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Reward or Punishment

I have been a special educator for over 25 years. I have seen quite the gamut of reading incentive programs in that amount of time. Teachers have tried several different strategies and programs to make readers out of students who really didn’t love reading.

One program that is being used today and has been used for most of my teaching career is Accelerated Reader (AR). This program is managed by Renaissance and I believe when this program is done in the way the company advertises and the program founders intended it is a wonderful program.

The program advertises it is a great way to “Motivate, monitor, and manage students’ independent reading practice with AR and watch as students develop a true love for reading.” The program is set up so that each of the 180,000 books within the program is given a reading level and a number of points. The reading level is so students pick books that are not too hard or too easy for them. A STAR test is given periodically throughout the year to determine a students’ reading level. The points are what getting a 100% on a quiz based on the book will earn the student. “Monitoring AR points earned by children and comparing them to the guideline values enables your child’s teacher and librarian to determine how well your child is using the time provided for reading practice.” “Your child should have at least 35 minutes set aside for reading during each school day” in order to see the greatest gains from the program, according to the website.

This sounds like a wonderful program. The tests given to determine reading level and the quizzes for each book are helpful in determining where a child needs help, if they need it. The design of the program is to give children time each day to read something that piques their interest. For my daughter this program neither helped or hindered her. She was an avid reader before the program and is still an avid reader. However, for many, many, students, this program is not being used properly.

I have seen way too many schools where AR is being used that it becomes a punishment. The school decides to use AR and tells the teachers they must implement it in some way. The teachers have so many subjects to teach, so many students to deal with, so much paperwork, etc., that they have relegated AR to just another grade or thing that must be done. Schools use the points to reward good readers with prizes and parties but for non-readers or struggling readers this program becomes a punishment. Students, at least in the schools where I have seen the program, have to earn a certain number of points per quarter. This number is based on the teacher’s opinion as well as the data from the STAR test. At some grades not only do they have to earn a certain number of points to receive prizes, it is part of their grade for the quarter. I have seen students missing recesses to read (because that instills a love of reading) in order to achieve their AR goal. I recently had several parents tell me that out of 20 students, 16 had to miss the Christmas party because they did not have their AR points for the quarter. Not only did they have to miss the party, they were expected to read during the time the other 4 students got to relax and enjoy a party (again because that instills a love of reading).

The AR program has 180,000 quizzes according to their website. That is quite a lot, I admit, however, there are over 300,000 books printed in the United States alone every year. I am not faulting the company, they do a wonderful job of getting quizzes out as quickly as possible while keeping the intent of the program in mind. I am faulting school districts for making this program the only way a student can earn prizes and points. Most of the students I have worked with over the years are struggling readers. I have seen the ugly side of how this program that was designed to encourage a love of reading has done just the opposite.

Some students have to spend hours every night just reading and rereading their subjects’ homework pages in order to comprehend. There is no compensation for that. Not only is their no compensation for it, they are then expected to read something “for fun” so they can earn those points. Some students have a much lower reading level than their age level, so what interests them and what they are allowed to read is not the same. Often times these students get picked on or made fun of because they are only allowed to read ‘little kid’ books when they are in grades 5, 6, 7, or 8. Other students who are great readers, like my daughter, have a reading level much higher than their age and are having to read books that have content that is not appropriate for the maturity level.

I have seen students put books back that they thought would interest them because it wasn’t an AR book. I have seen students find short books with fewer points because they knew they would be able to remember the content, earn their points, and get the reward (prizes, party, good grade). I have seen students intentionally do poor on the STAR test so their reading level and points required are easier to attain (which is why teacher opinion plays into the number of points required). Many magazines would be great resources but because they don’t have an AR quiz for the stories in them, kids don’t choose them.

I live in rural America where hunting, fishing, sports, farming, and being outdoors is what interests many students. I believe that if school districts truly want to grow a love of learning, they must find ways to include items that are not found in AR.

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