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For almost 20 years, my district has used Accelerated Reader in grades K-8. In grades K-5, we have used it as an incentive program to encourage independent reading; in 6-8 it has been a component of project-based independent reading. More recently we have incorporated the STAR tool as part of our student data profiles, which has been both harmful and helpful in equal measures. Two years ago, when I became the reading department head, overseeing the program K-8 became part of my responsibilities. This was also when we restructured our two K-5 buildings into a K-3 literacy center and a 4-5 STEM building. The more time I spend looking at how we are using AR to create a culture of “readers,” the more I question whether or not this type of program is really helping our students, or if it is, in the long run, giving them a false sense of their ability to interact with text in a meaningful way because they can pass low-level comprehension tests.
The push for reading of quantity over reading for quality is the first issue I am struggling with. I see how our primary students strive to earn incentive points, and I see a place for it in the grand scheme of supporting emergent readers and fostering an excitement for reading. But the older they get, the less effective the program seems to be in increasing comprehension, as students are not able to delve more deeply into layers of the books they read.
The other big issue I have is how we use STAR reading levels to discourage readers from picking books they want to read and forcing them into a “reading range.” It is much easier to use those numbers to protect students from struggling by giving them a book “on their level” that they don’t want to read, than to allow them to choose a more challenging book and providing individualize assistance and strategies to help them access it. There is a fine balance between letting students struggle with texts they really want to read, and having students become so frustrated with reading that they just give up altogether.
I want the classrooms in my district to be places where students, when given a choice, are free to read what they want to read, regardless of their prescribed book levels. I want students to be able to dive into a book and surface with a deeper understanding of the world around them. And I want them, above all, to know that reading itself is a reward and that the prize is the connections they make with the text that help them learn and grow as a person and not just a reader. I just don’t know if AR, beyond the primary grades, is the means to that end.