The Trouble With Packaged Reading Programs

I know lots of schools use packaged, mandatory reading programs. Here’s a great opinion piece from the Los Angeles Times by a children’s librarian explaining the problems with those types of programs. (Thanks to this parent who alerted me to the piece.)

Reading shouldn’t be a numbers game
Applying numerical ratings to books does nothing to help kids read better.
By Regina Powers
Los Angeles Times

School has started. I can tell because frazzled parents drag their embarrassed children up to the reference desk at my library to ask, “Where are the fifth-grade books? We need a 5.6 level that’s worth at least 7 points.”

I avoid frustrating both parties with an explanation of how the Dewey decimal system works, and ask the child, “What do you like to read?” The response from both adult and child is all too often a blank expression.

Although I am elated that many families are visiting my public library more frequently because schools send them, I am disturbed at how infrequently parents and teachers are allowing young readers to choose what to read.

During the summer, children were excited about reading because, freed from school requirements, they decided what to read. Being able to choose their favorite author, genre or topic seemed to empower them to read more. Now with school back in session, finding a book again involves navigating through a labyrinth of point values and reading levels.

How did it come to this?

More than 50 years ago, educators nationwide created complicated mathematical formulas to identify a text’s reading level. Some of these formulas were originally used to develop science textbooks that could be more easily understood by young students. Today, there are more than 200 readability formulas. Computers make using these formulas convenient for schools to apply them to literature. But mathematical readability formulas are still limited to merely counting the number of words and syllables. They are not advanced enough to measure language complexity or content.

In 2001, California started assigning reading levels to every public school student, grades 2 to 11. The state matches results from the annual Stanford 9 test to the Lexile Reading Framework and assigns each child a California Reading List number. Some schools also purchase optional programs such as Accelerated Reader and Reading Counts. The idea is to assist parents and students in selecting books tailored to match the level of each student.

However, these programs and their measurements are restrictive and confusing. For example, the California Reading List book selections, each given a Lexile number, are mostly older titles that are no longer in print.

Another problem is that the programs assign different numbers to the same book. “The Magician’s Nephew” from the Narnia series by C.S. Lewis, for example, is a 790 Lexile level, a 5.6 Reading Counts level and a 5.4 Accelerated Reader level. “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” the next book in the series, is listed as 940 Lexile, 6.1 Reading Counts and 5.7 AR. The guidelines could prohibit a child who enjoyed the first novel from reading its sequel because of the conflicting reading levels.

If this weren’t complicated enough, the optional reading programs award incentive points for reading and successfully completing a book’s corresponding electronic quiz. And because schools have spent a lot of money on these programs, teachers often push students to participate. The most damaging consequence of this practice is when teachers require all students to earn a certain number of points as part of their reading grade. This increasingly ubiquitous approach results in students reading a book based solely on the number of points its quiz is worth.

Reading is supposed to be a pleasurable habit. California’s reading scores have remained flat since 1971. Research verifies that comprehension and reading test scores improve when students simply read more. So let’s encourage reading by allowing kids to choose what to read, unimpeded by the pressure of points, levels and quizzes.

Regina Powers is a teacher and children’s librarian in Orange County.

3 thoughts on “The Trouble With Packaged Reading Programs

  1. As a teacher and a parent, I can’t completely agree with this piece. Lexile numbers, etc., are an incredible tool when USED APPROPRIATELY. There will always be some people who don’t use them appropriately.

    I find that children who enjoy reading tend to gravitate to books that are at the right level automatically. But children who don’t read well will go straight to Harry Potter and friends, which they “pretend read” because it’s too hard, then they get discouraged and frustrated and think they hate reading. Or they are still reading Junie B. Jones, First Grader, in fourth grade because it’s easy and fun. Which is great, but they won’t progress if they don’t read something more challenging.

    I’ve seen many, many frustrated or stalled readers become good readers who actually enjoy reading when a leveled system helps guide them to books that are at the right level for them.

    And the idea of earning points helped my son’s reading take off. He’s in 4th grade, reading at a high school level now.


  2. We recently pulled out of the public school system to home school. Most of what drove us out of the public schools is related to the test-centric environment created by No Child Left Behind. AR tests were one part of that.

    My 8 year old (3rd grade last year, now 9) saw the AR tests as a form of punishment. He loves to read and currently reads high school level material easily. Being tested on what he does when he is relaxing just frustrated him. The school was under pressure to teach to the test, so they substituted a real literature program with AR tests – read a book, take a test, get some points, and repeat. They did NOT do character studies, book reports, reading journals, discuss character motivation, or anything else that would constitute literature instruction.

    My child was further frustrated because he didn’t usually want to read within the prescribed levels. He finished the year with a 98% average and an average AR level of about 7th grade. Unfortunately, he had been told to keep his AR level around 4 to 5, so he got a bad grade for not meeting the designated goal. (I suspect that he was told to read at this level because it provided practice for the mandated reading tests.)

    While I understand that the company that created the AR program would probably say that this was a misuse of their program, I can’t help but wonder if the program is ever used effectively. Given the current high stakes testing climate, its hard to see a school implementing AR in a way that encourages reading.


  3. I don’t have a lot of time to write now but I applaud your decision to homeschool. I posted a long entry a few months ago on AR and why I didn’t want to go near it. Thankfully, it was optional at my daughter’s private school so my husband and I said, thanks but no thanks.

    My daughter is a ravenous reader. There was no way I was going to tamper with that gift.I’ve seen smart early readers at my daughter’s school pushed into AR by their over-eager parents and guess what? They’re not reading as teens! They know how to read, they are strong readers, it’s just not what they choose to do in what little free time they have left. As Alfie Kohn says, we can make a child do something but we cannot make them love it. Love is slowly brewed and nurtured. It’s a lifelong process.

    I homeschooled 8th grade and there is no better lifestyle to indulge a reading passion. We must have done 30 novels that year, including “A Tale of Two Cities,” “Wuthering Heights,” “Emma,” “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” all of Chaim Potok’s books. Show me a public school 8th grade program that does 30 novels a year.

    How did we find the time, to go along with the ten hours of daily sleep? No grades, no AR, no endless quizzes and tests, no pointless assignments that turn reading into a chore, and lots of choices (she picked The Great Gatsby off the library shelf. It caught her eye!).

    Literary analysis? Oh, yeah. On our long walks, at the dinner table, in the car on the way to a marine bioloogy program, even cruising down a ski slope, I kid you not.. Was she writing that year? Yes. She was working on a novel and taking an on line essay writing course.

    When I hear parents say they need AR because at least then their child is reading, my heart sinks. More often that not, if it comes to this point, the damage has already been done.



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