Could Accelerated Reader be holding children’s reading back?

30 Mar 2021, 5:00

The ubiquitous algorithm to improve children’s reading is a blunt tool that could be doing more harm than good, writes Shivan Davis

Allow me to lay my cards on the table: I don’t like Accelerated Reader. I don’t trust the accuracy of its Star Reader test. I don’t think their quizzes prove a student has actually read a book. Nor do I like withdrawing my students from lessons every half term to track their literacy rates. I resent having to trudge through endless sheets of figures, and I am convinced the money thrown at the programme could be better spent.

Of course, I am all in favour of encouraging independent reading and cultivating a culture in which the school library is seen as the beating heart of a school. But I question our blind trust in programmes like AR to recommend texts, track student progress and guide us in setting homework.

At my previous school, AR became a cornerstone of the English department. Almost immediately after its introduction, one lesson a week was given over to independent reading in the library and a policy of setting fortnightly reading homework was instituted.

Unsurprisingly, library lessons were an instant hit with students. Even more unsurprisingly, it was often not for the right reasons. Students used the lessons as an opportunity to have discrete conversations, play games under the tables or simply stare into space. While AR probably benefitted a minority who already read fluently and for pleasure, it did nothing for the vast majority who didn’t.

Library lessons were an instant hit, but not for the right reasons

AR is a blunt tool. Like all blunt tools, connecting it to sanctions only leads to perverse incentives. If students are expected to read a book a fortnight and take a test to prove they have read it, what happens? Students desperately take quizzes on books they haven’t read. And teachers, believing in the columns of data output by AR, go on to shrug off the continuing appeal of Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Gangsta Granny. After all, the algorithm has determined these books to be within the students zone of proximal development.

So over time behaviour in reading ‘lessons’ improved. But the quality of the literature did not. Year 9s still read the works of Jeff Kinney and David Walliams and, lo and behold, their reading levels remained relatively low. Given how much curriculum time we allocate to independent reading, is it not incumbent upon us to search for a better solution?

Interviewed in these pages, the new president of the School Library Association, Richard Gerver worried that a consequence of budget restraints could be that “one of the first things to go might be the trained librarian”. It is a grim prediction, and one all too likely to come to fruition in a sector that invariably looks to the latest digital product for solutions.

As a profession, we need to think more deeply about trade-offs and opportunity cost. In the case of reading programmes like AR, the opportunity cost is huge. For every minute spent on it, a minute of curriculum time spent on a challenging text with a subject specialist teacher is lost. So too is the whole-school influence of a passionate librarian.

The personalisation on offer from such data-driven systems is a sham. Not only can an algorithm not replace qualified professionals, but reading can’t be reduced to an individual practice. We should read more books as a whole class, guide our students in grappling with complicated narrative structures, idiosyncratic narrative perspectives, enigmatic plots and multi-faceted characters.

David Didau argues schools would be better off spending their budget on a collection of set texts for each year group – “books we decide all our students have an entitlement to”. To narrow the reading gap, he encourages us to model reading aloud instead of opting for independent reading. My experience of AR convinces me he is right.

Many schools halt any effort to foster reading at key stage 4, in part because of the dent AR leaves in their budgets. But what improvement might we see across the curriculum if we truly valued collective reading over data harvesting?

When it comes to teaching, knowledge is power, but data is not intelligence.

Your thoughts

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  1. Accelerated Reader supports the central relationship between teacher and student. Software cannot and should not replace that. We agree that students endlessly quizzing can simply produce spreadsheet data, and this is why the teacher and librarian are so important.

    Schools should use data to understand where their students are and as a jumping off point to discuss books and suggest new ones. Reading in a space which is not effectively supervised like the one Shivan describes is unlikely to be effective.

    Accelerated Reader provides an indication of how each pupil’s reading compares to the national range, as well as a selection of books they should be able to access without frustration. But we never prescribe or restrict choice. We want teachers and librarians to be able to suggest new texts based on what students would enjoy and what would stretch them. That’s what our guidance recommends.

    Our software is designed to work for teachers and librarians to instil precisely the reading culture Shivan discusses – including whole-class reading of classic texts. Happily, schools that adopt Accelerated Reader buy more books, lend more books and make the role of librarian even more important.

    Long may that continue.

