from Chapter Five of The Read-Aloud Handbook by
Jim Trelease (Penguin, 2006, 6th edition).
For a list of all topics covered here and in the print
edition see Chapter
Five question list.
Chapter 5: SSR—sustained
reading aloud's silent partner—continued
What about computerized “reading
incentive” programs like Accelerated Reader
and Reading Counts?
wenty-five years ago when The
Read-Aloud Handbook was
first published, the idea of computerized reading-incentive/reading
management programs would have sounded like science fiction.
Today it is one of the most hotly debated concepts among
both educators and parents: Should children read for “intrinsic” rewards
(the pleasure of the book) or should they be enticed
to read for “extrinsic” rewards—prizes
or rewards (or grades)?
Advantage Learning System’s Accelerated Reader and Scholastic’s
Reading Counts, the two incentive industry leaders, work this way: The school library contains a core collection of popular and traditional children’s books, each rated by difficulty (the harder the book, the more points it has). Accompanying the books is a computer program that poses questions after the student has read the book. Passing the computer quiz earns points for the student reader, which can be redeemed for prizes like school T-shirts, privileges, or items donated by local businesses. Both programs strongly endorse SSR as an integral part of their program and require substantial library collections. Both Accelerated Reader and Reading Counts have expanded their scope beyond “incentives” to include substantial student management and assessment tools, with Accelerated Reader having the largest customer base nationally.
Too many schools are doing
the same thing
programs that other districts
sadly have done with the
game of basketball.
Before going forward on this subject, I must note, in the spirit of full disclosure, that I have been a paid speaker at three Accelerated Reader national conventions. I spoke on the subjects of reading aloud, SSR, and home/school communication problems, topics I have addressed at conventions for nearly all the major education conferences, from International Reading Association (IRA) and the American Library Association (ALA) to the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC).
I have written and spoken both favorably and negatively about these computerized
programs but in recent years I've grown increasingly uneasy with the way they
are being used by districts. Too often I see them being abused in ways similar
to basketball, for example. In its original form, Dr.
James Naismith was trying to shape an "indoorsy" exercise
that would have an "outdoorsy" flavor to it. He invented basketball less
than three miles from the home I'm sitting in right now. A century later,
some people still use it as a form of exercise, some a form of sport, and
others take it to another level and turn it into a local obsession—maybe
even a form of legalized child-abuse—while warping the original intention
of the sport. I don’t have to spell out those towns, cities, and states.
When I survey my seminar audiences nationally, I meet an increasing number
of dedicated educators and librarians who are alarmed by the way these programs
are being used. The original design was a kind of "carrot-on-a-stick"—using
points and prizes to lure reluctant readers to read more. For a while the big
complaint from critics was about these points or incentives. But I didn't have
a problem with that as long as the rewards didn't get out of hand (and some
have). As for incentives, my family's been benefiting from those frequent traveler "point
programs" for decades. Every professional athlete, every CEO, and most sales
reps have incentive clauses in their contracts. Who says this is bad business?
As I see it, the real problem arrived when districts bought the programs with
the idea they would absolutely lift
reading scores. "Listen," declares the school board member, "if we're spending
$50 grand on this program that's supposed to raise scores, then how can we
allow it to be optional? You know the kids who'll never opt for it—the ones
with the low scores, who drag everyone else's scores down. No—it's gotta be
mandatory participation." And to cement it into place, the district makes the
point system 25 percent of the child's grade for a marking period. Oooops!
They just took the "carrot" off the stick, leaving just the stick—a new grading
weapon. Do you see the basketball connection now?
ere is a scenario that has been painted by more than a few irate librarians
(school and public) in affluent districts that are using the computerized programs:
The parent comes into the library looking desperately for a "7-point book."
"What kind of book does your son like to read?" asks
The parent replies impatiently, "Doesn't matter. He needs 7 more points to make his quota for the marking period, which ends this week. Give me anything."
In cases like that, we're just back to same ol', same 'ol: "I need a book for a book report. But it's due on Friday—so it can't have too many pages."
