Why Accelerating Reading Harms Kids and Books

Being a child should give you a free ticket to read ALL children's books. No "reading level" scores required.

Being a child should give you a free ticket to read ALL children’s books. No “reading level” scores required.

We’re in a mad rush to speed up childhood again. This time rushing them through the delights of children’s literature.

Children are asked to read “at their level.” For schools participating in the Accelerated Reader program (owned by a publicly traded corporation), reading level is all about words, not ideas, storyline or emotional maturity. A child who’s a strong reader is expected to reach higher and higher for ever more complicated text regardless of social and emotional understanding.

It’s taken some digging for me to realize how books are labeled with an AR number. A computer scans them. The scan comes up with a number considering three factors: sentence length, word length and word difficulty level. Nothing about what topics the book covers, what big ideas are inside, how deeply characters are developed, how skilled the writing is, or whether the child can emotionally handle the book.

As a writer of children’s Middle Grade fiction, this is baffling to me. Books are all about story, characters and ideas. There’s an extremely precious window of time for children to delve into the enormous wealth of children’s books – fun ones and literary ones. No child can possibly fit all the good ones in. It’s short, this magical time of childhood book reading. We certainly don’t want to speed things up.

My 10-year-old reads regularly and loves the full range of children’s books. But next year he’ll be expected to abandon a good chunk of children’s literature that is considered too easy for him. Accelerated Reader wants him to move on to books for adults and teenagers.

Choosing a book for the right age and interest level is crucial and can be a delicate art. But it needs to be tied to Thinking Level, not always reading level. Thinking Level often works best by reading aloud. When you read aloud to a child, you can introduce books that match or challenge the child’s Thinking Level. Teachers can do this with class read-aloud books. Families can do this by reading to kids who already read – kids ages 8-18.

Thinking level does not move in a straight line, always marching to a higher number. It lets kids move in circles around their emotional maturity. What delights them. What strikes them. What gives them new thoughts. What gives them pleasure.

Children desperately need pleasure reading to become lifelong readers. Let them dip into books that are supposedly below them. Once they can read independently, kids should be able to move freely within the vast treasure trove of children’s literature. If they like a book, it’s a good book. It’s an age-appropriate book. There must be no stigma in reading a book that’s “too easy.”

When kids read books we are teaching writing. That’s how children learn to frame a story. In AR, books with flat characters, such as 39 Clues, score in the same range as books with deep characters, like Charlotte’s Web.

When kids read books they learn about moral dilemmas. That’s one important way children develop ethics. Books that are fluffy and fun, (Mary Poppins; Peter Pan) score much higher in AR than books that help kids grapple with deep life issues, like mortality and discrimination (Tuck Everlasting; Sounder). Fluffy, magical books are fantastic for kids to read, but AR scores make us fixate on the number. Complex ideas are important, not just complex sentences.

The more I learn about Accelerated Reader, the more I dislike it. Remember to turn to children’s librarians and other skilled adults to guide children’s reading and book selection. Allow children to spend as much time as they can with children’s books, including picture books. No good book is too young.

Don’t accelerate reading. Wallow awhile. There’s no rush.

More renegade ideas at heathershumaker.com

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8 Responses to Why Accelerating Reading Harms Kids and Books

  1. Marisol says:

    Thanks for sharing . You always interesting points brindas views about reading .
    I am reading but my children do not
    Freshly at that picture books comics process the routing will
    Forcing thought I could achieve something.
    Now with your contributions better I understand my children
    Congratulations on this special feeling for children

  2. Ariadne says:

    Heather, what a wonderful ideas you share here. I love this “Once they can read independently, kids should be able to move freely within the vast treasure trove of children’s literature.” and this is what we try to encourage in our home as well. Thank you!

  3. deidra says:

    Reading is such a complicated thing. I abhor the leveled reading books as they are boring and yes I will say TOO EASY. Typically they were all about working on a certain phonetic pattern and had no story whatsoever. BORING. I don’t think reading should ever be rushed EVER! It is a sure fire way to turn kids off reading forever. Your child will be your guide when it comes to reading readiness. Let them pick out whatever they want to read regardless of level or literary merit. so much more fun when you go to the library or book store and let them choose with no restrictions or judgement. So cool to see what book they come back with easy, hard, or just right!

    • Heather Shumaker says:

      Yes, I think we forget that teaching reading is also about teaching storytelling. A story worth telling should be engaging – no matter how simple the words. There are so many good picture book authors who understand this. Children who are independent readers and children who are learning to read deserve to read something worthwhile.

  4. Love the concept of Thinking Level vs Reading Level. Some of my fondest reads as a child were going back and rereading at age 8 a book I had first mastered at age 6, or rereading at age 10 a book I had first mastered at age 8. It was like getting reacquainted with an old friend I hadn’t seen for a while.

    It’s so frustrating that educators focus on the outcomes of education almost to the exclusion of the processes and progressions of education. Every individual learns uniquely, but still we try to achieve the ultimate one-size-fits-all solution. In my fantasy world, every child has an adult mentor who gently guides them through the childhood learning process and adapts any specific “lessons” that are presented to the child’s mindset and learning process at that precise moment.


  5. Shannon S says:

    I could not agree with you more. My 7th grade English class used the Accelerated Reader program. I was an enthusiastic, lifelong reader and an ambitious, eager-to-please student. Naturally, I gravitated to the books with the biggest numbers on the list – why would you not want the most points??

    I have no memory of those books.

    I was capable of reading the words and understanding the sentences, but I was still just 11 years old and just not ready to deal with the complexity of the ideas of the books yet. Bless my younger self for trying, I suppose, but it’s very clear to me now (20 years later) that no purpose was served by this correlation between books and points.

  6. Mike Huber says:

    This has always bothered me. I remember when my child was in first grade and they put the board book Jamberry on their reading list. The school used AR, but I encouraged my child to read what they liked. Now my child is 12 years old. They read a few books at a time, volunteer at a local bookstore, and write their own fiction. They have a poem being published in a local journal this winter. When I think back to the uninspiring books my child was being asked to read in first grade, it makes me wonder why anyone would think that AR is going to create lifelong readers.