are working to the best of their abilities.  This can also cause students to cheat to try to get more points, and we don’t want that either.  It shouldn’t be so hard as to be discouraging.

Fix: Surprise! There is a way to set individual goals for each student.  The program will even do it for you!  The kids take the STAR test to get a baseline reading level.  The teacher enters the reading level, punches in the required minutes of reading per day, and taaa-daaa! Out pops their own special points goal and the computer tracks their progress.  Everyone is reading at their own level and pace.  The teacher then gives a percentage grade based on meeting that goal.  When you tell a student that their goal is 12 or 15 points instead of 30, a huge weight is lifted from their shoulders.  They can read more carefully and enjoy what they read, instead of cramming in more books and trying to fake their way through the quiz to earn points.

Complaint: The STAR test gives a reading level “window” that is called the ZPD (Zone of Proximal Development, in teacher lingo.)  It will give a low-end level and a high-end level.  In between is the zone where students’ comprehension will be at its strongest and where they will get the most out of the book.  The level is based on two main things, namely the difficulty of the vocabulary and number of words in the book. Some teachers and librarians will not allow their students to read or check out any books outside of their prescribed AR level.  That’s not cool!  Saying that the majority of the books in the library are off- limits just breaks my heart!  One “library lady” that I know used to say that if a kid wanted to check out War and Peace and feel empowered by carrying it around, then let them for goodness’ sake! I wholeheartedly agree.

(Parents, do know that a book might be written at a level that matches your student’s ability, but the content of the book may still be too advanced or mature for their age.  Be familiar with the books your child is reading.  Ask to see their silent reading book/AR book/book report book and flip through the pages.  Some young adult literature can be very edgy and address difficult topics that you may not be comfortable having your child read without your guidance.)

Fix: I only set my students lower-end level for AR quizzes and leave the high-end wide open.  Kids can’t test any lower than their low score, but they are free to try ANY book that catches their fancy from that level on up.  They can even read lower books if they want to, but they just can’t take the quiz to earn points.  (For example, the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books are really funny, but come up a little low for many of my students.  That doesn’t seem to deter them because they love those books anyway and are willing to read them for no incentive points.  That’s reading for pleasure and that’s what the end game should be all along.)

Bonus: Whenever I had a few spare moments this year, I leveled my classroom library, using colored stickers to make it easy for students to identify their focus when searching for something to read.  Our school libraries tend to be leveled in the same way, so the kids are familiar with this kind of visual clue.  It helps them narrow down their choices quickly instead of standing at the bookshelf and wasting their silent reading time…stalling, stalling, stalling.  The unexpected bonus for me was that it makes shopping for new books so easy!  I tend to pick up books that I want to read, but now I can look quickly at the shelf and realize that I need more “yellow” or “pink” leveled books.  When students order through the Scholastic book club, I can browse the website by reading level and throw a few extras in my shopping cart for the classroom.

Bonus: If you have students take the STAR test each quarter (or trimester), you can recalibrate their reading levels and AR goals, which are hopefully going up over the course of the year.  There is a nifty report that will make a graph showing change over time, which is a nice visual so the kids can actually see their progress.  I printed out a graph for each student and noted their updated reading level and goal right on the report for them, which they could then keep in their binders for reference.

Bonus: I use the website to see if a particular book is an AR book, what level it is rated, and how many points it is worth.  Anyone can use this site, and if you have smartphone or if you are at the library, you can quickly look up a book before you buy or borrow.  Again, AR level is not the end-all-be-all for selecting a book, but it is a nice reference that the kids are used to when book browsing.  Sometimes fun books are just for fun,  and not every book in the world will be in the AR program, especially if it is a newer book.

All in all, I’m happy with the way that AR has given more structure to my students.  It gives me a way to monitor their independent reading progress. They are more focused and more productive.  They read more books from cover to cover, instead of book-hopping all over the place.  And even when they meet their goals, they keep reading to beat their own personal records.  This has been a win-win in my classroom!


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