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The 18 Reasons Not to Use Accelerated Reader

Accelerated Reader™ (AR) is a simple software concept that was at the right time (late 1980s) and right place (public schools during a transition from whole language to phonics instruction) that has simply grown into an educational monolith. From an economic standpoint, simple often is best and AR is a publisher’s dream come true. Renaissance Learning, Inc.(RLI) is publicly traded on the NASDAQ exchange under the ticker symbol RLRN and makes a bit more than pocket change off of its flagship product, AR. As is the case with many monoliths, detractors trying to chip away at its monopolistic control of library collections, computer labs, and school budgets are many. 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. But first, for the uninitiated, is a brief overview of the AR system.

What is Accelerated Reader?

From the Renaissance Learning website, A Parent’s Guide to Accelerated Reader™, we get a concise overview of this program: “AR is a computer program that helps teachers manage and monitor children’s independent reading practice. Your child picks a book at his own level and reads it at his own pace. When finished, your child takes a short quiz on the computer. (Passing the quiz is an indication that your child understood what was read.) AR gives both children and teachers feedback based on the quiz results, which the teacher then uses to help your child set goals and direct ongoing reading practice.”

How is the Student’s Reading Level Determined?

Renaissance Learning sells its STAR Reading™ test to partner with the AR program. The STAR test is a ten minute computer-based reading assessment that adjusts levels of difficulty to student responses. Among other diagnostic information, the test establishes a Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) reading range for the student.

How are AR Books Selected?

Students are encouraged (or required by some teachers) to select books within their ZPD that also match their age/interest level. AR books have short multiple choice quizzes and have been assigned a readability level (ATOS). Renaissance Learning provides conversion scales to the Degrees of Reading Power (DRP) test and the Lexile Framework, so that teachers and librarians who use  these readability formulae will still be able to use the AR program. Additionally, Renaissance Learning provides a search tool to find the ATOS level.

What are the Quizzes? What is the Student and Teacher Feedback?

AR quizzes are taken on computers, ostensibly under teacher or librarian supervision. They consist of multiple choice questions, most of which are at the “recall” level. Students must score 80% or above on these short tests to pass and receive point credit for their readings. When students take AR quizzes, they enter information into a database that teachers can access via password. The TOPS Report (The Opportunity to Praise Students) reports quiz results after each quiz* is taken.

Both teachers and students have access to the following from the database:

  • Name of the book, the author, the number of pages in the book
  • ATOS readability level
  • Percentage score earned by the student from the multiple choice quiz
  • The number of points earned by students who pass the quiz. AR points are computed based on the difficulty of the book (ATOS readability level) and the length of the book (number of words).

*Quizzes are also available on textbooks, supplemental materials, and magazines. Most are in the form of reading practice quizzes, although some are curriculum-based with multiple subjects. Magazine quizzes are available for old magazines as well as on a subscription basis for new magazines. The subscription quizzes include three of the Time for Kids series magazines, Cobblestone, and Kids Discover. www.renlearn.com

What about the Reading Incentives?

“Renaissance Learning does not require or advocate the use of incentives with the assessment, although it is a common misperception.” However, most educators who use AR have found the program to be highly conducive to a rewards-based reading incentive program.

Criticisms

Book Selection

1. Using AR tends to limit reading selection to its own books. Teachers who use the AR program tend to limit students to AR selections because these have the quizzes to maintain accountability for the students’ independent reading. Although much is made by Renaissance Learning of the motivational benefits of allowing students free choice of reading materials, their selection is actually limited. Currently, AR has over 100,000 books in its database; however, that is but a fraction of the books available for juvenile and adolescent readers.

