Monday, September 28, 2009

How to Discourage Young Readers: Turn Books Into Numbers

In first and second grades, I had a hard time with reading. There was trouble in my family. My mother had been hospitalized, and my dad was a struggling graduate student, caring for two small children. I got stuck in the lowest reading group at school. I sat with other "under-performing" kids, obsessively drawing pictures of horses.

Oddly, I was a whiz at arithmetic. I'm guessing that numbers didn't scare me, stripped as they were of drama. But stories? The ever-shifting relations among words and meaning? Too risky.

Decades later, books are my profession. I'm now running a blog called WOMEN = BOOKS, and have encountered far more book-blogging sites than I ever would have dreamed. (Did you know that the second annual "Book Blogger Appreciation Week" kicked off in mid-September?)

Yet how I learned to read can't be distilled into an easily reproduced action plan with "metrics." I've been thinking a lot about reading education lately, in part because my seven-year-old son has yet to discover the joys of chapter books. (I'm a little worried, though I know I shouldn't be.) More to the point, Accelerated Reader, the bane of many a literary parent in the public schools, has clumped into my awareness like a bully with no sense of humor.

In "Reading by the Numbers" an excellent but disturbing New York Times essay, novelist Susan Straight reflects on the rise of AR, a "reading management" software system produced by Renaissance Learning.

It's been around for awhile, so my only justification for ignorance until now is that my son's just reached second grade and is going to a groovy private school. Still, in an earlier piece that I wrote about Straight's essay, I was surprised by the loathing for AR expressed by some parent- and teacher-commenters.

Here's my friend Angela Mann, mother of two teenagers in California: "Ah, the AR system. My pet hate. My kids have been forced to use this hideous reading system for years."

Here's another old friend of mine, a long-time teacher in Washington state who wishes not to be named: "As a Title 1 Reading instructor in an elementary school, I have experienced Accelerated Reader and detest it. My opinion, garnered from my 18 years experience in public education, is that teachers who use it are lazy."

It's hard to blame public schools for pushing reading as if it's the answer to everything from McJobs to Global Warming. (They're pushing math and science, too.) But parents and teachers have every right to be angry about mindless quantification just to "make the numbers."

The education bureacracy, lashed on by companies that profit from curriculum "systems" like AR, are trying to trap the equivalent of a many-armed goddess in a soda can.

Accelerated Reader is used by upwards of 75,000 schools around the country, notes Straight. Participating students get points for reading books, with a goal of 50 points for outside reading in a given class.

That means students get a point tally instead of that tingle of recognition when a story speaks to them. As my teacher-friend explains,

Teachers use AR to measure comprehension on "leveled" books. The child says he/she has read a book. The teacher tells them to log on to the computer, answer the questions, and return with a printed-out score. Why not listen to a child read and talk about the book to measure comprehension?

Then there's the way books are rated. Straight says she delved into the mathematics of the ratings system, which likely has something to do with page length, average sentence difficulty, and percentage of tough vocabulary words. In this scheme, according to Straight, Willa Cather's My Antonia gets 14 points, while Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix gets 44.

I like the Harry Potter books just fine, but comparing one to My Antonia is not only apples and oranges; it's simply the wrong message about what makes a great book great.

Renaissance Learning's website carries the tagline: "Advanced Technology for Data-Driven Schools." But how do you measure character development and emotional catharsis? My friend Angela doesn't hold back about AR's banality:

I've seen it turn readers into point counters and strategists. What can I read to give me enough points? Why should I read this when I've already got my points for the semester? Why should I read this when it is not an AR book and doesn't count?

My teacher-friend in Washington adds:

A few years ago, shortly after AR was purchased by our school, I took an AR test myself on a book I'd read many, many times. Rather than focusing on the deeper meaning of the beautiful historical fiction story by Joan Lowery Nixon, the historical facts, or the motivation of the characters, the AR test asked me about the color of a dress a character wore. I had no idea. I was stunned. The question had no relevance in the story at all.

Not all parents and teachers hate Accelerated Reader, but as I've discovered after googling around, opposition to it is nothing new. On the Family Education Network's site for parents (, an entry about Accelerated Reader has generated 30-plus reviews going back to 2000. Titles range from "Excellent" and "AR Encourages Reading" to "AR Sucks!!!" and "AR Can Shame Readers."

The latter review, posted in 2004, opens with, "My son is now in 5th grade. He used to love to read. Hates it now." This writer concluded, "I am forming a parent organization to fight AR current policy. Anyone want to join?"

