Accelerated Reader: The Marmite of Reading Programmes across the UK (and possibly the rest of the world)

I love Accelerated Reader. Almost as much as I love my dog.

Can you relate to this – you take your students to the library full of the thrill of knowing you’re just about to expose a whole class to the joys of reading. “Look at all these books,” you enthuse, “there’s something for everyone.” Then you knowledgeably quote Frank Serafini: “There is no such thing as a child who hates to read; there are only children who haven’t found the right book.” You picture yourself as Robin Williams in the Dead Poets’ Society and as you turn to see their lit up delighted faces, you notice that they have their backs to the books and are chatting about something totally irrelevant. “Come on, choose a book,” you cajole. To your horror, Candice and Ferrari reach out behind them without even looking and turn to the MIDDLE of the books and carry on talking.

Eventually you have the whole class settled with a book each. Dani even has his turned the right way up, now you’ve pointed it out to him. Sofee and Angel have had their maths homework removed from behind the books and Zacc and Tyler have agreed to read a very thin book.

Ahh, you’re convinced that twenty minutes of complete absorption will follow and you’ll have converted all 30 students into readers for life. Two minutes later, Zacc and Tyler claim they have finished their books. “But you can’t have finished already!” you protest. They are adamant, so you find them two more skinny books. Meanwhile, Tia and Davina say their book is boring and want to change it. Lee’s just realised he’s already read the one he has and the ever-ambitious Quentin admits he really doesn’t understand what is happening in “The Great Gatsby”.

Reality hits you square in the face.

Before Accelerated Reader, this was my reality.

Accelerated Reader is a two-part programme. The first part is the STAR test. Of all the reading tests I’ve used over the years, this is the one I favour. The reason is that it adapts each question depending on the student’s answer to the previous question, so the questions are never too easy or too hard for any student, which prevents boredom or disillusionment and keeps them focused and trying their best. One huge bonus is that there is no time-consuming marking for the teachers and as it is a live site, the results are instant. The STAR test results give far more than just a reading age, you can find which are their weakest skills to highlight for intervention and many other things too. But the key information for me is the students’ ZPD (Zone of Proximal Development). Books that are too easy do not improve the students’ reading skills; books that are too difficult only improve the students’ reading skills slowly and often put the student off reading; books that hit the Goldilocks spot give the reader the most enjoyment and the fastest progress.

Tia and Davina’s books might be boring, but it is more likely that the books are too difficult, so the story is lost on them. Zacc and Tyler’s books are probably far too easy and they need something more challenging. (Although it’s a mistake to assume a small book is an easy book.) Quentin can challenge himself more realistically when he knows his ZPD.

Your librarian might not love you when s/he finds out they have to label up every book with their AR level, but it’s going to be worth it. Trust me. (By the way, librarians love little gifts like a box of chocolates or a very large bottle of wine!)

So this is where the Accelerated Reader part comes in to play.

Every time a student finishes reading a book (that was preferably but not always within their ZPD), they are asked to take a quiz on it (REMEMBER IT’S A QUIZ NOT A TEST!) If they pass the quiz, they get points and a computerised bar or sunflower is filled, depending on your settings (my students love the sunflowers). In most schools, points make prizes. Boys in particular, seem to love competing.

Remember Sofee and Angel? They always chose a different book and read the middle pages. They can’t get away with this anymore because they can’t pass the quiz based on 4 pages from the middle of a book. Let’s face it – they didn’t even know what the book was called. Now they have to read a book from beginning, through the middle, to the end. You never know – now that they’ve tried it, they might actually enjoy it!

Zacc and Tyler were reading the skinny books. They’re competitive sporty boys (I know I’m stereotyping but it’s just so common!) Well when they started competing against each other, they read lots and lots of skinny books that added up to the equivalent of one huge book each. Then they started on slightly thicker ones because they’d read all the thin ones. Turns out they quite like Tom Palmer and have requested more.

Quentin, is over the moon because he’s been reading lots of large books within his ZPD and he’s now a word millionaire – yes that’s a thing. He has his certificate and everything.

