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How to Hook a Reader, and How Not to: The Fault in Our ARs

This is the second of two blogs on external reading incentive programs and why I think they can’t help but fail, sometimes causing damage as they do. AR is the acronym for Accelerated Reader, the program at use in my kids’ public schools in Los Angeles county, and the beast I fought on the way to raising readers.

There are lots of problems with reading incentive programs, and I addressed my big, philosophical problems three weeks ago: I think the system can be gamed, and if it isn’t, it can do more damage by training kids to read superficially. In this installation I raise some AR-specific (and possibly district-specific) gripes that my kids had to work around.

One problem with AR is that it depends on levels of reading, and when a child’s reading level is established, at least in our schools, kids were unable to read outside of their range. I have trouble with pigeon-holing kids in to levels in the first place, but if it means they are actively discouraged from reading widely, I think it’s doubly awful. 

What gets and keeps kids reading is letting them choose what they want to read, and if you tell them they can’t read something above or below their reading level, two bad things happen. First they lose the benefits of “comfort-reading,” where they read easy stuff that they just enjoy, and second, they are discouraged from really challenging themselves. Sometimes kids are interested in books beyond their ability, and telling them they can’t read them might mean losing a critical moment when they could have fed a passion. Kids learn by reading demanding texts, and if they choose something way beyond their ability, the higher road is to help them through it, rather than tell them it’s too hard for them.

The other loss from limiting kids’ reading choices is that they can’t always read what their friends are reading. This is a huge loss. Kids come in every day talking about what they saw on television or at the movies, and they love to talk to their friends about it. But if they happen to test in to a level way above or way below their friends, they will never be able to talk about the books they have read. We know as adults we love talking about books we’ve read—book clubs are popping up everywhere—but we deny kids that pleasure when we limit the books they can choose to read.

So much is at stake when our kids learn to read. If they love it, they do better in all their coursework. If they love it, they have a lifetime of cheap entertainment and an opportunity to grow continually as they read throughout their lives. If they dread it, they can struggle academically and psychologically. 

Why, then, don’t we do what we know works? Let them choose what they want to read? The short answer is time. Teachers with wide gaps between kids’ skills don’t have time to meet every child where they are and move them gently forward—would that they did. For instance, when my daughter was in 3rd grade, kids in her class were testing at kindergarten to 12th grade reading levels, while all the text books were at third grade level. That means some kids are bored, and some are lost and struggling every single day. (Another answer to that question is that reading programs and other testing companies are BIG business, but I am not that cynical today.)

In the absence of a private tutor, then, a kid needs someone—a parent, a librarian, a friend, just some grown-up who can discuss the books the child reads. Someone needs to listen to what they like, make suggestions for appropriate books, and discuss them afterward. They need to check if the book was too difficult, too scary, too mature, or just right, and follow up with another book.That’s how you hook a reader—show them something amazing, and then tell them there is more… lots more. (If that person could read some aloud, that would be even better, but that is a different blog.)

Ultimately, of course, every kid is different. That’s why they need different books along the way to becoming book worms. We just all need to pitch in; we can’t dump this responsibility solely on teachers. We can all help, putting the right books in to kids’ hands at the right time. That’s a sure-fire way to change the world.

2 thoughts on “How to Hook a Reader, and How Not to: The Fault in Our ARs

  1. In elementary school I participated in the initial phase of AR (starting in 3rd grade) and I had a great time with it because of the point system and grade level stuff. I viewed the high point and high level books as a challenge to read through and test on. I wanted to read the hardest books because finishing them felt like an accomplishment and made me want to read even more. The fact that students can no longer read above or below their reading level sounds like a step backwards for a incentive program. Although one of the highest point value/reading level books was Watership Down, so I read that in fourth grade, which can be viewed as a good/bad thing for this system… That was some brutal content for elementary school. In any case, boo for not letting kids read beyond their “level” :-\

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  2. I agree. There's too much restriction all around. I'm glad it challenged you, though. And yay, you for tackling Watership Down in 4th grade! I read it in 7th, and I'm still a little scarred. 😉 Thanks for commenting!

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