One of my favorite things about reading is the freedom of it all, especially now that I'm part of a classroom environment that encourages students to read each and every book that they find interesting, no matter how short or long it is or how obscure of a topic it addresses. We're free to pick a book off the shelf, read the description, check the number of pages, and then decide for ourselves whether it's something we can or cannot handle. We can read what we want, when we want to, as long as we have something interesting to say about it when the time comes to write a blog post.
Sadly, not everyone is given this choice. I have a sister in 5th grade who is a great example of a child who constantly feels restricted by the limited reading options that she has. Her school uses the Accelerated Reading Program. It is a computer-based program that assigns specific "levels" to books based on length and difficulty. The level of the book also determines the number of points awarded to the test taker if he/she answers enough questions correctly. Each child is also given a range of levels from which to choose books. This range is assigned depending the reader's previously recorded level of skill. The program is based off the idea that, if a child is given a certain difficulty range from which to choose books for reading, then his/her speed and comprehension will gradually improve when that range slowly increases as more books are read and goals are reached.
In theory, this system has almost no cons. Children learn to slowly build up their reading ability, they are able to pick books within their limits more easily, and teachers can monitor and keep track of the entire process. Even I, despite strongly opposing the AR Program, can see how it challenges unmotivated kids to improve and continue improving in exchange for rewards (prizes, ribbons, and sometimes just the satisfaction of reaching your goal on time). The problem arises, in my eyes, when the program begins to largely dominate the classroom reading curriculum. As more stress is put on students to read books in order to reach their point goals, less time is spent on putting emphasis on reading for fun and for learning!
Here is the website that allows you to find books and see their levels. My biggest peeve with the system is the fact that very many books are not part of the AR system, so by using it, a child's options are limited. Many kids choose to only read books that get them points and don't pay attention to the ones that are not yet part of the system.
I can't speak for the experiences of anyone else, but as someone who went through two years of AR in elementary school, I can honestly say that the program was the single biggest reason for my apathetic outlook toward reading throughout Junior High. I only started taking AR tests in 5th and 6th grade, when I moved to a new location and started going to a new school. I had always been an avid reader and have had good literary comprehension all my life, but something about the AR system made me never want to pick up a book again. I'm a naturally slow reader, I always have been, but that has absolutely nothing to do with how good I am at it. I simply enjoy taking my time. Sadly, the AR system puts stress on the reader to always reach his/her monthly goal, always get 100% on each test, and always strive to read as fast as the rest of the class. I constantly compared myself to my classmates and thought less of myself because of how slow I read. I had a low AR level for my grade, meaning that I was only allowed to read books of specific difficulty. There were very few books within my level that appealed to me. I couldn't go higher or lower without teacher approval. I almost never reached my point goals, even when I tried my hardest. My grades suffered because of this and made me feel inferior to my classmates. It felt like a competition. It was me against the kids who could speed through a book and still ace the test afterward. This experience with the AR system left me with conflicted feelings about books and language arts in general, all the way up to high school. Last year, luckily, I was brought back to my senses by a great teacher and an amazing learning environment, but I still have a very hard time seeing books as fun. Ihave to push myself to read, because I only view it as work that will be followed up by a test or an essay.
And now, I see my sister beginning to go through the same experience. She is a slow reader, has a low reading level, and she doesn't like most of the books within that level. She truly wishes to read books and to learn about and understand them, and when I ask her what exactly is holding her back from enjoying reading, she tells me that it is solely the AR Program that is keeping her from achieving her personal goals, rather than those of the classroom or the school. She doesn't want to have to worry about her reading speed, or her topics of interest, or the expectations of teachers, and she shouldn't need to!
Reading is meant to be fun. It is meant to teach people more about themselves and their surroundings, and limiting children to only books that are available as tests on a computer program is not the correct way to enhance their skills and broaden their views of the world around them. I do believe that some limitation on books can be good when it comes to mature or touchy subjects, but even then, if a child feels ready to take on a challenging read, then why not? Why is preventing a child from exploring his/her options and finding a topic that he/she finds interesting ever the right thing to do? I think that the AR Program can be beneficial to students who are unwilling to read otherwise, as long as it is not the only thing that determines their grades, but if a child is willing to read and is excited about learning, then isn't he/she already meeting all of the standards of what a "good" reader should be? Forcing these enthusiastic readers to only read in order to reach their point goals is, if anything, making them want to read less and less.
To the kids that enjoy reading and like to go above and beyond when choosing a book, the AR Program is something that must be suffered through in order to get to a high enough level where harder books are even an option. And for the kids that like reading but also take their time, the program gives a sense of urgency to reading, and a sense of competition, which is not at all what reading is about. It is about getting lost in a book and not wanting to find your way out. The Accelerated Reading Program may help someone become a "better" reader, but it doesn't help him/her become a more passionate one.
In my opinion, the Accelerated Reading Program should be removed from schools, or only used for those students who need an extra push to get them started in the world of books. This opinion is based strictly off my own experiences with the program, but I know that many others feel the same way. I can't stand the thought of ever putting a limit on how much knowledge is accessible to an individual, and the way I see it, overuse of AR does exactly that.
If you're familiar with the AR Program, tell me what your thoughts on it are! What are some of your positive/negative critiques of the system? How do you think it could be changed and improved in order to suit the needs of readers better? Why do you think it works for some people and not for others? If you really love the system, tell me why!