Draftees vs. Enlistees:
The difference is
in the "attitude."
The only time the incentives really work on attitudes is when it's voluntary.
It's the equivalent of the difference between "enlistees" in the Army and "draftees." There's
a big difference in their attitudes: one is in for a career (volunteer), the
other (draftee) is in for as little time and work as possible.
As for the research supporting the computerized programs, that's hotly contested with no long-term studies with adequate control groups. True, the students read more, but is that because the district has poured all that money into school libraries and added SSR to the daily schedule? Where's the research to compare 25 "computerized" classes with 25 classes that have rich school and classroom libraries and daily SSR in the schedule? So far, it's not there.24
Believe it or not, high reading scores have been accomplished in communities
without computerized incentive programs, places where there are first-class
school and classroom libraries, where the teachers motivate children by reading
aloud to them, give book talks, and include SSR/DEAR time as an essential part
of the daily curriculum. And the money that would have gone to the computer
tests went instead to building a larger library collection. Unfortunately,
such instances are rare. Where the scores are low, oftentimes so is the teacher’s
knowledge of children’s
literature, the library collection is meager to dreadful, and drill and skill
supplant SSR/DEAR time. (Consider the blight of empty bookshelves in urban
and rural schools noted in Chapter Seven.)
Are there any other negatives
associated with these programs?
Here are some serious negatives to guard against:25
- Some teachers and librarians have stopped
reading children’s and young
adult books because the computer will ask the questions instead.
- Class discussion of books decreases because a discussion would give away
test answers, and all that matters is the electronic score.
- Students narrow
their book selection to only those included in the program (points).
- In areas where the “points” have been made
part of either the grade or classroom competition, some students attempt
books far beyond their level and end up frustrated.
Before committing precious dollars to such a program, a district must decide its purpose: Is it there to motivate children to read more or to create another grading platform?
thing leads to another . . . " That appears
to be the pattern in the business of assessment. As if Accelerated
Reader isn't causing enough anxiety in the schools, its
president and CEO, Terrance Paul, has added yet another
parents. Assessing parents? That's right. It comes in the
form of an iPod-sized device called the LENA that analyzes the amount
of words a parent speaks to an infant daily and then offers a summary
report at the end of the day, complete with national rankings. For
STRAIGHT, if anything, is no lightweight. With six novels
to her credit (including a finalist for the National Book Award),
along with an Edgar (mystery) Award and inclusion in the 2003 Best
American Short Stories, this literature professor and mother of
three carries some ballast in her literary criticism. On Sunday,
August 30, 2009, Ms. Straight took aim at Accelerated
Reader's approach to literature in an essay for The New York Times Book
Review entitled "Reading by the Numbers." She was not
pleased with the program—as an author, a teacher, or as a
parent. Click ESSAY.
Reader fails to meet evidence standards." The
claim that Accelerated Reader is responsible for improvment in
ELL scores was examined by the Institute of Educational Sciences'
What Works Clearinghouse. No conclusion could be
reached on its effectiveness because the evidence offered did not
meet Clearinghouse standards. The report can be found at:
card = Cash card? The idea is ancient, indeed practiced
by millions of parents through the decades, yet scorned by public education: cash
rewards for achievemen. Remember getting a dollar or two for
a good report card? Did it corrupt you? Was it an eventual turnoff?
Did it create too much pressure?
in an experimental program in New York City, 58 schools are doling
out cash for good grades — $500,000 to
date — and
the scores are rising. But questions remain: Will it last? Does it
really help in the long run? What does it do to classroom teaching?
Jennifer Medina explores those
questions and more in a Page 1 New York Times article, Mar. 5, 2008:
Next Question: Can Students Be Paid to Excel?
CASH INCENTIVES #2: What
happened when a little Ohio town (Coshocton, median income $31,000)
with part-time personnel went to cash incentives for students—if they
achieved higher grades? It worked and it didn't. For the pluses
and minuses, see the PBS Newshour program (click on the right
of the screen menu for "Schools
Consider Paying Students for Grades"), Aug. 11, 2008 online.
