Tuesday, May 8, 2012

News Flash: Kids Reading for Pleasure is Not The Problem

Warning:  This is a grumpy post.   But I can't help it.  I've been sitting on these thoughts since this article  stumbled across my twitter stream a couple of weeks ago and, frankly, I just can't sit on them any longer. In short, the article (which references a report by Renaissance Learning – the folks behind AR) implies a link between low SAT scores and high school students reading too many “low level” books. My hero and mega brain crush, Doug Johnson, recently shared the some of the same study with his colleagues and wrote about the impact of levels on student reading habits, which sparked some good discussion… but my main beef with this article is how it distracts from the REAL issues that are impacting student achievement in all areas – not just on the sacred SAT score.

First off, I guess I should say that I am a big believer in student choice when it comes to reading (and in all education, really). Even when I was a classroom teacher and felt pressured to make sure that every word my students consumed was “at or above” their determined reading level, my gut kept telling me it was wrong. Since then, and time and time again, my reader/teacher instincts have been proven right by research indicating that when students are allowed to read for pleasure, they excel at reading. As educators we know, (or at least I hope we do) that:
  • Kids who say they enjoy reading are more likely to score well on reading assessments than those students who identify themselves as nonreaders.
  • Regular reading outside of prescribed “reading for school” has also been linked with higher test scores.
  • Reading, more than any other skill, is associated with total academic success.
  • Choice is motivating - not just in reading, but in all aspects of both academic and non academic life.
Secondly, I should also mention that when it comes to reading instruction, the need for appropriate text (both academically and developmentally) is fundamental. However, there’s a huge difference between teaching someone to read and cultivating readers. Further, although it’s never clarified in either the article or the referenced study, it’s pretty clear that the vast majority of the offending "low level" books were NOT used for reading instruction.

All of that said, what really irks me about this article is that by devoting time to the notion that SAT scores have been damaged by the pleasure reading habits of students, we ignore the REAL issues that are actually impacting student achievement. We (meaning our students) would be better served by a dialogue that focused on things like:
  • Recent (and obscene) cuts to federal, state and local education budgets which have resulted in much bigger classes and far fewer resources.
  • Disparities in available technology (and other) resources between poor/affluent schools.
  • The recession and the resulting increase in students living in poverty coupled with...
  • The lack of training teachers receive in how to deal with the impact of poverty on student learning/development.
  • And, oh I don’t know, the virtual elimination of school library budgets/jobs in many districts – leaving kids with fewer options and less support in developing the very reading habits that have been proven time and time again to be essential in promoting student achievement.
Of course, slapping levels on books and forcing kids to read from their predetermined shelf is much easier than dealing with these (and other) REAL problems. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad that people are interested in the reading lives of kids, but my students (and yours too, I suspect) deserve a more respectful dialogue that focuses on the issues that really matter.


  1. Amen, Jennifer! I once kept a big, fat folder with all my ammunition against AR -- it is on my list of evil things. Students MUST be able to choose what they want to read (with the exception of reading instruction) and they should not be criticized for what they choose. And, from an educational standpoint, we need to remind folks who want students to only read what is at their level that reading lower level books increases fluency.

  2. Thanks, Paige! Keep fighting the good fight, girl!

  3. My daughter is an avid reader and at 8 loves non fiction science books but isn't allowed to read them for her reading log. She has to read a book she can finish in one sitting so she can fill out this idiotic bubble sheet with the main ideas and non fiction books nor chapter books fit nicely on this worksheet.She also has read almost all of The Diary of a Wimpy Kid books, which we own, but is not allowed to check out Goosebumps books even though they are in the library (she read two before asking her teacher if she had read any of the books). Her teacher won't let them go to the "chapter books" to check out books because "they are only second graders." Really? So, she says she will read "baby books" for her teacher and she reads "good books" on her own. Last week she didn't check out any books from the school library because she has exhausted all her choices that is allowed by her teacher. Up until that point, she checked out 6 books every week, but she s tired of reading the same books over and over. I just shake my head at education today and let her download whatever she wants to her Kindle Fire. :)

    1. Stories like this make me sad, Liz. I know what it what it's like to feel pressured to make sure students are reading only "rigorous texts" but at what cost? To think that kids WANTING to read could some how be linked to lower SAT scores is just so ridiculous - especially given the mountain of other problems plaguing education. Argh!

