Burning Question Thursday

I’m starting a new aspect of my blog today. I hope I get some feedback, and advice from and for it. Taking my cue and following the great lead of The Two Writing Teachers and their “Slice of Life Tuesday’s” I am going to be posting “Burning Question(s) Thursday’s.”

Every Thursday this summer (and maybe beyond) I am going to ask the blogging community, face book  friends, and whoever wants to join in questions about teaching, education, schools, curriculum, education blogs, and other questions that always seem to be burning in the back of my mind.

Because I work in such a small rural school district it is often hard to compare the way I teach and the types of things we use in our school to other schools and districts. That is why I love the blogging world so much. It opens my eyes to a whole different perspective than that I am accustomed to.

My first question is about reading. We are an Accelerated Reader or “AR” school. For those of you that don’t know what AR is, it is a computer generated program that tests students on books they have read. Wikipedia explains its purpose as:

Accelerated Reader is an assessment that primarily determines whether or not a child has read a book. The software provides additional information to students regarding reading rates, amount of reading, and other variables related to reading. Renaissance Learning does not require or advocate the use of incentives with the assessment, although it is a common misperception.[1] There are

three steps to using Accelerated Reader. First, students choose and read a fiction or non-fiction book, textbook, or magazine. Teachers monitor reading including guided, paired, literature-based, and textbook reading. Second, students take a quiz. Teachers can create their own quizzes for those not available in Accelerated Reader. Third, the teacher receives information that is intended to assist, motivate reading, monitor progress, and target instruction. Reports regarding reading level and comprehension skills are available through the software (Wikipedia 2011).

Our school uses it in almost every grade, and hosts a “reading challenge” each spring based on the number of points generated in a given time frame. I have to say as a whole we have very high standards for our small school, and we have always done very well on our API and state testing.

With that being said, each teacher seems to have their own way of using the program. Some use it only for the challenge. Some use it as supplement reading. Some use it as a percentage of the students reading grade, and some “make” students read by offering rewards or incentives if they meet their “goal.” Their goal is provided by the teacher and is based on the score of the STAR reading test, and ZPD range.

Many teachers love the program and feel it is the most effective way we have to get children to read, and monitor or check their comprehension. Some do not feel it is the best way to teach children to enjoy reading, and to “think about their reading.”

Ok it’s me. I just don’t feel the program actually checks for comprehension. I don’t feel it helps children relate to a book on a deeper level. I have yet to hear a child say “Oh I loved that book it made me think about when….” Or “I can really relate to the character in such and such book it was just like____.” But I do hear a lot of “how many points is that book worth.” Or “I’m not going to read that book yet, I only need 3 more points and I don’t want to waste them on that book,” and a ton of “I can’t read that, it’s not on my level.”

Many argue that it is the best way to “make” kids read, and that the questions test their comprehension. But is it really? If it is then wouldn’t every child be “making” their goal? Wouldn’t more children be asking to read instead of asking how many points they need? I worry that we are mistaking quantity for quality, and it’s our kids that are missing out.

So my burning question(s) is this: What are your thoughts on AR? Does your school use it? How is it used? Do you see or have you seen reading gains from it? And what other things do you use or do to encourage reading success?

I hope to see a wide range of answers to my “Burning Questions” each week. I hope to not only hear from teachers, coaches, bloggers, leaders, but parents, and students as well.

Thanks in advance for helping me “put out the fire.”

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11 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Your Brother on June 2, 2011 at 8:37 pm

    Well, I am not a teacher and do not use AR, but as you have described it here, I would not like it. IF you have some secrets to encourage reading I would like to know what they are because I know someone that could use some help in that regards. And his mother too. It is very frustrating to see him read something just enough (or not even enough) to get an answer to a question. Maybe it is the grade he is in, maybe it is the school system, but I remember having to write (hand written, no questions) book reports on books we read in Mrs. Ballassas 4th grade. Gavin on the other hand never came home with a book (much less multiple books) to read (although he somehow owed the library money for a lost book). As much as I use and embrace technology, I also think it is dumbing us down to the point of we will be nothing but mindless drones in the future.