2. Using AR tends to limit reading selection to a narrow band of readability. A concerned mom recently blogs about her experience with her sixth grade daughter (Lady L) who happens to read a few years beyond her grade level:

I’m not trying to be a whining, complaining parent here.  I’m simply trying to highlight a problem.  At our public library, there are bookmarks in the youth department that list suggested books for students in each grade (K-12th).  We picked up an 8th grade bookmark to get ideas for Lady L’s acceptable reading-leveled book.  Found a book.  Looked up the reading level  and found that it was a 4.5 (not anywhere near the 8.7-10.7 my daughter needed). http://inthemomzone.blogspot.com/2010/01/accelerated-readermy-take.html

3. Using AR tends to discriminate against small publishing companies and unpopular authors. Additionally, valid concerns exist about the appropriateness of a private company effectively dictating the materials which children within the program may read. Although teachers may create custom quizzes for reading material not already in the Accelerated Reader system, the reality is that teachers will not have the time nor inclination to do so in order to assess whether an individual student has read a book that is not already in the system. Thus, the ability for a student to explore books which are neither currently commercially popular nor part of major book lists is severely restricted in reality by the Accelerated Reader program. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Accelerated_Reader

In fact, many teachers are inadvertently complicit in this discrimination as they require students to read only books that are in the AR database. Many teachers include the TOPS Report as a part of the students’ reading or English-language arts grade, thus mandating student participation in AR.

4. Using AR tends to encourage some students to read books that most teachers and parents would consider inappropriate for certain age levels. Although Renaissance Learning is careful to throw the burden of book approval onto the shoulders of teachers and parents, students get more points for reading and passing quizzes on higher reading levels and longer books. Although an interest level is provided as is a brief synopsis/cautionary warning on the AR site, students often simply select books by the title, cover, availability, or point value. Thus, a fourth grader might wind up “reading” Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (4.7 ATOS readability level) and a sixth grader might plow through Camus’ The Stranger (6.2 ATOS readability level). Hardly appropriate reading material for these grade levels! Content is not considered in the AR point system and students are, of course, reading for those points.

Reader Response

5. Using AR tends to induce a student mindset that “reading is a chore,” and “a job that has to be done.”

“As a teacher and a mom of 4, I do NOT like AR. As a parent, I watched my very smart 9 year old work the system. He continually read books very much below his ability NOT because he likes reading them, but because he could read them quickly and get points. Other books that he told me he really wanted to read, he didn’t either because they were longer and would take “too long to read” or they weren’t on the AR list. I finally told him to stop with the AR stuff, took him to the bookstore and spent an hour with him finding books he would enjoy. We have never looked back and I will fight wholeheartedly if anyone tries to tell any of my kids they ‘have’ to participate in AR.” http://englishcompanion.ning.com/profiles/blog/show?id=2567740:BlogPost:161876&xg_source=activity&page=3#comments

6. Using AR tends to replace the intrinsic rewards of reading with extrinsic rewards.

AR rewards children for doing something that is already pleasant: self-selected reading. Substantial research shows that rewarding an intrinsically pleasant activity sends the message that the activity is not pleasant, and that nobody would do it without a bribe. AR might be convincing children that reading is not pleasant. No studies have been done to see if this is true.
Stephen Krashen Posted by
Stephen Krashen on December 17, 2009 at 10:40pm http://englishcompanion.ning.com/profiles/blogs/does-accelerated-reader-work?xg_source=activity&id=2567740:BlogPost:161876&page=2#comments

Again, Renaissance Learning does not endorse prizes for points; however, its overall point system certainly is rewards-based.

7. Using AR tends to foster student and/or teacher competitiveness, which can push students to read books at their frustrational reading level or create problems among students. In some situations, this competitiveness can lead to hard feelings or outright ostracism. Students mock other students for not earning enough points, or “making us lose a class pizza party.” Here are two recent blog postings by moms who happen to be educators:

My son is a voracious reader, but AR had him in tears more than once. I had to encourage him to NOT participate in AR (which meant that his class didn’t get the stuffed cougar promised as a reward to the class with the most AR points!) in order to protect that love. He took a hit for his non-participation in school (he started reading books off the list and not getting points for them) but it preserved his love of reading. In my estimation, this love of reading will take him further in the long run. Stupid that he had to choose between school and what was best for his reading life. http://englishcompanion.ning.com/profiles/blogs/does-accelerated-reader-work?xg_source=activity&id=2567740:BlogPost:161876&page=5#comments

