Why I believe AR is bad for literacy and bad for students

Posted September 19, 2011 by Tara Gold in articles /// 10 Comments

When I talk to people about AR (Accelerated Reader), they either love it or hate it. I definitely agree with the latter. Every time I think I have effectively stamped out use of AR in my school, it rears its ugly little head again and I am forced to fight another round of the battle. It’s tiring, but I must stand on the front lines for literacy!

What is AR?

If you’ve never heard of AR, you either live under a rock or you haven’t be anywhere near an elementary/middle school in over fifteen years. AR is a program that quizzes children on books they have read to award points for the book. The child must read a book on his or her approved, tested reading level. The quizzes focus on small details of the book, in order to test if the child has actually read the material. Points are awarded based on how many questions the child gets right, and they receive zero points if they fail to answer 70% of the questions correctly. Many schools award prizes to top readers. In addition, they often let children use points to “shop” at an AR store for toys and supplies or other rewards. Many classroom teachers required minimum numbers of AR points for grades in the classroom.

The folks that love AR have good intentions. They believe that AR pushes reluctant readers to read and rewards regular readers for their efforts. I agree that there are some children out there who are motivated by AR and it changes their lives. Teacher like the ease of record keeping: the AR program lets kids take the quizzes and reports all points to the teacher. Teachers have these great stories about kids devouring books and racking up points. They love the feeling that kids are getting excited about reading (joy!).

However, if we look deeper into AR we see that there is more to the story…and it ain’t pretty.

Why It Fails Our Students

AR is, by its very nature, a system of providing extrinsic motivation and extrinsic rewards for reading. A very, very expensive system with very, very expensive rewards. Though I think intrinsic motivation is fabulous and preferred in most situations, I do recognize that extrinsic motivation is sometimes necessary. But do we really want children to read just because the get a cheap trinket? And can we really afford to keep doing so in this economy?

AR is expensive and time consuming. First, a school must buy the program and pay to support it each year. Then the school must buy a test for every library book purchased. At around $2.99 a pop, these tests don’t come cheap. For the price of five AR tests, an additional fiction book could be purchased for the library instead. The rewards are expensive, too. I did AR for one year, and it ate up a lot of my (very valuable) time. I had to put reading-level dots on the books, manually enter the 6th graders into the program, collect donations and supplies for the AR store each semester, shut down the library to run the store for six instructional days, and keep track of all the kids points from purchases.

But even if AR were free, the program still doesn’t work. It provides a short-term incentive to read, which disappears as soon as the reward is no longer available. Yes, kids may read more to rack up points…but they don’t enjoy it more and they don’t become life-long readers.  And let’s not even talk about the cheating! I have heard stories from my friends about how they cheated by taking tests for friends, watching the movie for a popular book, or looking up the test answers online. One friend even said he cheated his way to the #1 spot for points in the school! Even though it’s not technically cheating, I also used to see students cruising the stacks for the books with the highest point values. If I had a dollar for every kid who picked up Harry Potter and the Order of Phoenix without reading the first four novels in the series, I’d have enough money to take myself to a nice dinner.

What bothers me most about AR is the insistence that kids read books on their reading level. It SUCKS to be restricted in reading choices. Think about it: if you were told, right now, that you could only read books on your reading level, would you be happy? I’d be stuck reading dissertations all day because I doubt there is any fiction on my reading level readily available to me. Most popular fiction is written on a fifth or sixth-grade reading level. For my middle school students, that meant that the reading pickins’ were slim. Even for an elementary school student, the selection would be about 12% of the entire library. I see teachers tell kids every day that they can’t read a book because it’s too easy or too hard. These kids end up picking something less interesting, and then trudging through it to earn their points. Is that really how the world works?

Think about why you read. Do you read because you get tangible rewards? Probably not. You read because you need to or want to learn something for yourself or a class. You read because your friend recommended a great book. You read because you want to read the book before you see the movie. You read because you’re in a book club. You read to escape, to heal, to experience, and to pass time. We need to work on taking the time and thought to encourage the same for children by modeling our love for reading, providing access to varied and intriguing reading material, and making reading a more social experience. We need to make sure that the kids can read, and work on basic skills if they can’t. Dangling a carrot is not the solution.