    Reply

  2. Posted by Shirley Norwood Hoyle on June 2, 2011 at 10:34 pm

    The first thing that entered my mind as I read the description of the program was “but are they comprehending & enjoying any of it?” I agree with your observations that it all seems a competition and few are getting much value from this method. Think back to our high school days. “To Kill a Mockingbird” for example…. would you have a life long love of that book and that movie had it not been drilled into your head with daily discussions in class? Without group discussions about the content of that book do you really think you would have “gotten it” on your own? I think not,, it would have been a book about two kids who had a weirdo living next door to them and their dad was a lawyer who shot a dog… and Scout looked stupid in that costume. I think the group participation and the discussions provoked by books are a HUGE part of the tools necessary to expand yourself, your mind and get the benefit of seeing things from someone else’s perspective. I agree with Your Brother, above(although I’m not sure which one wrote it). I think the generation of mindless drones we are currently encountering SHOULD put down the game do-hickey (see I’m kinda proud to say I don’t know what they are even called) and pick up a book. But caution them first, do not throw them to the wolves, let them know they just might learn more than how to shoot and kill some little figure on a screen with 62 bullets and also ask them what, exactly, shooting the most little figures makes them the the Top Dog of?
    And “That’s all I have to say about that!”

    Reply

  3. Posted by Michelle Wells on June 3, 2011 at 12:56 am

    I liked the AR program as both a parent and an aide in a classroom. I do though recognize the concerns that you have as some of my own. The teacher I worked with was a veteran of more than 30 years and between us we devised a way to calm some of those concerns that you have… We would try to give children extra incentives for trying something that was more points (usually a longer book)and we also would have readers groups where the kids would discuss books that they had in common even in 1st grade you can do this by having them write down things they want to “test” the other kids about, this also helps some with remembering what they have read because they have “seen, written,and spoken”. We would also allow children to have their parents read books to them that were not their level about once a month… sometimes we did had to rachet that back to once a quarter because the book nazi in the library didn’t like that too much. If we noticed that there were a large number of books being read that were “low points” ususally “easy” we would “guide” those kids to other books by reading a short teaser from “harder” books right after lunch during that time when we were trying to settle the kids for their long afternoon. This served to both quiet the children and prepare them for the afternoon of hard work and peak their interest on something new. We did find at the school where I worked and my children attended that the test scores significantly improved when AR was implemented. One of the most satisfying parts of the AR program for our particular classroom which was a limited English class (we had about 10-14 of our 28 students who were English language learners and had some other language that was their native language)was that these children who were learning the language and therefore not able to necessarily read at their “grade level” were guided to the right place for them. For these children who were some of the most vocal about not being aloud the choose a book that was not their “level” we used AR as a part of the time I spent with them in the small groups working on their reading and writing skills by readig one of those books and then having them write down words they did not know and discussing them. It is a good program but like almost all education programs not perfect fit for everyone. Taht is where you as a creative and dynamic educator come in and make that difference!!!

    Reply

  4. Posted by from you Aunt Rosie on June 3, 2011 at 1:42 am

    I am not a teacher, but the use of AR as you have described seems a bit impersonal. For comprehension to take place it seems the old written book report was the way to go. Knowing a book report was going to be due at the end of an reading assignment made me think during my reading. It seems the teachers quizzes have replaced the book report. The thought process of the student is to pass a quiz and anything they may have taken from the book is lost in that translation. At least that is the way I see it.

    As to the other question: I do not know if our public school systems use AR, I will ask around and see if it is used here.

    When my sons were young, a certificate from the library was given on the number books read during the summer. The librarian suggested books and they felt important checking out books. From the start they wanted the certificate, but eventually their interest in reading became more of learning. They continue to read in their adult lives, questioning the author’s reasoning and content of the book or whatever they are reading. It does appear AR has a reward system, but is it enough to whet the appetite of young reader?

    I agree with the above poster. Technology is great but at times it is “dumbing us down.”

    Oh dear, This has raised up more questions in my mind than what you proposed on your blog.