As an educator, it concerns me when I see students being punished with reading, as can be the case when I visit sites on a Friday afternoon, a day many grade levels offer students “Fun Friday” activities. Students who’ve completed their class and homework assignments for the week and have had no behavioral problems get to sign-in for fun activities. One teacher volunteers to monitor those who did not earn a Fun Friday, including students who did not meet their AR requirement for the week – and as a result, will be punished with staying in the non-FF room to read.

http://englishcompanion.ning.com/profiles/blogs/does-accelerated-reader-work?xg_source=activity

8. Using AR tends to turn off some students to independent reading. Countless posts on blogs point to the negative impact of this program on future reading. From my own survey of sixty blogs, using the “accelerated reading” search term, negative comments and/or associations with the AR program far outweigh positive ones in the blogosphere. Of course there are those who credit AR for developing them into life-long readers; however, would other independent reading programs have accomplished the same mission? In Kelly Gallagher’s Readicide, he cites a few studies that demonstrate that after exiting an AR program, students actually read less than non-AR students.

9. Using AR tends to turn some students into cheaters. Many students skim read, read only book summaries, share books and answers with classmates, select books that have been made into movies that they have already seen, or use web cheat sites or forums to pass the quizzes without reading the books. Pervasive among many students seems to be the attitude that one has to learn how to beat the AR system, like one uses cheat sites and codes to beat video games. Both are on the computer and detached from human to human codes of conduct. Students who would never dream of cheating on a teacher-constructed test will cheat on AR because “it’s dumb” or “everyone does it.”

In order to take Accelerated Reader tests without any reading at all, many students use sites such as Sparknotes to read chapter summaries. Other websites offer the answers to Accelerated Reader tests. Students regularly trade answers on yahoo.com. Renaissance Learning has filed lawsuits against some of the offending websites and successfully closed them down after a short time. An AR cheat site is currently the ninth Google™ listing on the first page for the “accelerated reader” search term.

AR is Reductive

10. Using AR tends to supplant portions of established reading programs. In my experience, teachers who use AR spend less time on direct reading instruction. Some teachers even consider AR to be solid reading instruction. However, AR does not teach reading; AR tests reading. The expectation of many teachers is that students are learning to read on their own or are dutifully practicing the reading strategies that their teachers have taught them.

11. Using AR tends to train students to accumulate facts and trivia as they read in order to answer the multiple choice recall questions. Students receive no extrinsic “rewards” for making inferences, connections, interpretations, or conclusions as they read. Reading is reduced to a lower higher order thinking process. Students read to gain the gist of characterizations and plots. The Florida Center for Reading Research noted the lack of assessment of “inferential or critical thinking skills” as weaknesses of the software. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Accelerated_Reader

12. Using AR tends to takes up significant instructional time. Students have to wait their turn to take quizzes on the classroom computer(s) or the teacher has to march the class down to the library or computer lab to allow the students to do so.

The incentives schools develop with the AR program also take away from instructional time. One parent details her frustrations with the program:

When the librarian tallies up all of the people who have passed a book (not a goal, but just ONE book), everybody gets a chance to come to the library to select a prize (these are dollar store purchases to include child-like toys and snacks). The English teachers are asked to send the students when the coupons come (a disruption of classroom time). The reason for this is to send a clear message to the students who did not pass a book. It is to make them feel bad, I presume. Tell me how this fits into anything that looks like motivation. This includes students who took a quiz the day before coupons were made and distributed who now have to sit in class while all of their classmates go down to collect a prize.

AR recommends a minimum of 20 minutes per day of in-class reading on its website. The National Reading Panel’s conclusion of programs that encouraged independent reading was “unable to find a positive relationship between programs and instruction that encourage large amounts of independent reading and improvements in reading achievement, including fluency.” p.12). There are other options for independent reading, such as reading at home, that do not take up significant amounts of class time.