Cash Incentives #3: When
a Harvard professor and his colleagues had enough money ($6 million),
they distributed it as incentive dollars among 18,000 kids in 143 schools
in four major American cities. Did it result in higher scores? Yes and
no, depending on a number of factors, including imemdiate cash for reading
a book (higher scores on end-of-year standardized tests). Not all the
incentives worked, though. For the full accounting, see the Time Magazine
cover story "Should Schools Bribe Kids?" of April 19, 2010 online at www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1978589,00.html.
Is very much into magazines. Do they count as reading?
I'm sorry to be the first to tell you this, ma'am, but your daughter is "engaged." But not the way you're thinking. "Engagement" is one of the hot new terms in reading research these days.
The greater the amount of reading outside school and the greater the variety
material, the higher the
Reading engagement includes: How
deeply involved is the student in reading? How often does the student read?
For how long? Which kinds of text are read—books? magazines? newspapers? comics?
How much pleasure (if any) does the student find in it or is it always done
as work? Taken collectively, these offer a very accurate gauge of how "engaged" the
student is reading. Metaphorically speaking, it's the "want-to" factor in reading,
unmeasured by standardized testing but a giant impetus for voluntarily reading
in the 7,800 annual hours outside school. The psychological term for this is "flow," the
athletic term is "zone"—individuals
are so immersed in what they're doing they forget the time and seem to be floating
The OECD's 2002 study of 15-year-olds' in 32 countries measured the student engagement effect on reading literacy: the higher the engagement, the higher the scores; lower the engagement, the lower the scores.27
What parts of the engagement formula were important? The best readers read from the widest variety of texts and read longest from the deepest material—books—that require (and nurture) longer attention spans. Those who read less fiction but lots of comic books, newspapers, and magazines, didn't finish at the top but were a close second. Thus all kinds of reading count (fiction being highest), as long as it is done often. The greater the variety of print in the home, the higher the student score (and vice versa). A larger number of books also led to higher scores, and to more reading diversity and greater interest.
As "engagement" levels increase, so also do the reading scores, even for students at the lowest income levels.
As seen in the above chart, students from lower income families tended to
have lower scores, but when they were highly engaged (motivated) readers, they
scored higher than students from the highest income levels who were poorly
engaged readers and very close to the most engaged middle income students.
Thus, high reading engagement is capable of vaulting the lowest SES student
to significantly higher scores and overcoming family culture. Motivation (which
pushes frequency) is therefore a critical factor in elevating the at-risk readers.
• • Reading's down and so are teen scores •
In November 2007, the National Endowment for the
Arts, a government
funded agency, issued its second comprehensive report on patterns
in American reading, concluding with thoughts that second-guess
the Bush administration's strategies for raising reading scores. Below
are the opening paragraphs from The New York Times' coverage
of the report, followed by links to the complete article and the NEA
Study Links Drop in Test Scores
To a Decline in Time
MOTOKO RICH (NY Times, Nov. 19, 2007)
Harry Potter, James Patterson and Oprah Winfrey’s book
club aside, Americans — particularly
young Americans — appear to be reading less for fun, and as that
happens, their reading test scores are declining. At the same time, performance
in other academic disciplines like math and science is dipping for students
whose access to books is limited, and employers are rating workers deficient
in basic writing skills.
That is the message of a new report being released
today by the National Endowment for the Arts, based on an analysis of
data from about two dozen studies from the federal Education and Labor
Departments and the Census Bureau as well as other academic, foundation
and business surveys. After its 2004 report, “Reading
at Risk,” which found that fewer than half of Americans over 18
read novels, short stories, plays or poetry, the endowment sought to
collect more comprehensive data to build a picture of the role of all
reading, including nonfiction.
In his preface to the new 99-page report
Dana Gioia, chairman of the endowment, described the data as “simple,
consistent and alarming.”
