This past week when writing a late-night article, I did a basic keyword Google search for “universal literacy” and was appalled (made physically ill would almost not be an exaggeration) to see the first result out of almost 11 million hits was for the Voyager Reading Program. Our school district back in Lubbock (which we left this summer for Oklahoma and Edmond schools specifically) had been implementing the Voyager Reading program for several years. If I start writing all my opinions about this program and its impact on reading and literacy development, I might find myself hit with a lawsuit for alleged defamation– I really do have strong opinions about how BAD the Voyager reading program is, along with the extreme overall phonics approach of NCLB and its Reading First programs.

Yes, kids should learn some phonics– and yes, I did learn a fair bit of phonics growing up in school. (My mom may point this out in a blog comment, so I’m pointing this out first!) Yet I think anyone who has worked for a reasonable length of time with young people helping them learn to read understands the idea that “one size does not fit all” when it comes to reading instruction or any other type of authentic education. This is why we hear an emphasis in many educational circles (but sadly not from the US DOE) for differentiated instruction, to meet the unique needs, schemas, and learning styles of the diverse students in our classes.

I am not going to more fully elaborate tonight on this point, but I will at a later date. Suffice it to say I am troubled that a Google search for “universal literacy” would suggest such a site as the top hit. This drives home for me the following:

The best book I have picked up lately relating to these issues (and to date read about 1/4 of) is “The Literacy Crisis: False Claims, Real Solutions” by Jeff McQuillan. Here is a quotation from his book (on page 72) that I used in my article last week:

The connection between the amount of reading done and reading proficiency has been well known and accepted for a number of years. Less well known but of equal importance has been the finding that more acces to reading materals leads to more reading, and subsequently higher reading achievement, and can itself explain a great deal of variation in reading scores.

This core message is, more than anything else, we need to PROVIDE MORE ACCESS TO TEXT for our young people (better libraries, open more hours of the day) and encourage more FVR: Free Voluntary Reading. Yes, teachers do need access to high-quality curriculum, but no evidence I have ever seen AND ACTUALLY BELIEVE or educational experience I’ve had suggests that a RIGOROUS curriculum pacing program like Voyager is what our kids need. If you’ve just fallen out of your seat at the suggestion that we don’t need RIGOROUS, heavy-handed educational interventions, give a listen to “Podcast79: Reject Rigor: Embrace Differentiation, Flexibility, and High Expectations.”

I did email Dr. Stephen Krashen to see if he’s published articles or reviews of Voyager, so far I have not heard from him. (Not a surprise or a complaint– he is one of the top U.S. scholars on reading and literacy, and I’m sure he is deluged with email.) I am so thankful that someone with his credentials is speaking out about some of the educational technology “one size fits all” programs like Accelerated Reader that are force-fed down the throats of students around the nation. AR can be great for some kids, but I have seen it abused and used as a stick too many times by teachers and administrators who fail to understand the meaning of that all important educational word, DIFFERENTIATION. For some of Dr. Krashen’s ideas on that topic, read his letter to the London Times in February 2006 “Accelerated Reader not the Answer” and his formal, academic review of AR: “Does Accelerated Reader Work?” I found it fascinating tonight to read in the WikiPedia entry for Accelerated Reader that supposedly:

Renaissance Learning, the product’s developer, has stated that its intended purpose is to assess whether or not a student has read a book, not to assess higher order thinking skills, to teach or otherwise replace curriculum, to supersede the role of the teacher, or to provide extrinsic reward.

AR is ALL ABOUT extrinsic rewards for reading, unfortunately. Instead of digressing further from my original blog post here, I’ll direct you to my notes from Dr. Krashen’s keynotes at Encylo-Media in Oklahoma City two weeks ago. (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and the podcast of Part 3.)

In closing I’ll quote Edward R. Murrow: Good night and good luck!

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6 Responses to Troubled by a literacy Google search

  1. Kelly Dumont says:

    One of the true regrets that I have from my 18 years in education is the role I played in introducing AR to a school that I taught at. I was very excited about the program as we implemented it, but the holes became apparent almost immediately. Besides the things mentioned by Dr. Krashen and others, the abuse of the system was so easy for any that wanted to do so.Within 6 months I was wishing I could take it all back. Having 3 children go through that school since that time I can tell you with certainty that AR has played absolutely no role in how well my children read. They tired quickly of the reading for points game, I feel fortunate that the continued to read and developed into good readers.I now find myself arguing against the use of AR and its ilk in our schools. But parents think it is so wonderful they are willing to dump money into it when they aren’t anything else that would truly help the students read.

  2. Karen says:

    I must comment in defense of AR. Last year we began to use AR as a whole school reading program. We saw a dramatic increase in reading overall as a direct result. To quote your quote from “The Literacy Crisis: False Claims, Real Solutions” by Jeff McQuillan – The connection between the amount of reading done and reading proficiency has been well known and accepted for a number of years. Less well known but of equal importance has been the finding that more access to reading materials leads to more reading, and subsequently higher reading achievement, and can itself explain a great deal of variation in reading scores. This is exactly what we have seen at my school through the use of AR. Our test scores went up 10% overall, including the lowest kids. Our media center can’t keep books on the shelves, and during the recent book fair, sales were double what they were last year. Usually the most sales were seen with 6th graders and the fewest with 8th graders – this year’s sales were almost equal across the grades. This increase in a desire to read is directly related to our implementation of AR. I understand that it can be abused, but I wanted to point out that it is also being used well.

  3. Kelly Dumont says:

    The interesting question is what is it that is driving the kids to read. Is it that there is more access to books or the incentivizing aspects of AR and what would happen were the incentives to go away.

  4. Karen says:

    Well everything needs incentive for it to continue. If they stopped paying me to come to work, would I still come to work? I’d like to think that the points and the grades given for completing the book and passing test have fostered a love of reading for our students. I see kids pull out their books when there is 5 mins of downtime in a class. I hate to do it, but I have had to tell kids to put their books away so that I can start my lesson. The external incentive has morphed into internal incentive and hopefully that will not go away.

  5. Karen says:

    I must correct myself – we have Reading Counts – a similar program to AR at my school.

  6. Wesley Fryer says:

    Thanks for your comments Kelly and Karen– as a parent and a former 4th grade teacher at school that obtained its first classroom computers specifically because of AR– my perception is that AR works for some kids, and doesn’t work for others. I think any program touted as “the answer” for improving reading scores or anything else is probably promising too much. I am glad to hear that you’ve had good success with AR at your school, Karen. As Dr. Krashen mentioned in his presentations at Encyclo-Media, often at schools using the AR program students ARE provided with more time for free reading, and if combined with good access with books this makes for a winning formula. Some kids respond positively to the incentives, others don’t. One point Dr. Krashen made about AR that I hadn’t really thought of before is that we can condition a behavior to extinction by rewarding it. In other words, by taking an activity which is generally regarded as intrinsically valuable (reading) and assigning a reward, we can condition kids to work for a reward/prize rather than the intrinsic value of the reading experience. Karen’s question really is the key one: Why are the kids reading? Hopefully AR is being used in a way that does not overemphasize the extrinsic reward side of the equation.

    I think we need to be much more aware than we are about how we seem to be conditioning kids (and teachers) to act in educational contexts in response to carrots and sticks. I’m sure I’ll be accused by some as being hopelessly idealistic, but I really think there is more to the educational experience than just instrumental rewards. Unfortunately our educational system overall generally reinforces this view– I’m here to get this certificate, this degree, etc. What we are really here in school to do, I think, is learn how to learn and how to communicate in more eloquent and powerful ways.

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