13. Using AR tends to reduce the amount of time that teachers spend doing “read-alouds” and teaching class novels. Jim Trelease, chief advocate of the “read-aloud” was an early advocate of AR, even keynoting three national conferences for AR. However, in his sixth edition of his popular The Read-Aloud Handbook, Trelease turns quite critical.  AR teachers tend teach fewer core novels and to limit class discussions because of the time considerations or because a discussion would give away AR quiz answers. Besides, the computer can ask the questions instead.

14. Using AR tends to make reading into an isolated academic task. With each student reading a different book, the social nature of reading is minimized. Research on juvenile and adolescent readers emphasizes the importance of the book communities in developing a love for reading. Fewer Literature Circles with small groups sharing the same book and discussing chapter by chapter, fewer Book Clubs focused on Harry Potter or Twilight novels, fewer class Book Talks, and fewer oral book reports (well, maybe AR does have some value here :))

15. Using AR tends to drains resources that could certainly be used for other educational priorities. The program is not cheap. As librarians are losing their jobs in the current economic downturn, the pressure to build up the AR library collection grows. For each $15 hardback purchase, there is an additional cost of close to $3 for the AR quiz. This amounts to a de facto 20% tax on library acquisitions. Another way to look at this is that a school library able to purchase 300 new books a year will only be able to purchase 250 because of the AR program. AR costs that library and those students 50 books per year.

16. Using AR tends to minimize the teaching and instructional practice in diagnostically-based reading strategies. The STAR Test is hardly diagnostic in terms of the full spectrum of reading skills, despite its flimsy claims to point out potential reading issues in the teacher reports. AR neither assesses, nor teaches phonemic awareness, decoding/word attack, syllabication, vocabulary, or reading comprehension strategies.

17. Using AR tends to limit differentiated instruction. Students are not grouped by ability or skill deficits with AR. The teacher does not spend additional time with remedial students for AR. Students do not receive different instruction according to their abilities. Worse yet, many teachers wrongly perceive AR as differentiated instruction because all of their students are reading books at their own reading levels. Again, there is no reading instruction in AR.

Research Base

18. Although a plethora of research studies involving AR are cited on the Renaissance Learning website, the research base is questionable at best. Few of the AR studies meet the strict research criteria of the Institute of Education Services What Works Clearinghouse. Control groups are always the sticky point when evaluating reading programs. The AR program is no exception.

Stephen Krashen summarizes the research findings regarding AR as follows:

Accelerated Reader consists of four elements: (1) books, (2) reading time, (3) tests, and, usually, (4) prizes. Because there is clear evidence that factors (1) and (2) are effective in encouraging reading and promoting literacy development (Krashen, 1993), the obvious study that needs to be done is to compare the effects of all four factors with (1) and (2) only. After reviewing the research on Accelerated Reader, I have concluded that this has yet to be done: Accelerated Reader studies usually compare Accelerated Reader to doing nothing, and the few attempts to do the needed comparison have been flawed (Krashen, 2004) See www.sdkrashen.com for more analysis.

According to the United States Department of Education Institute for Educational Sciences (IES What Works Clearinghouse, August 2010), Accelerated Reader was found to have no discernible effects on reading fluency or comprehension for adolescent learners.

Mark Pennington, MA Reading Specialist, is the author of the comprehensive reading intervention curriculum, Teaching Reading Strategies. Designed to significantly increase the reading abilities of students ages eight through adult within one year, the curriculum is decidedly un-canned, is adaptable to various instructional settings, and is simple to use—a perfect choice for Response to Intervention tiered instructional levels. Get multiple choice diagnostic reading assessments , formative assessments, blending and syllabication activitiesphonemic awareness, and phonics workshops, comprehension worksheets, multi-level fluency passages recorded at three different reading speeds and accessed on YouTube, 390 flashcards, posters, activities, and games.TRS

Also get the accompanying Sam and Friends Phonics Books. These eight-page decodable take-home books include sight words, word fluency practice, and phonics instruction aligned to the instructional sequence found in Teaching Reading Strategies. Each book is illustrated by master cartoonist, David Rickert. The cartoons, characters, and plots are designed to be appreciated by both older remedial readers and younger beginning readers. The teenage characters are multi-ethnic and the stories reinforce positive values and character development. Your students (and parents) will love these fun, heart-warming, and comical stories about the adventures of Sam and his friends: Tom, Kit, and Deb. Oh, and also that crazy dog, Pug.

