Computer Reading Management: The magic key to learning to read or access to $$$?

With the onset of increased education reform, NCLB, Race to the Top, and instructor accountability, extraordinary attention is placed on on early literacy and language acquisition. Literacy Data Assessments have become the response to this national reform. Data assessment is used to support policy changes, determine district objectives, and can deem whether a school is considered successful or a failure.

But has the use of data assessment broken the code to understanding literacy or just mechanized the magic of reading?

Historical Context

Do you ever remember taking reading tests like this on a computer in elementary or middle school to test your reading comprehension?

acceleratred reader test.jpg
A sample of an Accelerated Reader test question



These tests are a form of computerized reading management. The first computerized reading management software was created in 1981 by a school librarian. This software was called Electronic Bookshelf and had booklists and quizzes for students to take to test their reading comprehension. There are a few different forms of computerized reading management today, such as Accelerated Reader, Reading Counts and Booksharp. Accelerated Reader is the most popular and well known of the computerized reading management programs (Hansen, Collins and Warschauer 58).

Schools typically use computerized reading management to assess their students for data acquisition purposes associated with Common Core State Standards, No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), and Race to the Top.

Important Terms

No Child Left Behind -This Act was meant to close the achievement gap between (poor, minority, English Language Learners,) disadvantaged students and students who are more well off who tend to do better in schools due to their socioeconomic status. (Hansen, Collins, and Warschauer 57). Passed in 2001.

Common Core State Standards- Sponsored by National Governors Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), Common Core State Standards seek to standardize and align expectations of reading and math from K-12th grade.

Examples of Computerized Reading Management Programs

Accelerated Reader
Accelerated Reader is a computerized reading program from Renaissance Learning Inc. It is based on rewarding the student for reading, taking quizzes and earning points to win prizes. Accelerated Reader is also known as AR and was created in 1986 by Terrance and Judith Paul. The range of users range from Pre-kindergarten to 12th grade depending on the school district and as of 2001, AR was in over 54,500 schools in the United States (McCarthy, 2003). When a student first starts this program, they are required to take The Standardized Test for Assessment of Reading or STAR so the student can start at the appropriate reading level. After the student’s reading level is determined they are required to read books within that level till they have advanced to the next level. Once they have finished reading the selected book, they are required to take the computer quiz and depending on how well they did on the quiz determines the number of points/prizes they receive.

Raz Kids
Raz-Kids is a different type of computer reading management than Accelerated Reader. Raz-Kids used animated books that the students can listen to, get help vocabulary and pronunciation support while reading the book on the computer. Teachers are able to restrict certain books for certain students to make sure that the students are reading at the correct reading level. They are also able to track the reading progress of their students and make sure that their students are improving and giving them more help when they need it.

Reading Counts!
Reading Counts is a Scholastic reading program for kindergarteners through 12th graders. Reading Counts focuses on having students practicing and understanding their readings by using quizzes to test the students. The quizzes given are matched with the specific needs of the student taking the quiz. Reading Counts measures their book difficulty with Lexile which helps to match the correct reading level with corresponding books. While it is a Scholastic program, Reading Counts offers books by publishers other than Scholastic to offer the students a wide selection of books.

What is a "just-right" text?

"Just right" texts are where instructionally, the reader can read about 9 out of 10 words and comprehend the meaning of the passage with little difficulty (Clay, 1991a). A text in which a child can read 90-95% of the words easily is considered to be at that child's instructional reading level--where instruction will be most effective. Text that is easier is considered to be at the student's independent reading level. More difficult text is considered to be at the child's frustration level, and is not appropriate for reading instruction.

All students should receive reading instruction using texts at their instructional reading levels (Fountas & Pinnell, 1996).

The Financial Gains at Stake

Beginning in 2001, NCLB authorized almost $1 billion in federal funds to reading programs. Educational publication houses stood to gain millions, if not billions from the national funding. Enter Data Assessment Systems and Computerized Reading Management Systems. "These programs are intended to enhance the language and literacy skills of all children and to eliminate the achievement gaps among racial/ethnic and socioeconomic groups. Funds may be used to select and administer screening, diagnostic, and classroom-based instructional reading assessments; purchase instructional materials; provide teacher professional development; and conduct program evaluation."

Pros of Data Assessment Systems
  • Aids in developing confidence and comprehension skills while providing challenges
  • Teachers gain insight about their students’ progress and make instructional decisions that improve student learning.
  • Provides the tools for progress monitoring

Cons of Data Assessment Systems
  • Stigma attached to reading lower levels for children
  • No longer cultivate "love of reading". Emphasizes skill vs. life long skills
  • It requires large amounts of planning time and time management within the classroom.

Theoretical Concerns or Problems

Computerized reading management systems have been received with mixed reviews. Proponents of systems claim ease of use and the ability to monitor students growth in "real time".

Concerns associated with computerized reading management include:

-the idea that tests may not be the best way to determine if a student understood the book or not
-questions regarding point system
-limits students to what they can or cannot read
-Little or no accommodation or modifications for English language learners and children with disabilities
-high cost
-Collection of titles. Who is putting these titles together, are there enough titles to satisfy my school?
-What is the value of the book? Will students be interested in this book if it is not part of this program or are they only interested in it because of high point value?
-Who is writing the tests? How hard or easy and what type of questions are they asking?
-Does this help or hurt the self-esteem of students?

Brenda Thompson, the librarian at Metcalf School in Normal, Illinois, explained that she didn't believe that computerized reading management assessment tests like A.R. were always effective in determining reading comprehension with students because the tests would ask some of the most mundane questions about trivial details or events in the books. To this school librarian, asking about these trivial details is not an accurate determinate of reading comprehension. She believed that computerized reading management assessment tests could even be a deterrent to readers, because a student could become discouraged in reading if they felt they understood the book, but did not do well on the test.

Another problem with the computerized management is that some feel as if the points awarded for certain books for passing the tests is subjective or questionable. A book that is a difficult read like Sense and Sensibility is worth only worth 22 points or Hamlet which is only worth 7, while Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, (which may be a longer work, but not necessarily require stronger reading comprehension skills) is worth 44 points (Susan Straight).

Many librarians or teachers believe that computerized reading management programs can limit students to what they can or cannot read. When students first sign up to be in the program, they take a reading assessment test in which they are given a specific reading level or lexile score, or whatever the scoring system may be. Students and teachers often have the misunderstanding that their child can only read within that reading level range. However, these reading levels were meant to be as guides, not limits to certain books. Plus, a book that is scored low for one reader, could be challenging for another reader who is the same age.

Accelerated reader levels.jpg
This is a picutre color codes for AR that distinguish the level of a book.


As with most technology, computerized reading management programs cost schools money. Schools that don't get enough support from the government, grants or the community, may not be able to afford computerized reading management programs. For example, Accelerated Reader costs $2,799 to use, but then it costs an additional $1000 every year for every 250 children enrolled. However, Reading Counts, may be a good alternative for school libraries that want a computerized reading management program but can't afford Renaissance Learning's prices for A.R., Reading Counts! only ranges from $700 to 3,000. (Hansen, Collins and Warschauer 59).
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The Positives and Negatives of AR

Teachers and librarians are always trying to get their children to read in and out of the classroom, but the selling point is difficult when there are so many visual stimulants in the digital age. At a young age, kids always enjoy playing and tend to compete with each other on a friendly level especially when rewards are involved. A majority of successes in computerized reading programs, like Accelerated Reader, benefit when rewards are involved. Food, like pizza or ice cream, tends to be a motivational catalyst for students. If a student can read a certain number of books and score well on the tests, they will be rewarded. Moyer (2008) believes that the support from classroom teachers will be a necessity to get an AR program in the works. Also, along with the rewarding incentives, emphasize the importance of reading comprehension. Focus on the amount of books read and average score. This can give some basic knowledge about the comprehensive level of the student. Finally, provide supports for struggling readers like audiobooks, reading aloud in class, or giving extra time on a test (37). The benefits of having an AR program in the school can be rewarding for the culture of the school and the library. Kids can talk about reading, the circulation desk will be consistent, and teachers can implement some AR books into their curriculum (38). It sounds like a great idea but there are some drawbacks to the program.

