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Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Why I am Leery about Accelerated Reader

On the one hand, Accelerated Reader is an amazing product. In one easy-to-use space, children, schools, and teachers have access to over 100,000 books.  This is a tremendous resource that can instantly grow a school library’s collection, particularly in lower-income districts.  Furthermore, studies have shown statistically significant improvement in standardized testing for those utilizing the Accelerated Reader model. However, many scholars and experts have challenged these results and many of the core elements of an Accelerated Reader program.

HOW IT WORKS: Accelerated Reader provides increased access to books, due to its mammoth collection, along with built-in additional time for student reading. It also has children take computerized tests on what they read that can then earn them points for their correct answers. These points can then be exchanged for prizes. Accelerated Reader has constructed a colossal incentive reading program that it claims encourages greater reading. 

There are many challenges to Accelerated Reader’s model. Stephen D. Krashen’s article, The (Lack of ) Experimental Evidence Supporting the Use of Accelerated Reader offers a rather scathing deconstruction of much of the research supporting the program.[1] If you are interested in the methodology do check out his fascinating article. Krashen proves, rather convincingly, that Accelerated Reader has, in some ways, been selling a bill of goods. By emphasizing the gains largely created by increased reading, the Accelerated Reader program is inculcating testing and incentives as interconnected. As he analogizes:
A hypothetical example may help us understand whether AR should be used or not. Drug A and Drug B are both designed to cure a specific disease. A is known to be effective with highly beneficial long-term effects. There is little evidence for or against B, but suggestive evidence that it may be harmful in the long run. A drug company produces AB, more expensive than A alone, and justifies it by providing studies showing that AB tends to be effective. A scientist reviewing the research shows that no study has compared AB to A alone. Clearly such studies are called for before the medical establishment endorses or even approves AB. A is providing access and time to read. B is tests and rewards. Accelerated Reader is AB.
Clearly the most important factors in improving reading are first, allocating time for reading, and second providing access to more books. And I think Krashen is right to really challenge the role of testing and incentives. From his findings, it seems that these latter two goals have no positive effects, and potentially harmful long-term effects. However, I would caution us against focusing ONLY on what Accelerated Reader does NOT do. Krashen dismisses Accelerated Reader because, “only aspect of AR that has a positive effect is the increased access to books and increased time to read them.” But this is a SIGNIFICANT thing. If Accelerated Reader can provide more children with greater access, and built in reading time, then that alone is providing a service. Is it perhaps overhyped and overvalued? Yes. But let us not undermine the importance of increasing reading time, period.

In the end, we have to see Accelerated Reader as only one tool in education, not a magic pill. While it may not live up to its initial expectations, if only by its insistence on building in more reading time and providing more content, it can  still be a valuable resource in many districts.

[1] Stephen Krashen, “The (Lack of ) Experimental Evidence Supporting the Use of Accelerated Reader,” Journal of Children's Literature (2003) vol .29 (2): 9, pp. 16-30. Accessed September 5, 2012,  http://www.sdkrashen.com/articles/does_accelerated_reader_work/ .

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