Everything teachers need to teach a diagnostically-based reading intervention program for struggling readers at all reading levels is found in this comprehensive curriculum. Ideal for students reading two or more grade levels below current grade level, English-language learners, and Special Education students. Simple directions and well-crafted activities truly make this an almost no-prep curriculum. Works well as a half-year intensive program or full-year program, with or without paraprofessional assistance.

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  1. Lidia
    April 14th, 2014 at 12:41 | #1

    What about helping teachers to close reading gaps?How about building self-steem in case of students that never opened a book before,they understood the system,they cared about the whole group achieving a goal and went for that.
    I am a very proud Master classroom teacher for two consecutive years,and I have seen so much growth in my student’s scores,vocabulary,writing ,and personality skills.
    It is easy to complain,but let us know what would be the other choice if a teacher is only able to offer students give daily instructional hours.
    Some comments are very valid,specially from the ones mentioned in this article.

  2. April 14th, 2014 at 16:33 | #2

    Lidia,

    Glad to provide those free, classroom-proven resources for establishing a successful independent reading program: http://penningtonpublishing.com/blog/reading/free-independent-reading-resources/

  3. April 14th, 2014 at 16:35 | #3

    Lidia,

    Happy to provide the free, classroom-proven resources for a successful independent reading program that you requested: http://penningtonpublishing.com/blog/reading/free-independent-reading-resources/

  4. Debbie Harper-Wingle
    May 22nd, 2014 at 11:39 | #4

    Great article. Agree whole-heartedly with everything. My son had a horrible experience with AR reading while in elementary school and now my grandchildren are having some of the same experiences. Teachers are becoming lazy in our society today and AR is an easy way to say they are “teaching” our children to read. We need to re-evaluate our reading programs and update what worked yesterday!!

  5. June 4th, 2014 at 12:05 | #5

    You missed a real important one: most teachers/schools have kids take quizzes without the book. This adds another variable: a readers MEMORY. This leads to kids reading lower than their true instructional ability and is contradictory to all standardized testing in reading comprehension. At the very minimum, students should be encouraged to take the book and look back for answers where they may have forgotten a detail they read.
    Jack Jarvis
    Fresno, CA

  6. June 4th, 2014 at 12:32 | #6

    Nice catch. Good readers go back to the text to clarify and verify. Self-monitoring of independent text is so critical to developing flexible, empowered readers. The approach to independent reading I recommend instead of AR involves daily discussions of the reading via student-parent discussions for younger readers and book clubs/literacy circles for older readers. This approach reinforces going in and out of the text. The Common Core approach to reading instruction (close reading, etc.) should provide the death nell to AR, I would think. I do hope we can salvage quality independent reading, however.

  7. Michael
    June 11th, 2014 at 23:45 | #7

    This is an interesting article. My daughter presents a counterpoint to the points that were made. When she started 4th grade and we found out about the AR points program we offered her a reward if she could make it to 800 AR points by the end of the year. The goal for 4th graders was 50 points. My daughter was not a big reader prior to this past year. But she was very incented by the reward–if she made her goal she could have two multi-person sleepovers. So she stuck with it and diligently read. We bought her a Kindle and kept it stocked with books. By the end of the year she had over 1,050 points and, now, even with school being over she continues to read voraciously–she had read two books in the past three days.

    So, at least in our daughter’s case, the AR point system seems to have worked very well.