    Reply

  5. Thanks so much for the replies. I should tell you that my own children went through the same school I teach at, and used the AR program throughout their years there and into their Junior High years in the larger school district. They are both very good readers. I have one child that loves to read, comprehends what she reads, and reads a lot. And the other that does not like to read, but reads very well and comprehends most everything he reads. Maybe the difference is girl and boy, or the fact that the son chooses to “get lost” in his guitar instead of a book. But if you were to ask them both if they “like” to read one would say yes and the other no.
    I’m with you Shirley nothing beats a good book discussion. And I know that most of our teachers do this in some way. They also include book reports and things such as making dioramas of a book they have read, or story maps and posters. So there is a wide range of alternate activity going on as well as AR. Which I’m sure besides AR is the reason for their success in other areas, and the fact that we have really good teachers and families at our school.
    In first grade AR gives the student more reading experience. They read the night before, and then again when they take the test, so there is a “doubling up” of reading and vocabulary. First graders usually LOVE to take AR tests. They fight over who is next. But I don’t offer rewards, nor do I punish if a goal is not met. We are just learning to read. Sometimes it’s the parent that stresses more about the testing outcome than me.
    I guess my question lays in the fact that somewhere between first and the upper grades kids tend to lose that excitement about reading, and struggle to meet the goals that are put in front of them. They are still reading, but not quite making the mark in terms of points needed to “succeed.”
    For instance a child may make 22 points out of the 23 needed to join in a “celebration” but because they did not hit the targeted goal they do not get to join in the celebration. And the consequence for not making their goal? To read. Those that made their goal get to “celebrate” and those that tried, but failed (according to the “goal’) are sent somewhere to read, or have to sit and watch as the others celebrate. They often lose recess time, gym time, and don’t get to join in school-wide activities because they haven’t met their goal.
    Some say that is the natural order of things. That it’s how life works and those consequences such as missing out on “fun things” is what happens when you don’t put forth the effort. To me that says your best effort means nothing unless you are perfect. How is that natural? I know very few perfect people out there.
    There can be any number of reasons a child is not reading and taking tests. Family values and other obligations are usually at the top of that list. Often time’s sports are more important than homework, grades, and reading. Parents don’t ask or care about their child’s homework –reading should be done at school. More time is spent in front of a television or computer than with a book it’s easier and takes less of the parents’ attention. The number one reason is probably communication between home and school. Because parents don’t take the time to read notes, ask questions or go to meetings it is often too late when they find out their child is behind.
    So from a parental standpoint I would say AR could be used more effectively. More discussion and involvement with goal setting, and more input and communication with the teacher throughout the semester, not just at the end when it is crunch time. Always ask the teacher’s view point on rewarding only those that hit the target dead on, with no benefit to those that come up short, but have worked to their best ability. Try to meet with other parents to find out their thoughts and feelings, and then ask to meet with the teacher or school officials if you feel it is unjust.
    Ways to help your child succeed in reading at any age:
    Modeling reading at home is a sure fire way to get kids interested in reading. Talking about what you are reading and what they are reading builds relationships with books and your child. Having a designated time every day to read, no TV, no phones, no computer for adults and student during that time sends the message you think reading is important. And don’t mistake the importance of sports for the importance of reading, learning, and good grades. There are very few that get sports scholarships to colleges without the grades to back it up. A child that plays sports probably spends five or more hours a week practicing his or her sport. Why shouldn’t they spend the same amount of time practicing reading?
    I loved the replies from everyone, and was glad to hear the input especially Michelle’s since she has worked with AR. But I’d still like to hear how educators and schools are using it, or what they use instead to promote reading.
    Already working on next Thursday’s “Burning Question” so stay tuned!

    Reply

  6. Posted by from you Aunt Rosie on June 4, 2011 at 10:09 pm

    Tammy, it was very interesting to learn how children are learning in this age. Amazing.

    Reply

  7. Posted by Michelle Wells on June 10, 2011 at 12:06 am

    Tammy… It has been awhile since I worked in the classroom but I seem to remember that the goals could be adjusted by the Teacher??? I seem to remember that we would have a “conference” with our students about once every 2 weeks (some less some more) to review their goals and see if they should be adjusted… sometimes when a child was reading a particularly challenging book I seem to remember one year when we had a few kiddos in 3rd grade trying to tackle Harry Potter and while they were staying on task and working hard these were long books that took time to read and were sometimes more challenging because of the unfamiliar vocabulary, when we had a child willing to work through that challenge we would allow an adjustment in the goals for that period of time, conversely if we felt like a child was “drowning” in wirardry and “not getting it” we would adjust the goal to allow for the time they spent reading a book that they would not end up taking a test on and help them choose something else to read and encourage them to go back to “Harry” after a little more practice.

    Reply

  8. Posted by Michelle on June 13, 2011 at 1:31 am

    So, we are also an AR school. It seems every teacher uses it in varying ways as you mentioned in your post. It seems there is a high expectation to utilize AR, but no one every really explains the importance or use of AR. I’m not a big fan either. The questions are very literal and there isn’t the deep thinking and wondering happening when kids read — they are only worried about the number of points. As a resource teacher, my role is different than a classroom teacher. But I have to support the teachers, so I had to jump on board. It breaks my heart when I’m walking through the library and teachers are yelling at kids that they didn’t read this week and they didn’t take AR tests. (First of all, I do believe it is OK to read a book or magazine that is not AR!) But what I’m most frustrated is that the teachers (I’m generalizing here, it’s some, not all) don’t conference or guide the students to be successful. They just tell them to read. Uh, that’s not going to help them.

