Renaissance Learning, Accelerated Reader is a system that grades books, suggests appropriate reading levels and then monitors pupils' reading by giving them a multiple choice quiz on the book they've just read. The system analyses the quiz responses to show teachers whether the pupil has read the book, and what aspects of it they found difficult (e.g., vocabulary, or higher level comprehension).
If they fly through a couple of quizzes, they are rewarded with a higher reading band. They can also collect points according to how long the book was that they read - leading to a total score of words read, and the accolade of 'word millionaire' when they get to the magic 1,000,000 words. They are however expected to stay within their bands - books read outside them, although allowed, do not count for rewards and incentives. For a slower reader, expected to progress at a certain number of books per term, or for a competitive reader, determined to get to the millionaire mark first, this more or less prohibits reading outside the given bands.
According to the National Literacy Trust, the use of Accelerated Reader in schools does actually get more pupils reading, and increases the proportion of pupils in the difficult teenage years who say they enjoy reading, will admit to a favourite book, and read widely across genres.
My daughter's school has just started using the scheme and the number of pupils taking books out of the school library has tripled compared with the same time last year. It's hard to argue with that kind of boost to pupils' interest in books and there really does seem to be a noticeable encouragement to read through the motivation of online quizes and rewards, particularly for boys.
What interests me, though, is the banding structure and the rationale behind it. AR uses a computer programme which scans the books and then analyses them for vocabulary and syntax (proportion of complex sentences). The range of banding for the books in a secondary school library is roughly from about 3 to about 11 or 12 for the very hardest books (for a rough idea of what these mean - R.L. Stine's Goosebumps books are about 3; Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov has an AR level of 11.1 )
|AR level 3.0|
|AR level 11.1|
But there are two things I think are seriously problematic with the underlying assumptions of this scheme.
The first is a prescription that I think is wrong-headed: that we progress in reading in a straight line - that when we are capable of reading Dostoevsky, we are 'beyond' R.L. Stine. In fact, I think there are plenty of people who might go back and forth between the two and get different pleasures out of each. AR schemes do talk about letting pupils read 'below' their level as occasional 'comfort reads' - but this is presented as a kind of reversion. It's a bit like the idea that we all sometimes need to watch crap telly and eat donuts. It won't enrich our lives but it will give us some 'down-time'. For me, the idea that you are 'slumming it' by reading the 'easier' book is a pernicious one. The lower-level books are not just donuts, they may have all sorts of fabulous and enriching things to say to us as readers - they just do it in a different, though not necessarily less crafted or effective, way.
The second assumption is that the 'straight line' of reading progression is entirely about syntax and vocabulary. And this is where the truly jaw-dropping anomalies of AR banding become apparent. Using the AR website to check the relative banding of books for my daughter, I was amazed to discover that Alan Garner's Owl Service is banded at 3.7. By contrast, Dav Pilkey's Captain Underpants is 4.3. And Captain Underpants and the Revolting Radioacive Robo-Boxers (presumably because of the number of multi-syllable words) is a whopping 5.3.
|AR level 4.3|
|AR level 3.7|
Philip Reeve's Here Lies Arthur (a fabulous retelling of the Arthur legend from the point of view of a young girl co-opted into helping the bard Merlin, who is presented as a kind of early 'spin-doctor') is 5.6, so she'd reach that well before she was able to read Reeves' knockabout books for younger readers, the Buster Bayliss series (Custardfinger is rated 6.3).
Meanwhile, she is lucky that her favourite author, Marcus Sedgwick, uses relatively simple sentences, as that means that many of his books are in her range (My Swordhand is Singing, a complex tale of vampires set in medieval Eastern Europe, is 4.9). However, she's missed out on his Floodland, which is 3.9, and it won't be long before she's progressed to the point where all of Sedgwick's novels will have to be 'comfort reads', as Kevin-Crossley Holland's magnificent Arthur books already are (4.2–4.3). Never mind - because she can always stretch herself with Daisy Meadows; Kate the Royal Wedding Fairy is 5.4.
|AR level 5.4|
|AR level 5.0|
The computer analysis used to grade AR books clearly doesn't read them - it processes them as strings of words. The more important aspects of books - the ideas, the plot twists, the characters, the emotions, the metaphorical language - all of this is entirely missed. Yet this is most of what makes a book enjoyable, memorable, heart-breaking, what touches or thrills you as a reader. I am immensely saddened by the idea that whole swathes of teenagers are going to flick past The Owl Service and fail to pick it off the shelf of the school library because it has a black sticker on it (easy) rather than green or purple (harder, higher, more worthy).
Accelerated Reader is beloved of Ofsted, because it produces quantifiable results and signs of 'progress'. It certainly seems to be getting more pupils reading, and excited about getting their rewards and stickers - but it's encouraging at the same time a very quantitative approach to what reading is, and how we should do it. According to the National Literacy Trust survey, an extra 7% of pupils using the scheme are prepared to say they enjoy reading compared with those that don't use it. I wonder if that's an achievement worth celebrating if 100% of those pupils now think of reading as a goal-oriented activity with 'difficult' vocabulary being the measure of value?
Cecilia Busby writes fantasy adventures for children aged 7-12 as C.J. Busby. Her latest book, Dragon Amber, was published in September by Templar.
"Great fun - made me chortle!" (Diana Wynne Jones on Frogspell)
"A rift-hoping romp with great wit, charm and pace" (Frances Hardinge on Deep Amber)