Computerized reading programs

“If we expect the students in front of us to look to reading for pleasure and solace in their adult lives, we need to give them the gift of reading today. We need to create beautiful reading rooms with calm, uninterrupted reading hours. Above all we need to fill our bookcases with the best books available. I wouldn’t have attempted to read if my bedside didn’t boast the best novelists, journalists, historians, and poets. When we have the best books, and use them in thoughtful and well-informed ways, our children will need their favorite views out the window. Their reading will inspire them to pause and think deeply about their own lives and the lives of others. Isn’t that what reading is for?”

Writing through Childhood by Shelley Harwayne

This week my daughter is being introduced to a computerized reading program called “Raz Kids.” While I’m still waiting to see if it’s a choice and not mandatory, as a teacher who became familiar with reading programs like Accelerated Reader, I’m very concerned about the use of this program in creating life-long readers.

Reading in simplest terms is interaction with text. It is an understanding of the text read and taking it much deeper through connections, questions, inferences and evaluating how those words inform and change how we interact with life. You get much more out of it by participating than sitting on the sideline or in the audience. Reading involves action. But computerized programs, like Accelerated Reader, do not allow for kids to pause and think deeply. Instead it forces kids to sit on the sideline and watch.

Kids who are required to use programs like AR understand reading to be answering multiple-choice questions that someone else has deemed important. These simple recall questions are supposed to provide teachers with information about a reader’s understanding of the words on the page.

As I think about the desired conversation I want to have with student readers, I think of adult readers. Do they read a book and then go to take a multiple-choice quiz? Or do they sit and drill each other for short simple answers? I’ve never experienced this as an adult reader. As adults we read a variety of text and talk about what sticks out to us, or more importantly what a text means to our own lives.

Shelley Harwayne writes,

“I learned from Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain what it was like to fight for survival during the Civil War. . . I learned from Virginia Hamilton Adair’s poetry collection, Ants on the Melon, to look at the world with new eyes and insights. I learned from Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays with Morrie, to be ever so grateful to have left the hospital and ready to appreciate each day awe. . “

So let’s get back to reading that will inspire readers to pause and think deeply about their own lives and the lives of others. Instead of spending all of that money of glorified technology quizzes, purchase books and text that kids will want to and need to read. Get back to the heart of reading. Let kids interact with text.


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14 responses to “Computerized reading programs

  1. Brian Cambourne

    You’ve summarised the issues of “programs’ vs ‘teachers’ in accessible nontechnical language that parents will relate to and understand.

    I love the analogy of sitting on the side line vs participating in the game.
    It resonated with me

  2. I am a teacher who uses RAZ KIDS. I use it as a “choice” of things for my students to do when they have free time or as a center choice.
    Let me explain how I came upon RAZ KIDS: In an effort to find leveled books that my students could read independently, I found “Reading A-Z”. The license that my school purchases makes it possible for me to print individual and multiple copies of books for my students. As we are a rural district with very little “extra” money, and since I have no limits on the amount of paper I use – this was a good option for me and my students. I have been able to build an extensive collection of books for my classroom for just the cost of the license – which probably costs about as much as a set of 25 books of one title from Scholastic.
    I saw the RAZ KIDS portion, and asked for another license to be purchased for my use. What I like about RAZ KIDS (at least in the way I use it) is that students have the opportunity to listen to books being read as well as reading them online. There is a QUIZ for each book, but don’t assign the quizzes. There is a part of this that allows students to “earn stars” through listening, reading and taking quizzes. Then the students can use those “stars” to build rockets, aliens and so on…………
    While I can “set” the levels that my students read, I also open a part to them (I forget the exact name) that allows them to listen to and read any book of any level that they choose. There is also an option that I’ve given to all the parents that allows them to use the program at home. Since we are rural without a public library nearby – this does give my students the chance to read a LOT of books from home. I just heard from a parent yesterday that is using it at home that her child is engaged and motivated – but again, that’s because it’s her choice!
    RAZ KIDS is a fun thing in my room, and most importantly, it is a CHOICE for them. Although I could go look to see who’s been using it and taking quizzes, I choose not to do that. I don’t reward kids for taking quizzes, and I don’t penalize kids for not taking quizzes. It is a supplemental thing for my students.
    I agree with your sentiments about computerized reading programs, but I did want to share a little more information about RAZ Kids.

