As an elementary school librarian, fostering students’ lifelong love of reading is my penultimate duty. I embrace technology like few around me, but this unit study has been a personal struggle. My exploration of the ISTE Standard 2 for Teachers (Teachers design, develop, and evaluate authentic learning experiences and assessments incorporating contemporary tools and resources to maximize content learning in context and to develop the knowledge, skills, and attitudes identified in the ISTE Standards for Students) was centered on assessment of students. My guiding question became: What forms of assessments and digital tools would be appropriate for 1st through 5th graders to use during the course of an independent summer reading program?
My district (like many) is always striving for excellence in our students, and (like many) we measure our students’ success primarily with summative test scores and data. With that in mind, we will be encouraging students at the elementary and middle school level to participate in a summer reading program. Students are tasked with reading (primarily independently) with testing immediately following completion of books. The students’ results on these comprehension tests will serve as proof of their understanding and efforts. Our district is contracting with Renaissance Learning to provide summer-month access to their Accelerated Reader (AR) program. My immediate concerns: (1) staff training (2) equitable at-home access for this online resource (3) ELL supports in place? And (4) cost.
I’ll be honest… Librarian-me wants no form of formal assessment in the summer months for my students. Dad-me wants my three boys to read for pleasure while on break. Today’s kindergarten students are yesterday’s first and second graders when it comes to academic expectations. It’s vital that we allow our young readers to discover joy in reading at an early age, so it’s an ingrained part of who they are. In her wonderful books The Book Whisperer and Reading in the Wild, Donalyn Miller talks about the keys to developing lifelong reading habits. “Wild readers” as she refers to them: (1) Dedicate time to read (2) Self-select reading material (3) Share books and reading with other readers (4) Have reading plans, and (5) Show preferences for genres, authors, and topics.
So what’s absent from this list? Summative assessments. A student who is reading and making connections to text and self is fully engaged in their task. Readers often talk of getting lost in a book. At the same time, I’ve never once in my 14+ years in classrooms and libraries and homes ever heard a child say the words, “I can’t wait to take a test on this book to prove my understanding” or the follow-up “And please make it multiple-choice, and focused on vocabulary and short-term memory questions!” Miller says, “Comprehension tests feed into a classroom cycle of assign it, then assess it. But where is the learning and teaching in that cycle? Teachers assign these summative assessments in order to motivate students to read and to determine whether students did, in fact read a book. Where is the joy that we hope reading will engender in students?” (Miller, 2011, 131).
Going beyond my gut reaction as a librarian to many and a dad to three vibrant readers, I have to ask: is AR what’s best for kids? Is it truly the most cost-effective way to approach reader development? Or are there better, more meaningful ways to inject reading into summer reading programs and beyond? According to their website, the Institute of Education Sciences “is the statistics, research, and evaluation arm of the U.S. Department of Education. [They are] independent and non-partisan. [Their] mission is to provide scientific evidence on which to ground education practice and policy and to share this information in formats that are useful and accessible to educators, parents, policymakers, researchers, and the public.” The IES website What Works Clearinghouse summarizes its findings: “Accelerated Reader was found to have no discernible effects on reading fluency, mixed effects on comprehension, and potentially positive effects on general reading achievement.” (Institute of Education Sciences, 2008) This is a remarkable statement when you consider that AR is the flagship product for Renaissance Learning, Inc., a privately-held company with a market valuation of over $1.1 billion.
So is AR the right tool for the job? In my experience and research, I would strongly argue it is not, especially when you consider the service we’re contracting for is on the low-end of the SAMR model. In my opinion, any funds would be far better spent on providing more access to reading content, whether it’s printed books, online databases, or even e-content providers such as Overdrive, especially as we shift to a 1:1 device model at our upper grades. Reading guru, Jim Trelease: “Before committing precious dollars to such a program, a district should decide its purpose: Is the program there to motivate children to read more or to create another grading platform?” (Trelease, 2013) Dr. Stephen Krashen is professor emeritus at the University of Southern California, and he’s written extensively on the topic of incentivising student reading with programs such as Accelerated Reader. “It remains mysterious to me why the obvious, most pleasant, least expensive, and probably the only effective way to improve reading ability — providing readers with interesting, comprehensible reading material — appears not only to be the last resort, but is often not even mentioned.” (Krashen, 2009, p. 25)
So now I’m a Luddite? Not yet! Technology definitely has its strengths. We can encourage our students to communicate with classmates and kids around the world at sites like Wonderopolis and Biblionasium. Responding to books is so different and so much more powerful on a longterm basis than online multiple-choice book quizzes. We can encourage our kids to research online for the joy of it, seeking out answers to questions that arise during the freedom of summer months.
My initial search lead me to an adult reading challenge on the PopSugar website. What I especially loved about their approach was that it focused on exploration and playfulness on the part of the reader. “Read a book with a blue cover.” “A book that takes place on an island.” These were seemingly random identifiers, but I loved that aspect of it — what a great lead-in to get kids to explore library shelves for unread books! So the search was on… was there anything similar already prepared for elementary and intermediate students? The best example I could find was Scholastic’s 2015 100 New Year’s reading resolutions for kids. They have published similar pieces before and since but the 2015 list is the one I’m going to adapt for my students’ use. I am required to follow the district plan (AR testing for all books completed), but I’m going to do all that I can to encourage reading for fun and joy. My hope is that students will use this checklist as a tool for self-reflection and self-assessment.
Reading is an art. It requires practice. It requires connections and support and beauty and time and freedom and curiosity. The problem lies in the inherent difficulty of quantifying that sparkle in a child’s eye when they find a book that is right for them. There’s no rubric for it, but it’s a very real thing. We get so caught up in 5-Finger Rules, and SBA scores, and Lexiles, and AR results, and we are losing sight of the sparkle.
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Greene, P. (2015, November 17). Accelerated Reader’s ridiculous research | Curmudgucation. Retrieved from http://curmudgucation.blogspot.com/2015/11/accelerated-readers-ridiculous-research.html
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Institute of Education Sciences. (2008, October). Accelerated Reader™: What Works Clearinghouse. Retrieved from http://ies.ed.gov/ncee/wwc/interventionreport.aspx?sid=12
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Miller, D., & Kelley, S. (2013). Reading in the wild: The book whisperer’s keys to cultivating lifelong reading habits. New York, NY: Scholastic Inc.
Neary, L. (2013, June 11). What kids are reading, in school and out | NPR. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/sections/monkeysee/2013/06/11/190669029/what-kids-are-reading-in-school-and-out
Pennington, M. (2010, January 24). The 18 reasons not to use Accelerated Reader | Pennington Publishing Blog. Retrieved from http://blog.penningtonpublishing.com/reading/the-18-reasons-not-to-use-accelerated-reader/
Platt, R., & Wolfe, J. (2014, August 20). AR killed my dog and now it’s coming for you | We teach, we learn. Retrieved from http://www.weteachwelearn.org/2014/08/ar-killed-my-dog-and-now-its-coming-for-you-a-defense-of-accelerated-reader-and-a-plea-for-less-drama/
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Trelease, J. (2013). The Read-Aloud Handbook chapter 5, pg 3. Retrieved from http://www.trelease-on-reading.com/rah-ch5-pg3.html
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