One of the biggest challenges for educators has consistently been getting students excited about reading. Once children pass the initial hurdle of learning to read, it can seem impossible to encourage them to continue to read.
Generally, students are uninterested in established, “school approved” books, making it difficult to get a whole class to read the material. Students are commonly interested in newly released or less well known books, and therefore have not been reviewed by educators. This poses the challenge of how to test students on their comprehension of the material or how to chart their reading ability.
While many programs have tried to introduce new ways to make reading fun, one particular program has sustained popularity for over 30 years. Accelerated Reader (AR), from Renaissance Learning, aims to encourage independent study through personalized reading lists and flexible lesson plans.
Accelerated Reader began life as a teaching prototype software in 1984, which was introduced to schools in 1986. The web-based program tests students' reading ability, recommending books from a curated list which are appropriate for their reading level. From there, students work with teachers and parents to set personal goals in reading comprehension.
Students begin by taking the STAR Reading Test, which is a multiple-choice exam that adjusts the difficulty based on the student’s responses, making it more difficult in response to correct answers, and vice versa. Upon completion, the student is given a Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) score, which determines the range of books they can read that will challenge them without being frustrating.
From here, students work with teachers to pick books that not only fit within their ZPD range, but also interest them personally. AR’s reading list includes over 180,000 fiction and non-fiction books for all levels of education and reading ability.
Each book has an Automated Technical Order System (ATOS) level that determines the difficulty of the text. For example, Roald Dahl’s classic story Charlie and the Chocolate Factory has an ATOS level of 5.7, meaning the book is appropriate for fifth grade students during their seventh month at school. This score is merely a suggestion though, and teachers can work with their students to determine what reading level best suits them.
The list of AR reviewed books is large and diverse. They range from early reading like Dr. Seuss and Curious George, to more advanced reading material like the Warriors series, or even young adult novels like Never Let Me Go.
Renaissance Learning hosts a website where anyone can search by book title, author name, and even ISBN number, to find out if a particular book has been reviewed for the AR program.
AR also comes with a points system for each book, keeping a score for each student based on the number of books they read and their difficulty. These “AR Points” are based on the ATOS level along with the length of the book based on the number of words.
A parents’ guide published by Renaissance Learning compares a Berenstain Bears book and a Hank the Cowdog book as an example. The Berenstain Bears book is around 1,000 words long and has an ATOS level of 3.5, making it worth 0.5 points. The Hank the Cowdog book has about 23,000 words and a level of 4.5, making it worth 3 points.
Students earn these points based on their performance on a comprehensive test given after they finish the book. These tests measure the student’s comprehension of the material, with the score representing the total amount of points they can earn from their correct answers.
While these scores may inherently create competition that can possibly get out of hand or discourage students moving at different paces, Renaissance Learning discourages giving out prizes based on scores. They state on their website “Renaissance Learning does not require or advocate the use of incentives with the assessment, although it is a common misperception.”
Using the scores from these tests, and generally monitoring the individual advancement of each student, teachers can determine how effectively students are learning and improving their reading skills. From here, teachers can set up goals and adjust them accordingly, giving both teacher and student a fair amount of freedom in how they want to teach and learn the material.
AR normally encourages independent reading, recommending teachers to allow for 30-60 minutes of in-class reading time each day. Teachers can work with students who possibly need more help, either reading with students or assigning partners for those who are not quite ready to read on their own.
The program is freeform enough to allow modifications like this. This set-up gives students the ability to find a book they’re interested in and most likely on their reading level, while also providing teachers with the necessary data to either determine how students are advancing, or at least give them enough information to create unique lesson plans for each student.
In 2014, Renaissance introduced Accelerated Reader 360, a web-based version of the program that included non-fiction material and a dashboard for both teachers and parents to help monitor students’ individual progress.
With 360, when a student finishes reading, they are given specialized recommendations based on what they’ve read in the past. It also suggests various articles and other non-fiction material related to topics discussed in the book.
