Why I believe AR is bad for literacy and bad for students
When I talk to people about AR (Accelerated Reader), they either love it or hate it. I definitely agree with the latter. Every time I think I have effectively stamped out use of AR in my school, it rears its ugly little head again and I am forced to fight another round of the battle. It’s tiring, but I must stand on the front lines for literacy!
What is AR?
If you’ve never heard of AR, you either live under a rock or you haven’t be anywhere near an elementary/middle school in over fifteen years. AR is a program that quizzes children on books they have read to award points for the book. The child must read a book on his or her approved, tested reading level. The quizzes focus on small details of the book, in order to test if the child has actually read the material. Points are awarded based on how many questions the child gets right, and they receive zero points if they fail to answer 70% of the questions correctly. Many schools award prizes to top readers. In addition, they often let children use points to “shop” at an AR store for toys and supplies or other rewards. Many classroom teachers required minimum numbers of AR points for grades in the classroom.
The folks that love AR have good intentions. They believe that AR pushes reluctant readers to read and rewards regular readers for their efforts. I agree that there are some children out there who are motivated by AR and it changes their lives. Teacher like the ease of record keeping: the AR program lets kids take the quizzes and reports all points to the teacher. Teachers have these great stories about kids devouring books and racking up points. They love the feeling that kids are getting excited about reading (joy!).
However, if we look deeper into AR we see that there is more to the story…and it ain’t pretty.
Why It Fails Our Students
AR is, by its very nature, a system of providing extrinsic motivation and extrinsic rewards for reading. A very, very expensive system with very, very expensive rewards. Though I think intrinsic motivation is fabulous and preferred in most situations, I do recognize that extrinsic motivation is sometimes necessary. But do we really want children to read just because the get a cheap trinket? And can we really afford to keep doing so in this economy?
AR is expensive and time consuming. First, a school must buy the program and pay to support it each year. Then the school must buy a test for every library book purchased. At around $2.99 a pop, these tests don’t come cheap. For the price of five AR tests, an additional fiction book could be purchased for the library instead. The rewards are expensive, too. I did AR for one year, and it ate up a lot of my (very valuable) time. I had to put reading-level dots on the books, manually enter the 6th graders into the program, collect donations and supplies for the AR store each semester, shut down the library to run the store for six instructional days, and keep track of all the kids points from purchases.
But even if AR were free, the program still doesn’t work. It provides a short-term incentive to read, which disappears as soon as the reward is no longer available. Yes, kids may read more to rack up points…but they don’t enjoy it more and they don’t become life-long readers. And let’s not even talk about the cheating! I have heard stories from my friends about how they cheated by taking tests for friends, watching the movie for a popular book, or looking up the test answers online. One friend even said he cheated his way to the #1 spot for points in the school! Even though it’s not technically cheating, I also used to see students cruising the stacks for the books with the highest point values. If I had a dollar for every kid who picked up Harry Potter and the Order of Phoenix without reading the first four novels in the series, I’d have enough money to take myself to a nice dinner.
What bothers me most about AR is the insistence that kids read books on their reading level. It SUCKS to be restricted in reading choices. Think about it: if you were told, right now, that you could only read books on your reading level, would you be happy? I’d be stuck reading dissertations all day because I doubt there is any fiction on my reading level readily available to me. Most popular fiction is written on a fifth or sixth-grade reading level. For my middle school students, that meant that the reading pickins’ were slim. Even for an elementary school student, the selection would be about 12% of the entire library. I see teachers tell kids every day that they can’t read a book because it’s too easy or too hard. These kids end up picking something less interesting, and then trudging through it to earn their points. Is that really how the world works?
Think about why you read. Do you read because you get tangible rewards? Probably not. You read because you need to or want to learn something for yourself or a class. You read because your friend recommended a great book. You read because you want to read the book before you see the movie. You read because you’re in a book club. You read to escape, to heal, to experience, and to pass time. We need to work on taking the time and thought to encourage the same for children by modeling our love for reading, providing access to varied and intriguing reading material, and making reading a more social experience. We need to make sure that the kids can read, and work on basic skills if they can’t. Dangling a carrot is not the solution.
Don’t Just Take My Word For It
Read the research on AR and reading motivation if you want to see for yourself. I feel like a broken record every time I say, “AR is not a research-based strategy.” Here’s my evidence to support my claim:
and a few more, from the general web: