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 from 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 anyway affiliated with STAR reading or Accelerated Reader or RenLearn. I’m just a really enthusiastic librarian who loves to share great ideas and success 😊

All names are fictional.

We Wish you a Merry Lockdown and a Frugal New Year

How to enjoy Christmas on a small budget and no relatives round. With some imagination and a little organisation, you can have a festive Christmas.

We claim Christmas is about religion, children, family and being charitable. In reality, Christmas has become about, expensive presents, feasts and heavy drinking.

This year, many people won’t have as much money as they normally do, or they’ll be worried about spending in case they lose their job in the new year. So perhaps this is the reset we all needed – even if we didn’t realise we needed it.

  1. Father Christmas doesn’t buy tonnes of huge presents to put under the Christmas tree – come on, be realistic, he couldn’t fit them all on his sledge. He fills one stocking (a sock, not something you could fit a small elephant in) with cheap little presents: comic, pack of cards, chocolate bar, multi-bic, cheap nail varnish, orange, walnut, bath bomb, sticky goo, etc.
  2. YOU buy the bigger presents that go under the tree. Then not only do you get the credit and your children learn to appreciate you instead of the big guy getting all the credit, but in the case of a family financial crisis, the children don’t think Father Christmas is cross with them this year.
  3. Instead of pictures of your child next to a ridiculously large pile of presents, post a picture of your child’s grinning, chocolate smeared face, appreciating the presents regardless of value. We have to stop competing with money and enjoy the moment instead.
  4. All those nights you would have been out partying? Sit together as a family with your children and make your own Christmas cards and presents for the closest family members. I know I appreciate my grandchildren’s hideous drawings of me and their clumsy attempts at creating bookmarks, because I know that they loved making them and they were thinking of me when they made them. I’d rather have a badly decorated £2 flowerpot than some £50 designer pot every time.
  5. The Christmas meal. Why do we go so over the top? We can never eat it all and even with turkey soups and turkey curries for days after, most of it still goes in the bin. So, let’s just make a Sunday dinner and add stuffing, cranberry sauce and a cracker. (A Christmas cracker – although if you want to have a cheese cracker with your Christmas dinner that’s your choice!)

Now what really contributes to the Christmas fun, is squeezing 101 family members around the tiny kitchen table. Unfortunately, we can’t do that this year, but that doesn’t mean we can’t still interact. There’s plenty of time to learn how to use Zoom (I’m sure other brands are available). And it’s free. So here are half a dozen great family-friendly, Zoom-friendly, Christmas party games to start you off:

Charades: This is a mime game. If ever a game translated to Zoom, this was it!
Rules: Whoever wants to host goes first. They think of the title of a book, play or film and mime which it is. If it’s a book they mime opening a book, if it’s a film they mime holding an old fashioned TV camera with one hand whilst winding with the other hand, if it’s a play they draw the shape of the opening curtains. Then they hold the amount of fingers up for the amount of words in the title. Once everyone has shouted out the amount of words, they then hold up the finger to show which word they are going to mime first, so if they’re starting with the second word they hold up two fingers. To show how many syllables the word has they tap that amount of fingers on their arm. They can also mime one syllable at a time if they like by tapping which syllable on their arm. After that, when everyone knows whether it’s a book, film or play, how many words it has, which word they’re miming, how many syllables it has and which syllable they’re miming (if they chose to split the syllables up) they, mime that word (or part word). If someone get’s it right the mimer normally touches their nose and points to the person who got it right, but for Zoom, they’ll just need to shout the person’s name who got it right. When someone eventually guesses the full title, they win and it is their turn to be the mimer.

Bingo: (It’s a good idea to warn everyone to prepare this the day before). Everyone needs a pen and paper. They make a grid of 2 down by 8 across. They put in 16 different numbers between 1 and 99 of their choice. At the beginning of the game, everyone must hold up their card so everyone can see it – this avoids the temptation to have a blank card and write the numbers in as they’re called. Maybe you’ll trust your family? Maybe not! The host uses any random number generator site and shares their screen so everyone can see it. They can also have great fun giving the full Bingo calls: Legs Eleven, two little ducks Twenty Two, etcetera. You can have prizes for a line and prizes for a full house.

Quiz: (This definitely needs to be prepared in advance by whoever wants to host the game). Make sure there are questions that each generation can do well in, for example a nursery rhyme round for very young children, social media questions for teenagers and for the oldies perhaps music questions that relate to their youth. When it comes to the answers, be generous with close answers 😊 You can style your quiz however you like, but here are some ideas:
Books category: the opening lines from famous books (Amazon’s look-inside feature will help you here).
Music category: Name that song (just play a small section) or guess the year that … song was No1 in the charts, etc. (Make sure you have a broad mix so every generation has a chance to win.)
History category: Dates of coronations or wars or how long a war lasted. For example, do you know how long the One Hundred Day War really lasted? (I’ll give you a clue – it wasn’t 100 days!)
Geography category: What is the capital city of… or name a country that has a live volcano, or questions around rivers, etcetera.
Animal category: What is the collective noun for… What is a baby … called? Name an animal beginning with the letter …
Personal category: you can have some great fun with this. Questions such as “which family member did a cartwheel whist eating popcorn and had to go to A&E go get it removed from their nose?” (That was my daughter by the way!) Keep it fun and light – don’t shame or humiliate anyone.

Silliest Face: No explanation needed! The children will be brilliant at this, but watch out for those weird aunties!

Fastest Finger First: A quick fire round of questions. (Prep needed.) The game host asks a question and the contestants type the answer into the chat. Whoever answers correctly first wins. These are usually general knowledge questions. The host should be aware of the age and ability of the contestants.

Truth, Truth, Lie: Again, let people plan in advance. Each person takes turns telling two truths and one lie about themselves. The contestants guess which is the lie and type A B or C into the chat. One point to each correct guess.

Organising:
Plan your Zoom games in advance, not only will the fun run more smoothly, but it will add a bit of excitement to the days leading up to Christmas day too. Share out the hosting by allocating a different game for each household to host. Make sure everyone knows how to use Zoom and has their wifi sorted – the silver surfers might need some over the phone instruction.

Prizes:
As you cannot hand out a physical prize, they can take the form of promises instead, such as a hot chocolate with the full works at your local café when you’re allowed out, or the host of each competition can send a certificate to the winner in the post. It’s all up to you. The main thing is, you will have had fun with your family on Christmas day! 😊

Secondary School Display Boards

How to create displays that encourage a positive learning environment, give children pride in their work, help them remember key information, and encourage them to think for themselves.  Instead of those ones that, you know, end up ripped and neglected.

Lexicology of Harry Potter by Rachel Wilkinson, Nunthorpe Academy

Let’s face it, displays take a lot of time and effort. Can you really be bothered making a new one after 5 lessons of 30 challenging children, just for people to ignore it or treat it like wallpaper? Sometimes you wonder if it is worth it.

Well yes, it is worth the effort. When done properly, displays can make a positive impact on teaching and learning. (Or without the jargon – the kids will actually gain something from it!)

First of all, let’s consider what we want the display to achieve:

What do YOU want from your display?

The display must serve a purpose. Yes I know, making it look pretty makes you feel proud of your work, but it also needs to be functional. Think carefully about what you wish to achieve. What is it specifically that you want to teach/remind/evoke?

LAST 10 LINES INTERACTIVE by Jenine Davey, Tendring Technology College, Essex

What do your STUDENTS want from your display?

They want the room to look nice – everybody works better in a nice environment, and they want to be able to glance up for easy reminders. For example the name of a six-sided shape or quotes from Romeo and Juliet. A word of caution. If you have “answers” constantly on display, children can quickly become lazy. Don’t have the Periodic Table up all year round, or they’ll never need to learn it. You could have it up for a few weeks while they’re learning it, then remove a few answers at a time – perhaps replace with clues.

DICKENS LONDON by Debra Perrin, Oathall community College

What does your SCHOOL want from your display?

Your school will have specific criteria which may well be set out in a policy, for example all our displays must be either laminated or behind Perspex, another school I worked at, everything had to be double-mounted. Even if your school is really regimented, you can still have fun.

WOMEN IN SCIENCE by SG

What does OFSTED want from your display?

Inform, educate, engage. SMSCBV (social, moral, spiritual, cultural, British values). Stimulating learning environment.  Evidence of progress (show the best work of all students, not just the best work of the highest achieving students) Ofsted, in my opinion, has two favourite things – literacy across the curriculum and pupil progress. These can both be shown in displays.

BLACKOUT POETRY 1 & 2 by Karen Conlon, Palmers Green High School
AR STARS by MH

How do you help students RELATE?

Look around your school. How many displays are filled with middle-class, middle-aged white men? Not that there’s anything wrong with middle-class, middle-aged white men of course, it’s just that there’s also a whole myriad of other wonderful people out there. Children need to see people like them to relate, so make sure your display is inclusive: rich and poor, male and female, black and white, disabled and able-bodied, Earthling and Martian…

FIND YOURSELF IN THE LIBRARY by Helen Pixie Jessop Castle Rushen High School

What makes a display ATTRACTIVE?

Ahh, now this is subjective. If we all liked the same thing, we would all have a Labrador and no other dogs would exist (imho). The reason we’re making the display attractive is to grab the students’ attention in the first place. So start with thinking about the colour palette. Not just for the aesthetics but also for the colour connotations, for example red can symbolise love and passion or hate and anger. The colour can also have an effect on the dynamics in a room. Strong bright colours can be stimulating whereas pastel shades can be calming. Make sure the colours stand out against each other (without clashing). Don’t try to cut corners, the finishing touches make the most dramatic differences. Use backing paper, borders, double mount. Try to use different textures. Preferably make it 3D. If possible, make it interactive – the students might need to lift a flap, or if they can’t be trusted to touch or it’s behind perspex, questions could be posed. Then have some fun. Sprinkle stars or balloons or whatever floats your boat.

PROUD by Miss E O’Brien, Arden Academy

How do you stop your display becoming wallpaper?

So your display was commented on by teachers and students alike! Hurray! You were buzzing about it for two whole weeks, then you forgot about it. And so did the students. To prevent a display becoming wallpaper, it’s a good idea to have parts of it that change regularly. From the picture below, you can see that the birthdays are changed monthly and the literacy focus is changed weekly. Additionally, the students have to lift the sheet of paper to discover the answer.

INTERACTIVE by Rachel Wilkinson, Nunthorpe Academy

Where should your display be positioned? 

Displays which motivate students can be powerful, past students’ exam results and success, significant female scientists, or people who have started with nothing and been successful from sheer hard work. The problem is that once these have been seen, they do quickly become wallpaper as students have no reason to read them more than once, so they’re great for entrances, exits, corridors, but not necessarily classrooms. The displays in the classrooms should be the ones the students need to refer to, to aid their learning. One thing that is hard to resist is filling the whole walls with displays, posters and work. Less is more. Really – less is more. If you choose ice-cream and squirt strawberry sauce and toffee sauce and chocolate sauce and sprinkle with chocolate drops and hundreds and thousands and smarties … you’re going to be sick. White space is calming and necessary – especially to children with ADHD or autism. And nobody wants that ugly mess left behind from blutac and staples in the wall – admit it – you’ve seen it. Don’t let it happen in your classroom!

Hallowe’en Bookcase by RW

How do you maintain the displays?

A lot of people will see your display – the students, their parents, your colleagues, SLT, OFSTED, other visitors. No pressure! Rightly or wrongly, people will form part of their impression of you by your display, so make sure it isn’t out of date, scruffy, half empty, or boring! Involve the students in the displays, so they become invested in the space. vandalism encourages vandalism and tidiness encourages tidiness, so if you see anything untoward happening to your display, make sure you fix it immediately, or you may have a helpful student who would love to maintain and update the displays for you.

BLOOMING BOOKS by SL

So there you have it. Lots of great ideas for your displays. Keep in mind they need to be relevant and functional, but also fun and attractive. Enjoy being creative 😊

Huge thanks to members of the Facebook group, “Secondary School Librarians” who shared ideas and pictures of their displays for me to use here.

Why have millions of us spent Lockdown walking through the countryside?

Illustrated by Shelly Oyston

We mustn’t lose our connection with nature once this is over.

As I became accustomed to our new normal, I began to hope we would never completely return to the old normal. The old normal was fume-filled roads packed with angry cars, stressed out guilt-ridden parents unable to find the time they desperately needed and wanted to spend with their children. It was about money and material objects over peace and friendship.

Then the pandemic struck.

The new normal became family walks in the countryside, regularly checking on our elderly parents, homecooked meals and family board games. Chatting for hours on the phone to friends. Children having proper conversations with their parents who properly listened. Adults who had never had time to read a book in years, reading again. Children reading more. Youngsters baking with their parents, going for long bike rides in the fresh air, spending quality time with their pets.

Social media has been flooded with pictures of families together in the countryside, forest paths, unusual trees, beautiful sunsets, wild flowers, rare insects, pretty butterflies…

I know I am not alone in feeling the healing powers of the countryside when I walk through it. The sheer beauty in every direction, the tranquillity. It is sublime.

But we forget easily. Who still uses the hashtag #bekind? We thought we would all change forever after the tragedy of Caroline Flack dying from suicide, but something else always comes along. This time it was Covid-19.

We have to make sure we don’t slide back into our old lives.