    I think it reminds me of one of the premises of the book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother–about an Asian mother who is extremely strict and force feeds academic excellence down her children’s throats–namely, why you are not good at something it tends to be not very fun, but if you invest the time and effort to become good at something then it becomes much more fun. Even though reading should provide its own intrinsic rewards, for some children external motivators, such as AR point goals, can provide the necessary impetus to develop a love for reading that will be self-sustaining after AR points go away.

  8. Elizabeth
    July 21st, 2014 at 08:39 | #8

    I found this website while desperately searching for books my 7th grader might like to read that are on grade level. While AR may not be the greatest program for avid readers, it was amazing for my child. Never one to read independently and who hates to read, her first elementary school used AR – with a rewards system – and she was constantly reading to get the rewards. Her vocabulary and comprehension improved dramatically. Since transferring schools in second grade (and now in 7th grade), her reading level, vocabulary, and comprehension have declined each year. She went from a student who was scoring in the 97th percentile in second grade to one who was scoring in the 78th in 6th grade. Now is when her school starts sorting the kids by ability, and she was placed in one of the lowest English classes because of her vocabulary (this despite the fact that she has managed to pull no less than a 97 percent in any class ever and was invited to take algebra two years early). She has tons of books at home and will only read the first 3-4 pages before declaring that reading is boring. I looked through the above link for a “successful independent reading program” and cracked up – my daughter would never finish anything in such a loosey goosey program. While AR may not be for everyone, it helped my daughter and I truly miss it.

  9. Natalie
    October 16th, 2014 at 07:49 | #9

    I ran across this while doing some research for a colleague into the ways that AR misuse can harm student morale and independent reading. I agree with others who say that it’s all about HOW AR is used.

    As an elementary school student, I loved AR. I still have my first ever AR t-shirt, and I remember my first ever AR book (Stone Soup). The program was used 100% as an incentive. There were no requirements, no class-wide rewards or “only the top ## of scorers get this prize” prizes. Everything was t-shirts, treasure chests, and pizza parties. No teacher pushed you to do AR, and you weren’t required to read at a specific level–the higher point values of books were incentive enough. Some of us took part in friendly rivalry, but there was no real pressure on the student to participate in the program or else let down their teachers/peers. I went back to work at the elementary school I attended for a few years, and that is still how the program works. Students read for fun and take the tests for fun. No requirements, no peer pressure.

    However, when I went to middle school, AR became my worst enemy. The school implemented a program that required students to take the STAR test each year, then grouped you into classes with students who performed similarly on the STAR test. We were expected to sit and read something “on or above reading level” (12.9+ for me) in silence for 40 minutes. We were also expected to get a certain number of points each nine weeks, or we would fail the class. That’s right, the WHOLE CLASS was nothing but taking AR tests. I hated it, and learned to hate reading. I RAILED against it, protested it, wrote angry articles in the school paper, and was eventually granted (along with my fellow 12.9+ers) the opportunity to take an extra elective class–2 years later.

    My experiences with AR were truly at the opposite ends of the spectrum, and that was entirely due to how the program was used/implemented.

  10. mmk
    October 29th, 2014 at 12:48 | #10

    @Debbie Harper-Wingle
    Teachers are not becoming lazy, and are not using AR out of a desire to circumvent actual teaching practice. They are often being required to use the program because of bogus claims that students’ reading levels improve due to the program. The current accountability model through which education policy (even at the local level) is dictated exacerbates the problem. Blaming “lazy teachers” for requirements dictated to them and beyond their control is lazy thinking and adds nothing to the serious discourse surrounding largely reform-driven or NCLB-driven policy dictates and their place in our children’s education.

  11. November 1st, 2014 at 09:36 | #11

    I would not characterize teachers as lazy; however, many teachers (especially newbies and secondary teachers) are given AR or other canned “reading fixes” and don’t have the requisite instructional reading background to understand what kids really need to become skillful readers. Remember that most teacher training programs only include one or two reading methods courses.
    Veteran teachers learn to look at other assessment-based reading resources, such as my own Teaching Reading Strategies. Shameless plug from the author of this article!

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