30 May 2010

What Your Kids Are Reading - Accelerated Reader

In my next few blogs, I will be giving you some observations about what your kids are reading, from the mechanics of getting children to read to the types of books that seem to most interest them. Knowing what your child is reading is an essential part of knowing what is on his/her mind, knowing what issues are important to him/her, and being able to intelligently discuss what is happening in their lives.

Reading from Accelerated Reader Lists

For those of you whose kids do not attend a school which uses the Accelerated Reader system, you have my hearty congratulations. For the rest of you, read on. I know I risk offending the AR folks and school administration, but from a child's, parent's, or librarian's viewpoint, a more bulky and inefficient system would be hard to find.

Accelerated Reader is a company which sells packages to schools containing tests which your children take after reading from a specified list of books. Schools can buy a large list containing many books or a smaller list containing few, depending on the school's budget for such things. On the up side, overworked (and underpaid) teachers don't have to a) assign every child the same book (which they have read themselves) or b) read every book ever written. I think you can see that the basic idea is sound.

In actual execution, however, the AR list is every librarian's nightmare. First, the schools probably cannot reasonably buy every book, even on a smaller AR list. The list changes, as do the reading preferences of children, almost hourly. Even if the school could buy every book, they cannot buy enough for the hundreds of kids who might want to read it in a school year. The overflow of demand flows onto the public libraries and bookstores. The school posts the AR list on its website (usually) and while children often know this, very few parents do. Attention schools: kids are not taking home the fliers you sent (what a surprise).

A parent comes to me because today, nine days before the end of the school year, they were told that Tommy has a total of seven AR points and needs twenty to move up a grade. Trust me when I say that this is more common than you may think. If parents are members of PTA, they just might be aware of this system, but if it is a single mom who works three jobs to keep a roof over Tommy's head, you will forgive her, I hope, for letting such a detail slip. These are not negligent parents. They are simply broadsided by a system which frankly also frustrates the literature professionals at your library. Tommy's mom has dark circles of fatigue under her eyes and does not need to lose sleep over a somewhat complex system of measuring her child's reading development.

The system works like this: a child reads Book A which is ranked for a certain Book Level/Reading Level and for a number of AR points. The reading levels are meant to guide the child to reading of more and more advanced material; a way of nudging them along a path to better reading. They are given a test after they complete a book. The tests they are given presumably measure the child's comprehension. The AR points seem to be an aggregate requirement for the year. I cannot know, of course, because AR does not communicate it's goals to the public library. Nor do the school systems. Since parents are generally unaware that a list exists and libraries are not routinely given one, it's hard for us to know which books are needed. Searching for an appropriate book can be an ordeal.

The library e-mailed all the schools in the county and city school systems at the beginning of the school year, and received one (1) AR list in return. We scoured the schools' websites and came up with approximately two-thirds of the rest and bookmarked them on the Internet. Of these, about a third or more changed the link to the list, some formatted their lists in a format hard to use, and the rest had no link at all. We have one school which has not updated us with a list since 2000. Until recently, we only had paper copies.

Once we have a list on hand, the scenario is something like this:

Parent comes in with Susie in tow. Susie needs an AR book. Librarian asks, "What is Susie's reading level?" Dad is blank, but Susie may say, "Teacher says I can read anything in the 4.2 to 4.6 level." This is the first dad has heard of it. Younger kids will probably not know their reading level. Librarian says (this time to Susie, of course): "What do you like to read?" Susie shrugs. Librarian says, "I'll tell you what. I will give you what I have of the list in your level, and you take that over to a table and look it over. Write down on this paper five or six books you think you might like, and we'll see if we have them." Fate decrees that, if we are lucky, one of the six are both owned by the library and checked in. Dad then adds: "we were hoping for at least two or three books, because we're going to grandma's and will be gone a week." The entire transaction can take an hour. In the meantime, Susie may or may not like the looks of the books we actually find, dad is well past ready to go home, and little brother has removed the hard drive from a computer.

This system is certainly an intelligent effort to quantify your child's reading progress. It is, however, cumbersome to use and frustrating for the child, the parents, and libraries. In all fairness, AR has a website with a search engine for all the books for which they have tests. Unfortunately, without a specific access code, there is no way to tell from this site which tests your school owns. With luck, AR will make their online database more user friendly. Perhaps, in an effort toward equity it will provide all schools with access to all tests, thereby ending the disenfranchised status of poorer school districts. It would be heartening to have them put the literacy of children before crass commercialism, but that's just me talking crazy. In the event this golden age comes, it will enable librarians to access availability and easily determine whether the book Susie picked up at random is, in fact, on the school's list and in her reading level. Also, it would be nice if AR continued expanding its list of available books, so that no child is forced to read books that don't interest them simply because it's one of the twelve books allowed at their reading level.

To summarize: your child, at least up into middle school, is probably reading from an AR book system, or something similar. If you care about the quality of your child's reading experience, pester the school to make available to you updated and easy-to-use lists. Print out the reading level you are working with, sit with your child and think ahead about the books your child will/can read. You can even reserve books online or by phone at your public library. We will call you and you can buzz by and pick them up quickly and easily. Some libraries even have drive-through windows! If you can't find it in your home library, many libraries belong to consortia and can check around for you (more on that later). Badger your schools into keeping us, your public library, informed. We will be doing the same. Also, campaign for more reading choices for your children.

Hang in there parents. The school really is on your side and so are we. I stand on the assertion that reading well is Job One. Math and science are vital, but it's hard to teach from a textbook that cannot be read.

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