The teachers dashboard gives more detailed data that can be organized in a variety of ways. They can view data from individual students, the class, and even from the school or district to see a wider range of results.
While Accelerated Reading is used nationwide in thousands of schools, many parents, teachers, and education bloggers have brought forth criticisms towards Renaissance Learning’s programs and rating scale.
In 2010, Mark Pennington wrote a blog post detailing 18 reasons why schools should not use AR. Many of his issues stem from the AR points earned from quizzes and the competitiveness these points inherently create.
Pennington argues that because of the point values applied to these books, and how progress is often measured by how many points are earned, students will form tactics to earn points rather than enhance their reading ability.
He quotes one parent who says “[My son] continually read books very much below his ability NOT because he likes reading them, but because he could read them quickly and get points. Other books that he told me he really wanted to read, he didn’t either because they were longer and would take ‘too long to read’ or they weren’t on the AR list.”
In one case, a teacher wrote that students who did not meet their AR requirements for the week were not able to participate in a school-wide “Fun Friday”, which rewards students who have completed their assignments or not misbehaved.
“As an educator, it concerns me when I see students being punished with reading,” wrote this teacher.
Pennington also argues that the quizzes encourage students to retain and rephrase information from books rather than truly comprehend them. As he states “With AR the purpose for reading is clear to most students: PASS THE READING PRACTICE QUIZZES WITH HIGH SCORES TO CONVERT TO THE MOST POINTS.”
Pennington brings up many valid concerns, and it’s clear many teachers and parents share these concerns as he quotes from a pool of sources. These concerns seem to come down to issues with how the program is used rather than with the program itself.
Accelerated Reader can be a fantastic tool that sparks an interest and even a love for reading in students, expanding their horizons while also giving educators necessarily data or information that can give a better insight into the progress students are making.
Yet, AR is not something that works on its own. Students can’t simply be given a list of books with accompanying quizzes and be expected to become better readers in one school year. Teachers also can’t only read the numbers received from short quizzes to determine to overall progress each student is making.
In order for AR to be effective, teachers need to use it as a tool in their vast arsenal.
Teachers should work with students on an individual level, meeting with them when they choose a book and after they take a quiz. If the points create competitiveness, teachers should use the scores as goals rather than a competition, explaining to children and parents how everyone reads at their own pace.
Teachers could also have students talk to each other about the books they read so they discuss the material rather than just hold onto the information until the quiz is over, or provide their own quizzes on top of the AR approved ones, combining the scores to get a personalized idea of how well a student is doing.
Parent-teacher meetings should be used to get a sense of how effective the lessons are at home, and talk with students to receive feedback on classroom activities. From here, teachers can adjust how AR is used in the classroom, incorporating their own lesson plans, establishing new goals, or even using the points in different ways entirely.
These are only a handful of suggestions, and not every plan can work in every classroom, but AR allows for a ton of flexibility, and teachers are the masters at testing the limits of education.
Like with all teaching tools and programs, Accelerated Reader is most effective when both teachers and parents become involved in individual students learning. Teaching children is hard work, and not everything is going to work, requiring constant discussions and adjustments AR can provide an easier, more effective way to encourage reading and monitor progress, but it’s nothing without engaged educators and parents willing to listen to and work with students.
If you would like to learn more about the Accelerated Reader program, Renaissance Learning hosts many guides and tips on their website. Teachers and parents can also buy AR reviewed books from The Book Bundler website in large bundles, ensuring students have a variety of fantastic books to choose from.
Sam Goodrich grew up reading to pass the time in school, seeing it as a way to entertain himself after a test. Now he's become a writer himself, hoping to expose the positive sides of media. When he's not writing about books, Sam is watching every movie, playing a few games, and trying to find ways to talk about them with anyone who will listen. His other work can be found on his portfolio website: https://goodrichsamuel.