Computerized reading programs can be quite bipolar amongst its cliental. We know the positives but the students who are not voracious readers feel that they are being forced into a program that they are not comfortable with. This could be due to a lack of interest in reading or else reading within a certain grade level. If the library decides to use a computerized reading program, like Accelerated Reader, please be aware of these issues. According to Adams (2011), many reluctant readers feel intimidated about reading for AR because of what content is on the spine and cover of the book. Each AR book tends to have a point value and reading level. Since you don’t want students to be intimidated about their reading level, a simple solution could be to eliminate these labels on the book or else have them in the catalogue only. Another issue that occurs in these programs is the selection process. Many students are given a specific reading level, which can cause problems if a student has a limited selection. An aptitude test might give a range of what the student’s reading level, but the student should never be restricted in reading (28). Howard (2001) also looks at the self-esteem issues of the student. If a student fails a test, they might be more reluctant to continue with the program.

The benefits and detriments of a computerized reading program will always reveal themselves around when it focuses on student achievement. Understand that many school libraries have implemented this type of program with a lot of success and many students do enjoy computerized reading programs. The students tend to read a lot more, even if some are “forced into it.”

Practical Advice for Librarians

Know your library and your school's needs, how does this program change your collection budget?
If your school can't afford the high rates of A.R., then you might want to look into an alternative like Reading Counts! or you may find a free reading management program if you do your research. Also, during another personal interview with a media specialist in an elementary school from southern Illinois (whose name will not be mentioned for her protection), said that there are some teachers in her school who don't believe in A.R. and so they don't encourage their students as much to participate in the program, which results in overall lower participation for those classes. Therefore, if the majority of teachers in your school feel this way, then the expenses of A.R. could be a waste. Make sure you help educate teachers who might not have a clear grasp of the program and the benefits that it has for their students.
Make sure that you have a plan in place for when technology fails and how to handle the students when this happens.
Also make sure you have a plan for when parents question why their child is reading at a certain level or a certain book that they think is too easy or too hard.
Computerized reading management programs can be very effective because of the incentives (or the prizes) that children get when they get to certain point levels like toys, restaurant certificates, bookmarks, lunch with the principal, or other rewards like that. If you think your students would respond to rewards and it would encourage them to read, then maybe A.R. is for your library. Also make sure that your budget can support giving out rewards if you choose to do give rewards.


Images:

Image #1 from Seven Hills Charter Public School
http://www.sevenhillscharter.org/technology-integration/shcps-instructional-hardware-software

Image #2 from Chalker Elementary School.
http://www.cobbk12.org/chalker/mediacenter.aspx


Sources:


Adams, H. R. (2011). Computerized Reading Programs: Intellectual Freedom. School Library Monthly, 28(2), 27-28.

Hansen, Laurie E; Collins, Penny; Warschauer, Mark. "Reading Management Programs: A Review of the Research." Journal of Literacy and Technology. 10:3 (Nov. 2009): 55-80.
<http://www.literacyandtechnology.org/volume10_3/hansen_et_al_jlt_v10_3.pdf>

Howard, S. N. (2001). A School Librarian's Dilemma: Computerized Reading Incentive Programs. Book Report, 20(3), 52.

"Independent Reading Program Overview: Scholastic Reading Counts!" Scholastic Reading Counts! Scholastic Inc, 2013. Web. 18 Nov. 2013. <http://teacher.scholastic.com/products/independent_reading/scholastic_reading_counts/program_overview.htm>.

McCarthy, Cheryl. "Is the Tail Wagging The Dog? An Analysis of Accelerated Reader And the Influence Of Reading Rewards On Learning And Library Media Centers." School Library Media Activities Monthly 20.3 (2003):23-16.

Jones, Jacqueline (2003) Early Literacy Assessment Systems: Essential Elements. Educational Testing Service.

Moyer, M. (2006). Accelerated Reader Sparks High School Reading Excitement. Knowledge Quest, 35(1), 34-39.

"Raz-Kids: Interactive Ebooks for Children Home Page." Raz-Kids: Interactive Ebooks for Children. Learning A-Z, 2013. Web. 18 Nov. 2013. <http://www.raz-kids.com/>.

Rog, L., & Burton, W. (2001). Matching texts and readers: Leveling early reading materials for assessment and instruction. Reading Teacher, 55(4), 348.

Straight, Susan. (2009). "Reading by the Numbers." New York Times Book Review, 27 Aug. 2009. <http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/30/books/review/Straight-t.html>

Thompson, Brenda. Personal Interview conducted by Shelley Singler, spring 2012.
(This interview was part of my interview essay to be accepted in the MLS program at U of I).