What About “That” Reading Program?

This year, in an effort to help turn around the non-reading habits of our students, our administration decided to try using a certain reading program. It was announced to the staff like this: “We are going to be using ____________ program this year. I don’t care if you don’t like it, this is not up for discussion. Our kids don’t read and that is unacceptable, so we’re doing it.” I kind of admired that, actually, even though I’d heard differing opinions about the value of the program to achieve lifelong reading habits.

This program is one where you test the students at the beginning of the school year to determine their current reading level, and then they read books at or just beyond that level. As they finish a book they take a short 10 question test on it and points are awarded according to the length and complexity of the book. You probably know what it is; you may even have experience with it. If so I’d be interested to hear your experience with it.

As an incentive to read, students are required to earn a certain number of points each quarter in order to be able to attend school rallies, assemblies and dances. This is in coordination with having greater than a 2.0 GPA and good behavior. The point levels are pretty high, I think. 20 points per quarter minimum, no matter what the student’s reading level.  That’s a lot of Little Golden Books for our low level readers. This sounded good on paper, I suppose. I mean, if a kid wants points, he or she will have to read, thus eventually creating lifelong readers, right? I mean if you read, you naturally get better at it and if you are better at it you like it more and do more of it, right?

For me, the jury is out on this. I have a competitive 18 year old son who was an avid point getter when he was in elementary school. He says he always got all his points. I ask if he liked it, and it is clear that it wasn’t about liking it. It was about points and he got all of them, always. He’s still proud of that.  And I ask, (already knowing the answer, of course) “So, then that led you to become a lifelong reader, right? It taught you to read better and love reading?” Oh. No. He never reads of his own will.  Ever. But he got all his points and some to spare. Hm. Maybe he is an anomaly.

Today we spent some time in the computer lab with our staff members creating “teams” of our students. This will enable us to look at their points at any time. We can adjust the calendar to certain dates, to see how many points they’ve gotten in a week or a quarter. I love this kind of stuff, the putting things in neat boxes that I can grasp.  After we made the teams, I went to look at how many points my classes have, overall, this quarter. My eighth graders have 53 point total. The whole class! (Compare this with my colleague’s Honors English class who have earned close to 500 points this quarter.) And our 53 points include one kid who has 33 points on his own. Another kid failed the test on “One Fish Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish,” but passed the test on “War of the Worlds, The Unabridged Edition.” Wait, what??

In my seventh grade class one of my students who has a very hard time following along with any class discussion, who likes to read the Diary of a Wimpy Kid over and over, failed some children’s book tests but passed the test on “Breaking Dawn” to earn 20 points.  Now I know that this boy did not read Breaking Dawn, and I seriously doubt  that the other one read War of the Worlds.  So what is truly going on here? Is this the sign of some readers being born?

Today a colleague found one of her students taking a test on Catching Fire, by Suzanne Collins.  This is a bright young man, and she would have never questioned his having read that book. Except when his reading quiz crashed and she went to help him, she noticed another tab he had open. Can you guess what it was? Yeah. The questions and answers for Catching Fire, found easily on Google.

So, what are we accomplishing here? Last month the circus came to our school and not quite half the student body got to go see it. There were about 180 students who had greater than a 2.0 who sat out the circus because they didn’t have reading points. And now they are learning how to get points so that doesn’t happen again.  But apparently they aren’t all actually reading to get those points.

Recently a group of students were called into the library to take tests. When the librarian told me about this, I asked her how they could take tests if they hadn’t read anything. She answered that they either sat them down and handed them a children’s book  to read (value .5 point) or read it to them and then made them take the test. I could not keep still. I asked her, what is our point with all this? Are we after readers or point earners? Do you think that sitting them down like that is going to create a person who reads or a person who gets empty points? To her credit, she wasn’t sure. She said she thought maybe some would keep reading. I wish I shared her optimism.

Presently I am reading Hunger Games aloud to my seventh graders, and Catching Fire to the eighth graders. We spend a good 15 – 20 minutes each day on this. The books are worth 15 and 17 points, respectively.  I give all the characters different voices, as I want it to be interesting enough to them that they might catch fire.  I want them to realize somehow what treasures are found in books if you give them a chance. Maybe you are thinking that I’m just as bad as the other cheating that is apparently going on. I mean, they are not reading these books either.  But, they are quietly listening, captivated by a story that is bigger and bolder than anything they have in their imaginations. They will find that it is not what they saw in the movie, that this story is bigger, more detailed, the characters deeper and more real. They will learn that they can see the story in their heads without any pictures and they can remember the storyline longer than an hour or a day.  And maybe, just maybe, someday they will give another book a try, just because once someone shared their love of reading a good book, and they found it good too.  It’s what I hope.

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4 thoughts on “What About “That” Reading Program?

  1. Erin @ Miss Lifesaver says:

    I can definitely agree with the sentiment that earning points does not equate developing a love of reading. I am currently in a school district that doesn’t assess reading levels, and I wish we did solely for the purpose that every book in our library would already be leveled (at least, in theory) so I can help students make good choices for themselves. The only way, I’ve found, to make sure ALL students read is to schedule that time into my class, whether through book clubs or reading workshop. Does it take away from other instructional time? Yes. Is it worth it? I think so!

    • lynnjake says:

      I agree it’s worth the time. I feel that leading kids to reading is one of my most important tasks as a teacher. I love sharing good reads with kids, and when I taught high school many of my students became avid readers because of the book talks I did every time I finished a good book, and the library in my room that didn’t charge late fees. My middle schoolers are pretty dedicated non-readers, so are a somewhat more challenging group!

  2. jamieayres says:

    I’ve been teaching for 13 years and I’ve never taught at a school where we didn’t do AR, so I can’t imagine your school just starting it, lol. My school did make it optional for one year, and we drastically found a drop in reading, so then they went back to making it mandatory the next year. You’ll always have those kids just trying to earn points, but I have seen plenty of kids develop a life long love of reading from it as well . . . every revolution begins with a spark . . . it just takes reaching that ‘one’ kid 🙂 BTW, I wrote AR tests for 18 Things and 18 Truths. Let me know if you want me to send it to you . . . they’re very easy to load into the program for your school (in case your students are reading the books–I’d be happy to send you copies for your school library).

  3. lynnjake says:

    Jamie, we’ve had AR, and the elementary schools have used it extensively for many years. We didn’t mandate it at the middle schools until this year. i’m glad that you have seen such positive results from it. It gives me hope that some of our kids will take off reading as a result of this point hunt. I’ve just never seen such a dedicated group of non readers, ever. Even with the books I’m reading to them, they are calculating when they will take the test so the points will fall in the right quarter for the activities they want to be able to participate in. I certainly never said they aren’t smart! Our library would love to have copies of 18 Things and 18 Truths with the AR questions. That would be fabulous!

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