Don’t Just Take My Word For It

Read the research on AR and reading motivation if you want to see for yourself. I feel like a broken record every time I say, “AR is not a research-based strategy.” Here’s my evidence to support my claim:

Krashen, Stephen. 2003. The (Lack of ) Experimental Evidence Supporting the Use of Accelerated Reader. Journal of Children’s Literature 29 (2): 9, 16-30.

Mallette, Marla H. 2004. The Influence of Accelerated Reader on the Affective Literacy Orientations of Intermediate Grade Students, Journal of Literacy Research. Spring 2004.

Hansen, Laurie. 2009. Reading Management Programs: A Review of the Research. The Journal of Literacy and Technology 10 (3).

Jim Trelease’s comments on AR from The Read-Aloud Handbook

and a few more, from the general web:

18 Reasons NOT to Use AR

The Loopy Librarian also hates AR (and read the comments — quite telling)

Simply Janet hates it, too

Accelerated Reader frustrations

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10 responses to “Why I believe AR is bad for literacy and bad for students

  1. That’s an interesting perspective that I never considered. I had the AR system when I was in school, and I loved it (of course, I was a reader then, anyway, and racked up a ton of points 😉 ). We didn’t have the “store” so there was no keeping up with all of that. I liked it because it was a way to get to read what I liked and have it count for credit in my English class, instead of being made to read (even more) things that didn’t interest me.

  2. Miss Anderson

    I definitely would have loved AR as a kid because I read all the time. I totally see what you mean about getting to self-select books and get credit for them — never got why I had to read cruddy class novels when I had so many amazing books at home that were more deserving of my time!

  3. I was just recalling how in eighth grade I read a book because it was worth the most AR points. I believe it was Little Women. I got a full score on the quiz, and the librarian praised me for being “so smart.”

    I was intrinsically motivated to read–and to learn and do many other things–but more than ten years later, I still find myself choosing to do things based on the praise or rewards I might earn rather than the satisfaction something will bring me. I am trying to un-learn the behaviors that AR and other such programs drilled into me.

  4. Allie

    I would have to agree that AR is a bad idea. When I was leaving 5th grade I tested at a 12th grade reading level and 10th grade reading comprehension. I LOVED reading, but it would have been frustrating for me since there wouldn’t have been any suitable books available for me to read. One of our teachers had a reading reward program, geared to get kids excited about reading, but it didn’t work. The kids who hated reading or found it ‘boring’ still hated reading and found it ‘boring’ after she ended the program.

    My mom loved reading and she not only read to us when we were little, but she also read to us on long road trips to help us escape the boredom. She was an avid reader and passed that love of books on to us. When I became a mom I did the same thing, trying to instill a love of reading in my kids too. The only one of my kids who does not enjoy reading suffers from a form of dyslexia and has continually struggled to understand anything more than the most basic text. I would agree with you that the emphasis needs to be on reading ability and skills. People who have difficulty understanding or retaining information in books aren’t going to develop a love of reading.

    Extrinsic rewards only work if they function as true kindling for developing intrinsic pleasure. Unless that internal desire is kindled, the wish to read will disappear when the external reward disappears as well. Kudos to you for your fight against AR and your fight for ways of helping kids discover the joy of reading!

  5. I think there MUST be one incentive to reading, and in fact there has always been: it is the incentive spread through the thousands of words along the pages… 🙂 I think a lot about education and, as in Brazil as I think probably happens also in the U.S… there should be more teachers meditating about the word “inspiration”. To talk passionately about a book you read and about the pleasures of reading experience is so much more powerful than offering a tangible short-lived reward for reading! In fact… inspiration is something every people, let’s say, over 18, should seek to bring to the newer generations… I also agree with respect to the classification of books… I once had a Portuguese teacher who asked the class to read some book for an exam, which she would apply later. The exam consisted about a blank page where we would have to write about the book… The problem: I was by the time reading a lot and had my own books; she was making this effort to force the students to do some reading; I wasn’t interested by the book she suggested but, more than this, I was by the time crazy about the books I was reading! I talked to her about this and she said “no problem! you do the exam telling me about the books you are reading, but don’t forget to be precise on writing the title, and the name of the author, of those books!”

  6. Minda

    My elementary school used AR (late 90’s). I hated it. Other kids mocked me for not having as many points. Eventually I got free up with it and had my parents read me AR books so I could take quizzes for harder books. I felt guilty for cheating and anxious about being made fun of. AR sucks for struggling readers.

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