Software Review: Accelerated Reader

Guest Blog by Andrew from Match Next

 

The last two weeks I’ve written about our big push for independent reading at Match Next, our blended learning pilot. If you missed those blogs: 1) we bought a Kindles for each student. We’d give the devices a 7 out of 10 for 4th graders - some books that our kids like to read aren’t made for the Kindle, and it can get tricky moving books from computer to Kindle when you manage so many. And 2) I described the way we have tutors engage with kids and their books by serving as librarians, setting goals, tracking progress, and asking students to talk about what they’re reading.

Today I’ll tell you about how we use a website called Accelerated Reader (AR). We love it. I’d give it an 8 out of 10.

 

First, what is it?

Accelerated Reader pretty simple: a web-based tool with basic, 10-question quizzes for ~150,000 different books. A kid logs in when she finishes reading a book, then takes a quiz on the program. The program lets you track how much your students read and how well they do on the quizzes.

You may have already heard of it. Renaissance Learning, the company that produces AR, says 38,000 schools and 10.9 million students use it.

 

Here’s what we like about it:

1. It’s simple and easy to use. I’d say 95% of the time our students can sign on, find their book, and take the quiz without any help. Sometimes they misspell the title of a book, but that’s about it.

2. It gives results back right away. Kids, tutors, and teachers can immediately see whether a kid can recall basic info about the book, which is all that the quizzes really ask for.

3. If AR doesn’t have a quiz already made for a book, you can write one yourself.

4. We love the data it gives us.

 

Here’re some things for improvement

1. I’d say about 90% of the books our students read have pre-made quizzes. But when they don’t, we have to make them. Not a big deal, but kind of an annoying time-suck.

2. You can only review incorrect quiz answers if you pass a quiz + you can only review immediately after you finish the quiz. Sometimes we want to go back and see what they got wrong after the fact, but we can’t.

3. They lock you out too quickly if you type in the wrong password. Three or four wrong entries will force someone to go into an admin account and manually unlock the student. This can be a hassle.

 

The reading stopwatch

AR allows us to track two main things - how much a student is reading, and whether the student has really read and understood their book. Without it, it’d be like going for a jog with no stopwatch. I’ve never felt more like Usain Bolt than when I don’t time myself.

AR’s forced us to say - huh, Edward seems like he’s reading a lot, but actually, he’s been just flipping around through the first few chapters of a book, then skipping to a new one, so he never takes any quizzes. Or, hmm, Christina said she finished that book really fast, but then she failed the quiz. I don’t think she really read it. Or, wow, Juan seems to know what he’s reading when I talked with him about it, but he’s been failing a lot of quizzes, maybe he’s not really getting it.

Actually, we think it also makes our students pay a bit more attention when they’re reading. They know that just skimming something will mean they probably won’t pass the quiz.


Points

AR assigns each book a point value. Kids can earn some or all of these points depending on their quiz score. Let’s take the book: Diary of a Wimpy Kid (a big hit with our crew). It’s worth 3 AR points. Whatever percent a student gets on the quiz is the percentage of those 3 points she earns, except if she fails. If she gets 70%, then she’d earn 2.1 points. If she gets 100%, then she’d earn all 3 points. Anything under 60%, then she doesn’t earn anything.

AR determines the point value of a book based on a combination of difficulty and length. A very short, simple book is worth a half point. For example, take A Cat in the Hat. Early 2nd grade reading level, 1,621 total words. Total points: 0.5.

Now take Charlotte’s Web. Early 4th grade reading level. 31,938 words. Total points: 5.

A Tale of Two Cities? Late 9th grade reading level. 135,420 words. Total points: 27

As I discussed last week, we’ve put our students into teams. We use AR points as the way to track who’s winning.

This point stuff can be tricky. Our goal is to imbue students with a lasting love of reading, so ‘gamifying’ reading in this way can sometimes backfire if all a kid is reading for is to rack up points. AR has taken some heat over the years for this. See here, here and here.

 

In our experience, we’ve found that nothing will get a student to sustain interest in their book if they don’t actually enjoy the book itself. The only way we’ve ever ‘flipped’ a reluctant reader into a voracious one is by paying close attention to getting just the right book in their hands. And that takes a clever and persistent book match-maker. Points and incentives don’t really work.

But we’ve found, like with many people and going to the gym, half the battle is showing up. Many students who genuinely love to read and love their books, might not choose to do that extra half hour at home. An extra push, like team competitions and positive peer-pressure, can often get a kid over the hump of actually deciding to pick the book up in the first place. And when we’re competing with TV and an Xbox, we’ll take whatever edge we can get.


Next time
I’ve been talking a lot about our reading program. Next time, I’m going switch gears back to Math. I’ll talk about Reflex Math, a math fact memorization software we’ve been using to help our kids memorize their multiplication and division facts.

Comments

Finding the right reading

The idea that getting "just the right book" can help create voracious readers really resonates with my personal experience as a reader and also as a teacher. I'm curious, though, about the value of a book over other types of text. For instance, I pretty much learned to read when my father got tired of telling me about the Mets games every morning when I was growing up and finally just showed me how to find the sports section of the newspaper and read about it on my own. I was hooked. Once I reached middle school, I started paying attention to some of the other parts of the newspaper and reading fiction books on my own. It seems like schools often emphasize reading fiction books when there are lots of nonfiction resources out there for students that would be of equal or potentially even greater value for students' long-term development. Most of what college students read is nonfiction (outside of English majors), and I imagine that in today's world a lot of that nonfiction comes in the form of linked articles on the internet or PDFs. While I think that reading fiction books is valuable, is it any more valuable than other forms of reading? I wonder sometimes if "just the right book" for reluctant readers isn't actually a book at all.

Also, a quick question: Are the AR quizzes part of students' grades, or are they just relevant to the team competition?

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