    John Moore, UK Director, Renaissance

  2. Joanna Shardlow

    Well said Shivam Davis! As a retired Ks1 teacher
    I remember the joy of shared reading and the excited realisation when a child had become Reading Ready. There then followed a steady process in which children discovered the written word and using it as a key to access an exciting medium of communication, information and magic!!
    Teaching professionals experienced in guiding children through the pathways of reading do not need the the evidence of testing. They share the children’s experience and guide them to the next step. Constant testing is time consuming and may only confirm what the experienced teacher already knows.
    Shared storytime with all Primary aged children at the end of the day is an activity which I do miss.
    Happy and stress-free reading to everyone!
    Joanna Shardlow

  3. Eimante

    I never liked AR and discussed about this with the head teacher, but unfortunately parents don’t have much of choice. There are lots of brilliant books to read for children but not all of them have quizzes, so children refuse to read these books as they “don’t count”. I don’t believe one test can show child’s reading level. There should be a list of mandatory literature for all year groups to read. Some children are only reading Horrid Henry and getting 100% every time and that doesn’t mean their reading level is higher than children who read various literatures and are not necessarily getting 100%.

  4. I disagree. AR is fine if it is used appropriately. My son’s school expect every child to read for 20 mins at home, every day. Parents are encouraged to be proactive to achieve this. School lessons are not used exclusively for AR, although there are obviously some slots of time that they do read independently, whole lessons do not revolve around AR. My son reads a wide range of books on the system and the school celebrate his reading with certificates. He also reads books outside AR, his teacher doesn’t stop him reading other books. The children who need more support receive it, as the teachers are able to identify the children who are doing fine and do not need so much help. Lessons are used to look at texts in depth and read as a group. Maybe some teachers are using AR to replace teaching when it should only be used to encourage independent reading.

  5. Courtney Northcutt

    My sons have had great success using AR, but their school uses it to their advantage instead of allowing it to constrict reading. Independent reading is often optional homework so it doesn’t take up a tremendous amount of instructional time, although their teachers do encourage independent reading at school when possible. Read alouds are used at school and at home and students can still earn points for that. My boys love the light competition of earning points, but also have developed a love of reading and read books that do not have quizzes if they want. We only take ZPD as a suggestion and barely let it guide our choices. I let my boys read endless amounts of Jeff Kinney and similar “junk” which developed their decoding skills and gave them confidence in their reading ability until they could handle more on their own. This only works if quality read alouds are used to provide a more well-rounded reading diet. Just as I am allowed to modify recipe instructions when preparing a meal, we mold AR to benefit us and not to let it dominate our reading lives. Parents must participate in developing readers.

  6. H Smith

    Extremely damaging application in the wrong hands and I say this from experience. A teacher was adamant that my child couldn’t read because she tested badly (high anxiety). When she started the program she flew through it. But then a teacher humiliated her in frnt of the class and dropped her from 3.5 to 2.5 to teach her a lesson.
    With support and complaining she clawed back those levels. But the damage was done. Subsequently she has now been on level 4.5 for 2 years. Our school does not use the program how it should be used. Books are allowed to be looked at for the answers. Children are not given a range of levels to read from. And unless they get 100% on 3 books at the level they have been allocated then they don’t move. And this 3 book pass system resets so they never really get the chance to move up. We have no say as parents with regards to this system being used with our children or not.
    I’m sure that it could be a helpful tool in the right hands but unfortunately that simply isn’t the case for all schools.
    The experience of a good teacher should never be dismissed over a computer program.

  7. ‘While AR probably benefitted a minority who already read fluently and for pleasure,’
    Sadly it doesn’t do this. my daughter was in this category, as we’re many of her friends. They all reported that AR sucked the pleasure out of reading, and to them it became a chore that they only completed the required minutes of. Furthermore, it meant although they were at the top ‘tier’ of the system, there was a very limited and somewhat boring selection of books they could choose from.

  8. Susan

    My son had been doing AR for about a fortnight, when he said to me “but I dont have to read the book, I just have to do the quiz”…. i pointed this out to the teacher, and she said she would keep an eye on his reading. But can they focus on one when they have a whole class to watch? he kept choosing books we have at home and he had read to him many times before.

  9. As a TA with a BA, I was charged with overseeing the AR scheme at a primary school a few years ago. Quantities of mediocre, light / popular fiction were ordered for the scheme, the preparation of which (laminating, labelling, levelling) took up hours and hours of the TA’s time. As there were weekly leader boards the rewarded reading behaviours seemed to be speed and competitiveness (and cheating) rather than immersion or comprehension, or any degree of critical engagement.

    I was trained in other literacy strategies; in particular Reciprocal Reading which involves small groups of readers working closely with a TA or other trained adult and focuses on four key reading skills (prediction, questioning, clarification , summarising). Once you get the idea you’re ready to go – once the children grasp the strategies they can take turns at leading the group and the quality of their independent reading is improved. The cost is in TA’s time but better spent than in processing box after box of books or in the yearly renewal of licenses.