    This year I took the time with my small groups to explain AR, what the purpose is and why we should participate. My biggest reason: The only way we are going to become better readers is to READ. This is ONE way that I can check to see that you are doing independent reading at home. I can also monitor if you are reading “good fit” books (in their reading level/zone) and that they are comprehending. I conference with my students 2-3 times a month. The student logs in and we check comprehension percentage first (because that is most important to me and I explain this to kids), then points and the book level. I created a log to document our conversation — including additional notes. I also find out if they are in need of a new book, author, series. Sometimes they just don’t know what to read. I had fourth graders this year that hadn’t even started reading chapter books! I helped them find some series that they loved! We also set a short term goal because thinking about 25 points a trimester is just too much. So we set mini goals for the week. This has been very helpful.

    So, AR is a part of our school too, but we have to take the good parts and move ahead. It does motivate kids to read independently. But we also have to take those times during read alouds, shared reading and guided reading to teach and coach the kids to always be thinking while they are reading. One day they will internalize this and do it on their own…. probably not in first grade. 🙂 But you are building the foundation!

    Just my two cents! Let me know if you want a copy of the log I mentioned. 🙂 It’s simple, but effective and a great couple minutes to spend with each student talking!
    Michelle

    Reply

  9. I would love a copy of your log! It sounds like a great idea. I always have my parents “log” what their child reads every night. Last year I added a place for the child to write a word they read from the book and then use it in a sentence correctly. But I am thinking of other ways to “record” their reading this year. One thing about AR you can usually tell if they have read or not in first grade. Do your 1st graders read AR? And is that the only “leveling” of books you, your school, or other teachers use? Lately I’ve been thinking about trying to level all my books (even those that aren’t AR). I’m interested to see how the different leveling types compare.
    I also really like your idea of weekly “mini goals” it seems much more realistic especially for my kiddos.
    Have you read The Book Whisper by Donalyn Miller? I just did this weekend. It is very insightful. The TBA is hosting a book study about it starting June 27th. You can find all the information about it at
    http://thinkingofteaching.blogspot.com/2011/06/book-whisperer-read-along-schedule.html
    I think it will be very informative.
    Thanks for always sharing.
    Tammy

    Reply

    • Posted by Michelle on June 14, 2011 at 12:58 am

      Tammy,

      Ok – I will share the log with you and another rubric that I also use with students as well. However, I have NO idea how to attach or send the documents!

      I’m trying Google Docs — Here is the log – copy and paste then scroll down to page 2:
      https://docs.google.com/a/ccsd59.org/leaf?id=0B6YVuMjJ-8jRYWExYzhiZDYtMDhlZi00MjZlLThhMDAtZmEyNDU2ODRmYWM3&hl=en_US

      Here is the rubric:
      https://docs.google.com/a/ccsd59.org/leaf?id=0B6YVuMjJ-8jRMGU0YWUwMTYtNDhlZi00ZWU5LWJjZjgtYmVhNWVmZTIxNmI4&hl=en_US

      Let me know if you cannot open the documents!

      Yes, our first graders read AR books. Yes, this is how the books are leveled. In my classroom, my picture books are in baskets by genre/author/favorites — this idea comes from the 2 Sisters (Daily 5 and The CAFE Menu) and if the books are AR, I label the front with a sticker and the level. Then I have a sticker on the back with the basket number — library stays organized! Love it!

      I have browsed The Book Whisper and it’s on my to read list. I thought it was more for junior high and high school, but if you thought it was insightful, I may have to bump it up on my list. I’ll check out that book study too. Thanks!

      Reply

      • Ok the documents did not open and I’d love to tell you how to send them but I have no idea either. Maybe if you just sent them to my email as an attachment? dtklinger@gmail.com I like your organization idea and I do mine about the same way (2 sisters and Debbie Miller :)) except the levels are on the spines and inside front cover and color coded by level. One thing I’m doing this year instead of just a nonfiction basket I’m going to set up a whole nonfiction area…if I can find a spot.
        The Book Whisperer is mostly geared toward 5th and 6th grade, but makes good points about kids and reading at whaterver age.
        Thanks again for sharing!
        T.

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