    • Thanks for sharing how you use RAZ. Fortunately, my daughter is not mandated to use it and doesn’t have to take the quizzes. So that’s good. And we are lucky enough to be close to a public library. Right now she doesn’t seem to want to use it, but will let her use it for practicing a certain aspect of reading.
      And while I very much would rather her learn sight words through a simple book and can appreciate that part of leveling, I also like the idea of her just being present with any book she chooses.
      I may have to right my thoughts around the extensive use of leveling too. Just because I think we need to start having a conversation around what we want learning to look like and choice has to be part of it.
      And. . . .the other aspect of computerized programs is the need to provide an extrinsic reward. . .
      Thanks for your insight Antique, as you are providing me with what I want. . . to learn other perspectives so I can understand more myself.

      • We had great success with one of LeapFrog’s products for sight words.
        Not the flash cards, but the Leap Frog Letter factory and Meet the Sight words. It made it into a game — a contest, not a competition.
        (Disclaimer — I do not work for, hold stock in or have any other connection with LeapFrog besides having bought some of their products.)

      • Brian, I suppose I could look into Leap Frog, but I’m just not all that keen on her learning something like sight words in isolation. I expect I’m a little stubborn, huh? 🙂
        I think it’s being done as a program to collect data. I was lucky to have started teaching before NCLB and felt that we were on to something in regards to understanding the power of literacy through a meaning based authentic learning environment. (By the way, look at my “What do you See” post to understand my thinking around that. 🙂

  3. As a 5th grade teacher AR has destroyed the love of reading! My former principal finally gave up trying to convince me to make my students read AR books in order to “earn” points. Teachers force their kids to miss Recess so that they can win the competition. It’s a regurgitation of facts, that’s it! I tell my students to pick up a novel and I could care less if we win the competition!

  4. D.R.Narib

    Thanks —
    My daughter is in first grade and she loves reading. Sometimes too much. She reads in the morning when she is supposed to be getting ready for school and often times as a result we are late. But that’s okay.

    The system they had in her first grade class this year was not computerized, but it might as well have been. They gave her a book to read and then insisted she answer questions from a list that had been prepared by the reading program company. Those questions did not interest her, so she didn’t bother — her assessment was low and she was given books that did not challenge her.

    It was ridiculous. They gave her a book that she could have read when she was 3 and 1/2 and still would have been bored by. The narrative tension? A boy doesn’t want to go to sleep because he doesn’t have his stuffed animal. When they asked her why he didn’t want to go to sleep, she projected her own reasons — because his mommy wasn’t there. That this is exactly the sort of text to self connections they want students to draw was ignored, but what they did not take into account is that she was bored.

    Bored, bored, bored, bored — she told us her least favorite part of the day was free reading. Why? Because it was ‘free’ only in name — she could only choose from a few books and then she had to answer these questions. Not talk about the book, but answer questions from a list.

    Fortunately, both my wife and I have been teachers for long periods and have gone through enough PD sessions to be aware that having a ‘research-based’ program doesn’t mean squat.

    My daughter still loves to read because we did things outside of the classroom to make sure she still had the chance to read. But one reason my daughter loved to read in the first place because she began to read with her mom and I when she was 3 weeks old. She associates reading with being warm, being valued, being with her parents. Now she loves the stories — except the ones in her inane, semi-automated program.

    • First of all, sorry I didn’t approve this post earlier, but my internet was down. 🙂
      These stories always make me sad as we’ve gone too far in this leveling craze. Do you know what reading level you are at?
      I’m reading a book right now that someone with a strong theology background would get much better than I would, but I’m still getting something out of it, and it’s of value to me as a reader.
      And I’m reading to my daughter a book that probably would be considered below my level, but I’m still thinking of it from different perspectives as a reader.
      This is unfortunate while as glad as I am that your daughter has you, think of all of the other kids who are learning such a wrong narrative of literacy.

  5. 25+ years ago Frank Smith wrote in his book Insult to Intelligence: The Bureaucratic Invasion of Our Classrooms:

    “..The computer is the ultimate weapon of instructional programmers, and in many people’s minds at least, it is a device to take the place of teachers. Anyone who believes that students learn best from systematic instruction and tests can say goodbye to teachers. For dispensing programmatic instruction, computers are cheaper and more efficient than humans.