Among the findings is that although reading
scores among elementary school students have been improving, scores are
flat among middle school students and slightly declining among high school
seniors. These trends are concurrent with a falloff in daily pleasure
reading among young people as they progress from elementary to high school,
a drop that appears to continue once they enter college. The data also
showed that students who read for fun nearly every day performed better
on reading tests than those who reported reading never or hardly at all.
happened to the classics? When I was a kid, we read Ivanhoe and Kidnapped and
. . .
Really? Nobody read junk in those good old days? As a matter of fact,
there was just as much junk around then as now, if not more. And it was
widely read. Perhaps not by you, but by most other children.
As I noted in the 2001 edition of The Read-Aloud
The offspring of the dime novel was the "series book" for
young readers, conceived by Edward Stratemeyer in the late 1890s. Aimed
at the preteen and teen reader, the series books eventually included
Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys, The Bobbsey Twins,
The Motor Boys, The Rover Boys, Tom Swift, and the Outdoor
Girls. The stories were adventure
or family oriented, written non-stop by a large syndicate of writers,
all writing under pseudonyms.
Just as social critics condemned dime
novels, librarians and teachers denounced the series books. Franklin
K. Mathiews, chief librarian of the Boy Scouts of America, wrote in
1914: "I wish I could label
each one of these books: 'Explosive! Guaranteed to Blow Your Boy's
Brains Out.' . . . [A]s some boys read such books, their imaginations
are literally 'blown out,' and they go into life as terribly crippled
as though by some material explosion they had lost a hand or foot."
years later, the elitists were so certain Nancy
Drew would corrupt
girls' minds (as 60 years later they would think Goosebumps would turn
every child into a serial killer), H. W. Wilson Company, the largest
U.S. manufacturer of library supplies, refused to print the index cards
for the card catalog for Nancy Drew, and even published a list of nearly
60 authors who should not be circulated by libraries, all of them authors
for series like Tom Swift and the Bobbsey
with the elitism was the widely held belief that fiction was something
to be fed to children in only small, controlled doses. They believed
children only learned from facts; therefore, fiction was useless.
And the worst fiction of all would be the sensational fiction of series
books. Here's a quote from 1850: "No part of education ... is
of greater importance than the selection of proper books ... No dissipation
can be worse than that induced by the perusal of exciting books of
fiction ... a species of a monstrous and erroneous nature."
What made the series books especially evil for children was they were "addictive." Children
weren't content to read just one; they'd read the first, second, third,
etc. Unfortunately, moaned the experts, the whole time they're reading
that junk, they're not reading the wonderful new book on sponges that
just arrived in the library!
The fear that Harry Potter and series books will
corrupt the soul is as old as the Bobbsey Twins.
Having seen a bit of the history of youthful junk literature, allow me
to ease your anxieties even further. When Justice Sonia
her seat on the U.S. Supreme Court in 2009, there were numerous media
stories exploring her humble Bronx childhood, including her childhood
reading habits. Her favorite? Nancy Drew, which, it turns
out, not coincidentally, was also the favorite of two other female
Day O'Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. So
much for the numbing and corruptive influence of junk reading. For
more on that relationship between the justices and the female
sleuth from River Heights, see "Nancy
Drew and the Secret of the 3 Black Robes" by Mary Jo Murphy, The
New York Times,
May 31, 2009, Week in Review Section p. 3.
As the article above this one notes, it's
not the subject matter that gives the advantage, it's the time spent
using the mind in conjunction with the written word. All reading is good—big
words, little words, complex plots, simple plots—it all adds up.
covered in Chapter 3 of print and Web editions of The Read-Aloud Handbook:
- My daughter is very much into magazines.
Do they count?
- How can reading a newspaper or magazine make
- How do I stop them from reading “junk” during
- My son loves comic books—is that good
- If adults are supposed to be role models,
how much do teachers read?
- I know my third-graders are encountering
words they don't know during SSR but they're not looking them up in the
dictionary. How else will they understand what they're reading?