      When you and I are in charge of the world, things will be different. ;-)

  4. Jennifer,

    Thank you for putting this post out into the world. This is a dialogue that I feel needs little introduction, but regular attention.

    A teacher at my school regularly pulls books from his students hands who are lined up to leave the library and says, with the attention of any onlooking kid, "Ah no no no. You're in 5th grade. You can't just check out picture books and comics books. Nope (pulls books from student's hands). Go get a chapter book. Now." The remaining students in lined are then "checked" for approval and many are sent rushing to quickly grab a chapter book.

    The compromise we've reached is to require all 5th graders to check out a chapter book for sustained reading and to select two other books of their choice. Seriously, the teacher even has them put back nonfiction if he doesn't feel it's "heavy enough" content for their age.

    As always, behold the school librarian... working twice as hard and against a barrage of barriers in order to protect freedom of choice for the valued patrons.

    1. Isn't it funny, Matthew... the mere fact that your students are willing to read MORE in order to have at least a little *choice* included in their routine ought to be a massive signal to all teachers that there's something to this whole choice thing. Oi!

      I am so thankful the kids at your school have YOU fighting for them. You are making a huge difference in their lives, kiddo! Keep fighting the good fight!

  5. Wholeheartedly agree! I have to try so hard (and am sure I often fail) at hiding my disgust when helping parents who are searching for very specific reading levels with almost complete disregard to the content or their child's interests. They can't believe when I tell them they're going to have to look up books to find out their reading levels, that I don't just know them off hand or keep a list. It's like they're astounded we don't have the entire (public) library organized by grade level or AR point value or some other system. All I can say is that I'm glad AR wasn't a part of my public school education because I read things above, below, and at grade level and I loved every minute of it. I loved it so much I ended up a librarian!

  6. Looks like you've posted a hot button issue, Jennifer. In the county I work in, many schools are dropping AR in favor of other reading incentives because of the cost and because kids are just plain burnt out on it. The schools are leaving it up to the teacher librarian to come up with some type of reading incentive program to replace it. The teachers at my school aren't going to be letting go of AR anytime soon, so for now I am trying to work with it the best I can.

    In all fairness, though, I think AR started off with good intentions behind it, but has since grown into a monster. I personally have a terrible love/hate relationship with it. I think it has to be used the way it was designed in order to be effective, but even then I am not sure it really does much to encourage reluctant readers, especially if it is not being monitored on a regular basis. It really has to be looked at once a week, if not daily to be effective, and even then, if titles aren't available that kids want to read, well, that's just another roadblock. It would be great if there was some component to encourage kids to read for fun and not take a test on what they've read. That's just my two cents.

    For my part, I do my best to encourage my patrons to check out one AR book and one "fun" book. I even have magazines available for a one day check out. Most teachers are getting on board with the one AR one fun book idea, but they still make sure that before students check out a fun book they have an AR book checked out. What kills me more is when a patron picks up a book they think is cool, but then they put it back because it's not an AR book. Whenever that happens I always make sure to tell that child that books can be good even if they don't have an AR label. Sometimes that's enough to encourage them to check it out; sometimes it's not.

    I also worry now with lexiles being pushed with the Common Core if the problem is only going to get worse. But no one said this job was easy, right?

  7. Amen. And if all of you out there haven't yet read Donalyn Miller's wonderful book, The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child, you really should. You won't regret it!

  8. I am starting to read The Book Whisperer (finished ch 2). I am reading it with some of the teachers that I work with. A lot of the teachers love Accelerated Reader. Does AR fit in her approach? Teachers have even asked me to arrange the library by reading levels. My gut is against this. Do I have a battle ahead?