Here are the arguments I hear against Accelerated Reader

Students can watch the film to pass the quizzes easily. Actually, no. Those lucky so-and-sos who write the quizzes have to watch every film version of the book and make sure that enough of the questions are based on the differences between the films and the book. Try it – some of our English teachers tried quizzing on films they’d seen to test it out and they all failed the quiz.

They should be reading for pleasure not for points. Yes, I hear you. But if you can’t actually get them to read, then they’ll never develop the reading for pleasure. The ones who are already reading for pleasure are not the target here, they’re reading any way and Accelerted Reader won’t detract from their pleasure. Hooking in the reluctant readers is the aim and that it does very well.

It’s not suitable for SEN students. They have no chance competing against the stronger readers. Oh I beg to differ. This is ideal for SEN students. Firstly, look at your competitions. Are you competing with points or amount of words read? Stop! Your competitions should be based on amount of engaged minutes read. This is the only fair way to do it. Every time a student passes a quiz, not only does it count the amount of words in the book, but it also takes into consideration their reading level, assuming that weaker readers, read more slowly than higher readers. Therefore, it can estimate the amount of minutes the student was engaged in reading. This creates a level playing field from the weakest reader to the strongest. It also means that if you are competing between classes, it doesn’t matter how many students are in a class as it is an average. So the special class with just 8 students is just as likely to win as the full class of 30. Furthermore, students who have a short focus enjoy the quizzing because they see it as a break from reading, but they are still totally engaged with the book they have just read and progressing their learning and their reading skills.

Readers shouldn’t be told they can’t read a book – it’s too prescriptive! Of course a student shouldn’t be told they can’t read a book. That’s not the correct way to run this programme. The advice is to read at least 60% of the books within their ZPD, but never, never should we tell a student they can’t read a book. If Sofee and Angel suddenly discover Dork Diaries, I’m not going to stop them reading them whether they’re in their ZPD or not. Reading for pleasure absolutely IS the focus here. We’re just guiding them to books that suit their ability.

We study a book in English that doesn’t have an Accelerated Reader quiz. Teachers can make their own quizzes and upload them for their school.

Like anything, if you research it carefully, put some effort in and have support of the teachers delivering, it can be a big success. I thought I’d leave you with a couple of success stories:

Child A – I was informed he was disruptive during silent reading. I spoke to him and discovered that he was reading David Walliams and it was “boring”. The book was 4.8. Child A’s ZPD was 1.4-2.4. I brought him 6 very thin books within his ZPD and persuaded him to give one a try. He read it and passed the quiz, shouting out to the whole class that he’d passed (I allowed him that disruption, his enthusiasm was heart-warming). He then asked if I’d bring him books every day to Silent Reading. I agreed. When we broke up for half term, he asked me for extra books to take home. 😊

Child B – Told me her mum was amazed to find her quietly reading in her room. Especially as she hadn’t even been told to. This hadn’t happened since primary, three years ago. It turned out she’d simply got out of the habit of reading, but now that the teachers knew if she’d read the full book or not, she’d had to read a full one and rekindled her love of reading.

Child C and Child D – I overheard them discussing which books were most fun to read. These were two reluctant reader boys who had started off pretending to read and borrowing the same books again and again, just to look like they were reading.

Child E (SEN) – Dad emailed to say how proud his son is of reaching his sunflower target ahead of time and please could he have his target increased.

I’d love to know any success stories you have.

I would just like to point out that I am not in any way affiliated with STAR reading or Accelerated Reader, RenLearn or Renaissance Place. I’m just a really enthusiastic librarian who loves to share great ideas and success 😊

All names are fictional.

4 thoughts on “Accelerated Reader: The Marmite of Reading Programmes across the UK (and possibly the rest of the world)”

  1. I live in America and did Accelerated Reader many, many years ago back in elementary school until I finished elementary! I enjoyed passing the quizzes when I passed them, but I’m not sure I would count as a success story, as I had already been reading for a very long time and didn’t stop until middle school, which didn’t use Accelerated Reader (although that wasn’t the reason I stopped).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed them, that’s good to hear. I know some people are worried that the quizzes spoil the enjoyment for people like yourself who are already avid readers, but certainly the students at my school seem to enjoy the added dimension and collecting their millionaire certificates 🙂


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