    Whichever reading scheme they were engaged in, children loved the library -the independence of going along to change their books, the browsing, the positive interactions they experienced, the clubs that took place there – but after I left, I heard the school closed the library altogether.

    If you want to improve literacy and develop a love of reading invest in training your TAs, hiring qualified library staff and nurturing volunteers and not in expensive, superficial schemes that reward suspect behaviours. Independent reading is rooted in a shared experience of enjoying books so why not start with story time?

  10. Lesley Kraushaar

    As a retired Primary Teacher I am very disappointed by the lack of good texts for the children. Reading only modern popular books closes the door on a vast treasury of more difficult language and the lives of those who lived before us. Reading for me from an early age provided golden moments I will always remember. There was the junior school student teacher who read to us Wind in the Willows. To this day I feel the summer sun through the windows whilst listening. Please don’t destroy our children’s reading future by using technology that only tells a teacher what they already know about their pupils.

  11. Jeanette Larson

    I can’t believe this is still being debated. Years (decades) ago Betty Carter wrote about the horrors of AR. I watched an author try to take a “test” on her own book. She failed to answer several questions. I saw kids pass over books they wanted to read because it did not offer enough points. Stop testing and allow reading!

  12. Dan Ogden

    I adamantly disagree. AR must be used APPROPRIATELY. It must be a low-stress tool and incentivized.

    For example, allow points to count as extra credit and give rewards or prizes when students earn points.

    Reading is so important that if a student chooses reading over other English homework, that should not be looked down upon. There is no substitute for reading, and the simple act of engaging in it is so much more beneficial than any English lesson or homework assignment will ever achieve.

    That said, there is no substitute for actually getting a child interested in reading. Teachers must find out what students are interested and guide them to books that fit those interests. One of the most damaging things a teacher can do is force students to read things they aren’t interested in. Not only will they fail to do so, they’ll also grow to resent reading. I don’t care if it’s Goosebumps, Harry Potter, Twilight, The Hunger Games or some other fictional book that teachers deem as not being difficult enough, reading is reading. The teacher should just make sure it’s at least somewhat appropriate for the child’s age.

  13. Thomas Connolley

    As a parent of a Key stage 2 student, I’ve been concerned for zone time about the use of Accelerated Reader. My child enjoys reading, but is being pushed to achieve “Word Millionaire” status. This is potentially restricting their reading choice to texts that are on AR. We use the local library as well, and most recently published books chosen are not on AR yet. I’ve nominated books on AR. No quizzes available yet after a year! Also, my child is reading some appropriate factual books intended for adults that will never be on AR. School teachers tell us that all reading is good, but things like newspapers and magazines don’t count. Like most assessment systems, you only get what you measure, and in this case the drive seems to be measuring quantity, not quality and variety of reading.

    • Robbie Fry

      I allow my students to use their book to look back for answers. This is the most challenging part of comprehension during the second to third grade transition. After a few weeks, my students rely less on looking back in their books. With the pandemic and other uncontrollable circumstances, this is the least I can do to help my students gain what they’ve lost.

  14. My three children have attended a primary school that uses AR. My children are all keen readers and I don’t apply restrictions to which children’s books they read. However at school, the system is applied in a very lazy way. It seems to have replaced professional judgement and staff apply it blindly, limiting children’s access to books considered outside their reading level. At one point children were being told off for reading Harry Potter during AR sessions and not the books that had been prescribed to them.

    Parents have complained to me how the system has zapped their children’s enthusiasm for reading. My own son was becoming stressed over the never ending need to test on books and to not be able to simply relax and take in the story. I battled to remove my kids from the system as the school was adamant that it was for their own good. I won that battle and my son was removed for it for the last 2 years of primary school. Incidentally, although his AR teacher had threatened that he would fall behind and be unable to successfully do comprehension tasks, at the end of the year he got the highest reading score on his end of school tests.

    In my opinion AR is a symptom of an over reliance on technology and a move away from the professional judgment of teaching staff. As already highlighted in the comments, kids can cheat the system thus making a mockery of its whole purpose. The system is unsophisticated and certainly in our case, simply became a lazy way to stratify children and tick boxes.

  15. Fiona Brady

    I am coordinator for The Children’s Book Award, the only national award that is voted for entirely by children. We are sent books by the publishers every year and take them into schools for the children to read and review. My local school has been an active participant in the award until they introduced AR during lockdown. They will not take part in the award now because the only books the children are allowed to read in school are ones on the AR list. As a retired school librarian I find this an incredibly short sighted and restrictive practice. Is this really how this scheme should work? It seems to me that to encourage a life long love if reading for pleasure, children should be able to choose from a much wider range of books. As a retired school librarian with more than 20 years experience, I find this approach very sad. The school now only purchases books if they are on the list.