We simply must try hard to stop trying so hard! Let’s give ourselves the space to enjoy each other and enjoy life. As we’re returning to full time work we have to ask ourselves some very serious questions. Do we need to work the amount of hours we work? Is a saunter in the countryside more relaxing than flopping on the sofa after a hard day’s graft? Do we need to spend £1,000 on little Mikey’s birthday or can we take him and his friends to a FREE woodland play area? I know which he’d prefer so why do we insist on blowing our money all the time? When we do blow money on expensive gifts for our children, how long do they play with them? How soon are they broken or forgotten or both? Yet memories last forever and a peaceful mindset sets us up for life.

The countryside never stops changing, we have the 4 seasons with all the mini-changes in between. The more experienced you become with the country, the more new things you will see. You’ll begin to recognise the flora and fauna and the clues to which animals have made their homes nearby. Not only will you become experts in animal tracks and burrows and nests, you’ll be come expert poo-identifiers too! You can walk the same track again and again and see something new every single time. There are books to help you identify the different birds, insects, animals and flowers so your children can tick off what they see and search for the more elusive ones. My latest picture book in the “Who Hides Here” series, “Footprints in the Forest” is a very basic introduction to tracking, teaching young children which animal has made the footprints they find when on their family walks through woodland and forests.

There are other fun ways to enjoy the countryside too. Once lockdown has completely ended, the local forestry groups will start putting on events again such as den building, making nettle soup, identifying pond creatures, etcetera. Local to me, Guisborough Forest has an excellent range of events, why not check out your local groups?

I have high hopes for our future. I think we’re going to be happier and healthier. A large part of it is due to our reconnection with nature. We just must not forget and slip back into our old ways.

Lockdown Culture Shift

Yesterday evening, I mistimed my dog walk and was still out when the clapping started. I therefore walked and clapped (I’m such an excellent multi-tasker). My dog was surprised and excited, but we managed it. As the clapping ended, we were approaching the estate near where I live. And there I happened across the most peculiar thing.

First of all, as we approached, we could hear a general murmur which gradually increased as we got closer. It reminded me of something from the olden days. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it at first, then I recognised it. It was the sound of a large group of happy voices, like you heard when you entered a pub or a party in days gone by. But those days have ended. So what could it really be?

As we rounded the corner, in the glorious evening sunshine, we saw the most beautiful sight: crowds of socially distancing neighbours, still out in their front gardens, holding conversations with each other. The atmosphere was joyous. People were smiling, laughing, nodding and generally being cheerful. There were no cars, so some people were standing in the middle of the road. Children were out in slippers and dressing gowns, an old lady was resting on her walking frame, some people had brought a glass of beer or wine out with them. As I walked through the whole estate, there was no exception. Every single street was buzzing with happiness and social togetherness (albeit at a distance).

Honestly, it made my heart swell. I realised that many of the neighbours, despite living in the same street, would not have met each other before lockdown. At the most a quick nod or wave or unfelt “how-do-you-do?” Now, because people were all out the front at the same time every Thursday, they’d all not only met each other, but got to know each other too. I am certain, many ever-lasting friendships have been made during lockdown.

It got me thinking. Why did we not already know our neighbours? Because we were too busy that’s why. Why were we too busy? Because we were trying to fit in both parents working full time, children, pets, hobbies, clubs…

When women made huge progress to equality in the 1960s, Britain’s workforce almost doubled. This made the cost of houses go up, so both partners needed to work to pay the mortgage and we got stuck in a never-ending hamster wheel.

Now during this unusual period where many parents are not working, I’m seeing fathers out cycling with their sons, mothers out walking with the children, dogs being walked leisurely by the whole family rather than a quick cursory walk after tea, I’m seeing the products of children’s art work posted in windows; social media lays testament to millions of children spending time with their parents baking, DIYing, gardening, playing board games indoors and sports in their garden. I think this will have a huge positive impact on children’s mental health.

Perhaps we should take this downtime to reconfigure our lives. Perhaps, if we wanted, one parent could go part time or stop working altogether. This would give us more time to spend with our children. Automatically we think we can’t afford it, but perhaps if we look hard enough, there could be a way?

With only one person working, only one car is needed: less fuel, tax, test, tyres, insurance… Could we buy cheaper clothes and food? Could we downsize our home? Do the children really benefit from rushing to so many clubs? Could we swap an expensive hobby for a cheaper one such as walking?

Of course, everyone’s circumstances are different, and there are plenty of couples who both want to work full time, that is their prerogative. But for those who want to make a change, perhaps it’s more achievable than you think. And more worth it than you think.