    ..Our schools should not remain places where the enormous potential of the human brain is systematically eroded, and possibly destroyed. The invasion of education by instructional programmers must be turned back now.”

  6. By the way, doesn’t anyone out there realize assessment is NOT neutral? That assessment can get in the way of the natural enjoyment which motivates us? Probably, but probably not enough when we have States and the US DOE calling for assessment after assessment and the data-driven dismantling of public education.

  7. Conny,
    Your citation from a 25-year old book sounds like a cry in the middle of the night: “The invasion of education by instructional programmers must be turned back now.”
    Brian’s nostalgic description of the beauty of reading the books sounds as if we are losing this milestone of a good education. And we are really losing this milestone! Unfortunately, it is the truth. When a teacher writes that his daughter loves reading books – it is exclusion to the rule. Majority of young generation doesn’t like reading books in an old fashioned way. However, they read much more than kids of the same age read fifty years ago – but in the electronic format.

    We have to think how to make electronic reading more uplifting, enlightening, educational, helpful, and pleasant. At the same time, we should be realistic: there are many things in our life that could not be changed by our thinking. For example, I am not a futurologist but with a very high probability, I can predict that 30 years from now all books will be published only in the electronic format. Unfortunately!
    I think we should accept the things which we cannot change, and have a courage to change the things which we can.

    • Arkady,

      According to child development experts it is a mistake to introduce children to computers at an early age. Sadly, that is happening more and more and precisely the reason why kids today lack the patience for slow paced activities like reading for enjoyment. It is appalling to me to see kids as young as one, some even younger than that, playing with an iPad! Some schools give iPads to the kindergarten kids.

      It is a problem when school district administrators listen to so-called education consultants; usually persons working for some kind of educational products company, instead of to child development experts and experts in the field of neurology.

      Ponder the following!

      ‎”Group A, who held a paper copy in their hands, averaged a retention level of 85%. Those who saw it on the movie screen had a retention level of between 25 to 30%, and those who studied it on the TV monitor had a retention and comprehension level between 3 and 5%.

      One professor from MIT made the passionate plea that we must encourage children to develop the ability to think first, and then give them the computer…if you introduce the computer before the child’s thought processes are worked out, then you have disaster in the making.

      This is because, as Piaget pointed out, the first twelve years of life are spent putting into place the structures of knowledge that enable young people to grasp abstract, metaphoric, symbolic types of information. The capacity for abstract thinking developed as a result of the natural concrete processes that have been going on for millions of years. The danger here is that the computer, which operates by the same artificial, cathode-ray-tube technology as the television, will interrupt that development.”

    • “..whether you believe that early childhood settings should include screen time or not, there is enough evidence to draw these conclusions:

      Many young children are spending too much time with screens at the expense of other important activities. There’s no evidence that screen time is educational for infants and toddlers, and there is some evidence that it may be harmful. Some carefully monitored experience with quality content can benefit children over 3.

      But what’s most important for children is lots of time for hands-on creative and active play, time in nature, and face-to-face interactions with caring adults. And, regardless of content, excessive screen time harms healthy growth and development.”

      From: Impact of Screen Time on Development and Learning

  8. Arkady,
    Thanks for commenting.
    I guess I look at Conny’s quote from Frank Smith to not necessarily refer to reading using technology but instead teaching reading through computerized programs.
    Programs like AR are basically glorified worksheets, and really is not about improving learning through technology. I think Frank Smith is pretty futuristic in his thinking about what has been happening in our current reform movement around replacing teachers with technology.
    And as far as students not enjoying reading so much anymore, I’d say it’s because of leveling, quizzes at the end of reading etc., mainly done on the computer. If we allowed kids to get back to literacy learning and let them interact with the text, I think more would read.
    Unfortunately, in today’s age, we are looking at replacing teachers with computers. In our own district a school board member publicly stated that he’s looking forward to the day that we had a 300 student to 1 teacher ratio. I’m definitely don’t think that is a good way to use technology nor is it a good way to teach students.
    I just don’t think this is the best use of technology. We can’t replace humanity.

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