For me, the ineffable thing about reading clicked by third grade. My dad had a teaching position at a local college, and we'd moved out of graduate student housing into a suburban tract. Suddenly I was reading chapter books. In my memory, it feels like the Doctor Doolittle series saved me.

Earlier still, there are family photos of me as a toddler looking at books with my father. He says "leopard" was one of my first words, because I loved animals. One of my favorite books in elementary school was The Golden Treasury of Natural History. (It took awhile before fiction ruled my universe.) Regardless, I didn't lack encouragement from my parents.

But fiction or non-, I always hated the canned reading assignments in school. By fourth grade, I was really hating the SRA program, which involved a series of color-coded stories and assignments that you worked through, moving up the levels. It was a competition, getting up to Gold or Purple.

The current promotion of AR has made me curious again about SRA—aka the SRA Reading Laboratories. These materials have now been used by more than a 100 million students, claims McGraw-Hill, their current publisher. On the publisher's website, the beginnings of the SRA reading program's 50-year history are described this way:

A lesser man would have given up.... [H]is oversized shoe box with its sections of coloured story cards and questions, which the students could mark themselves, didn't look like a text book; and that's what the educational publishers he took it to said...
Never mind that SRA ended up with McGraw-Hill, a textbook behemoth. According to this telling, the humble author of these shoebox materials, Don Parker, finally hit up a small publishing company called SRA (Science Research Associates): "It wasn't the sort of name you would associate with a schoolbook publisher, and indeed it wasn't—it produced aptitude tests for soldiers returning from the Korean wars trying to find a job."

Parker was supposedly doing battle with old-fasioned textbooks like "Dick and Jane." But the "Science" in SRA's name and those aptitude tests for soldiers tell the real story. When publisher Lyle Spencer of SRA agreed to take on the shoebox project, "It was the best decision he ever made."

Financially, no doubt. Yet for a self-motivated reader like me, nothing could have been more beside the point. I lived for free library days.

So how do we—or the schools—spark a love of reading in children? What matters most? I believe teaching students to be critical thinkers about what they're reading, whether it's a Twilight book or Pride and Prejudice, is crucial. But giving kids points for reading books neither encourages analysis (although Renaissance Learning would claim its AR system of quizzes does just that) nor a love of reading.

Consider this excerpt from Straight's essay and all it says about how novels expand our notion of the world in ways that can never be quantified:

One day last spring, after my eighth-grade daughter finished reading “To Kill a Mockingbird” (assigned reading for class), she sat on the couch, thoughtful and silent for a long time. Then she looked over at me and said: “I think that was one of the best books I’ve ever read. And not everybody could understand it. But I do. Especially Tom Robinson.”

Her father is 6-foot-4, 300 pounds and black. We talked about how American society has historically projected racial fear onto innocent men, and about how Harper Lee portrayed the town of Maycomb so vividly that you could see the streets and porches...

“To Kill a Mockingbird” is worth 15 points.

As I sensed at six years old, numbers are safer than stories; they can be pinned down. But a mom in the hospital? Racism? That requires something very messy—a lot of thinking and feeling.

Another version of this post orginally appeared in Talking Writing as "My Antonia Vs. Harry Potter: Crunching the Great Books." Thanks to writer Jeanne Schinto for sending me the link to Straight's essay.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Hey, is anyone else having trouble publishing comments here? Let me know...

  3. Have you seen Michael Ventura's essay on Willa Cather? It's at

  4. Marthan:

    I saw that article in the back of the Times book review. I was wondering if she realized it could be read as kvetching that the assigned points only needed re-evaluation. (I think the free market is supposed to be good at finding prices, by the way).

    I like your post comparing a few kinds of specially-designed reading systems. We had our little experience with Open Court. *Of course* we hated it. *Of course* the teachers hated it. This seems to be the game, actually: finding out what you hate in mass education. It's a team-bonding exercise.

    Abel Badeed

  5. If only the team-bonding would move the educational process forward. In order to force the market in a new direction--that is, change a product--you've got to know what levers to push, and that requires a fair amount of organization for parents outside the school bureacracy. (Parents and teachers have been complaining about AR for years, not to mention SRA and Open Court.)

    As for a system, why does there have to be a system for encouraging reading? Granted,kids need to learn how to read, but once they do, why assign it as a "good for you" task that feels like taking medicine or a team sport? Instead, I'd pose all sorts of questions that require kids to read to learn the answers and to form their own well-argued opinions.

  6. Following are short summaries of the most common arguments made by researchers, teachers, parents, and students as to why using AR is counterproductive. Hence, The 18 Reasons Not to Use Accelerated Reader: