Motivation, Cash & Literacy: I Despise AR. Should I?

This is first draft thinking if ever such a thing existed. And it’s selfish. And personal. And close to home.

Ani goes to Kindergarten in the fall, so we spent the winter investigating schools around our town. We were looking for places that felt right for us – evidence of care and thoughtfulness, ties to particular district programs that we think are valuable or hope that Ani will have an interest in in the future, that sort of thing.

We settled on a short list of three elementary schools in our school district, the district where my wife is also a teacher. One of the schools, our first choice, was full up and we didn’t get selected into it. Of the two that remained, it was a draw. Until I attended parent nights. I could tell that both schools cared about kids, but I had a real concern about one of the two schools: the use of Accelerated Reader (AR).

While I was at the parent night where I learned about the school’s use of AR, I tweeted some of my questions and concerns, and began to hear back from many people about the pros and cons of AR. ((I also recorded a podcast about the experience. Give it a listen if you want to learn more.)) Actually, that’s not true. There were a few lukewarm responses. But most of the replies, many of them private, were about bad ((terribly, horribly, awfully, no good, very bad)) experiences that folks and their children had with the program. Phrases like “it sucked the joy out of reading” were sent to me by friends, colleagues, and near strangers from all over my Twittersphere.

And I swore to myself, as I listened and thought and considered, that I wouldn’t expose my daughter to such a program.

And yet, Ani will begin next year in that school, where AR is a large piece, according to the principal, of the formative assessment used by the Kindergarten teachers. ((This post isn’t about the school, or their methodology. I’m excited to have Ani go there, although I am nervous about the experience. We’ll stay on top of it. I hope.))

That said, I’ve got some baggage around Accelerated Reader and programs like it. And I worry that my baggage is unfounded, particularly when people I know and respect choose to use the program. I don’t get it. And that bugs me. ((It fills me with terror and anxiety, actually. If I’m wrong about AR, what else am I wrong about? And AM I wrong about AR?))

I know that motivation that springs from external sources isn’t terribly motivating when the external motivator is gone. In fact, I know that such external motivation can decrease one’s intrinsic motivation for the thing that being fiddled with. I was reminded of the tension between what I know about motivation and what I see thoughtful people doing when they use AR when I stumbled across this article in Time on Saturday.

The piece is a profile of some work being done by Roland Fryer, Jr., an economist at Harvard, to see what effect money can have on student performance. The angle that’s interesting is that he’s not looking at how to incentivize teaching – he’s looking to see if financial incentives can impact learning. Specifically, he’s paying kids to do certain things. And it’s fascinating work, for several reasons.

For starters, he ran into considerable trouble from grown ups when he proposed doing such studies, in part because folks (like me) get hinky whenever you talk about paying kids to do well in school. ((And we might be right to get hinky about such things.)) More on that in a moment.

I’m also curious because of the way he set his tests up – there are several different models in his study, ranging from paying 2nd graders $2/book to do some reading up to paying high school students a certain amount for every good grade they earn.

The author of the article, Amanda Ripley, does a good job summing up some of Edward Deci‘s work on motivation, which I’ve relied on in the past:

The most damning criticism of Fryer came from psychologists like the University of Rochester’s Edward Deci, who has spent his career studying motivation. Deci has found that money — like other tangible rewards — does not work very well to motivate people over the long term, particularly for tasks that involve creativity. In fact, there is a lot of evidence that rewards can have the perverse effect of making people perform worse.

A classic experiment in support of this hypothesis took place at a nursery school at Stanford University in the early 1970s. There, researchers divided 51 toddlers into groups. All the kids were asked to draw a picture with markers. But one group was told in advance that they would get a special reward — a certificate with a gold star and a red ribbon — in exchange for their work. The kids did the drawings, and the ones in the treatment group got their certificates.

A few weeks later, the researchers observed the children through a one-way mirror on a normal school day. They found that the kids who had received the award spent half as much time drawing for fun as those who had not been rewarded. The reward, it seemed, diminished the act of drawing. So instead of giving kids gold stars, Deci says, we should teach them to derive intrinsic pleasure from the task itself. “What we really want is for people to value the activity of learning,” he says. People of all ages perform better and work harder if they are actually enjoying the work — not just the reward that comes later.

In principle, Fryer agrees. “Kids should learn for the love of learning,” he says. “But they’re not. So what shall we do?” Most teenagers do not look at their math homework the way toddlers look at a blank piece of paper. It would be wonderful if they did. Maybe one day we will all approach our jobs that way. But until then, most adults work primarily for money, and in a curious way, we seem to be holding kids to a higher standard than we hold ourselves.

In Washington, the kids did better on standardized reading tests. Getting paid on a routine basis for a series of small accomplishments, including attendance and behavior, seemed to lead to more learning for those kids. And in Dallas, the experiment produced the most dramatic gains of all. Paying second-graders to read books significantly boosted their reading-comprehension scores on standardized tests at the end of the year — and those kids seemed to continue to do better the next year, even after the rewards stopped.

So now we come back to AR, a program where, as in Dallas, students are incentivized to read books. Maybe I shouldn’t be linking these two things, but I am, and it’s making me uncomfortable.

I’m one of those folks who thinks of questions of motivation when it comes to Accelerated Reader. I would make the case, if you asked me a week ago, that AR kills intrinsic motivation and replaces it with a token ((Or a pizza, or a toy, or a whatever)). As soon as the tokens are gone, then so is the reason to do the thing that you were handing out the tokens for. In fact, I made that argument in a classroom last week in my school district.

And then I read this article. And it’s messing with my head.

Suppose I’m wrong about the fact that paying kids – be it through cash or other tangible stuff – doesn’t help them to improve as readers, writers and thinkers. Suppose that AR is one of those programs that, like $2/book for second graders in Texas, leads to long term gains for kids. Is that a deal worth making? I’m not sure, but I can’t discount or write it off as easily as I might like to. ((Big suppositions, but I’m thinking out loud here. And about to ask you to help me think out loud better.))

And that bugs me. Lots.


26 thoughts on “Motivation, Cash & Literacy: I Despise AR. Should I?

  1. Accelerated Reader taught my daughter to “play the school game.” She wanted an A in reading, and quickly learned to choose books for their point value. Once she had earned the points she needed for her grade, she started reading the stack of books she wanted to read and had had to set aside. She was a reader before her elem school adopted AR, and she is a reader today (college-age.) Accelerated Reader taught her how to play by the rules of the game until she got what she wanted, then to postpone the joy of reading until she had the program points. I’ll always have a hard place in my heart for the AR program.

    1. Jessica Pederson says:

      That is exactly what I see happening with my now 2nd grade daughter… not being able to read what truly interests her.. but reading for points to “play the school game” as you said. It annoys and saddens me. She to was reading well above grade level at the end of Kindergarten thanks to an entirely different multi-sensory approach to reading in another school district.

  2. Hmmm.
    In a nutshell:
    Does the end justify the means?

    You say,
    “Suppose it leads to long term gains for the kids.”

    I remember Borges saying in an interview that Argentineans are individuals. Americans are citizens. Taking a distance from the political context Borges had in mind when he uttered it, let me ask you:

    Are those long-term gains for the kids as individuals or as citizens?

    On a side note (that should be post one day), I think I share your concerns regarding motivation. Motivation is changeable by nature. We cannot control it fully. Perhaps the quest for it in a classroom is overrated. Maybe. I am still exploring this in my mind and whispering out a little louder here.

  3. Bud, I worried about this too with my little girl. Now, it seems like wasted worrying time and angst. When I worked with my daughter on reading–and my wife, too–we focused on instilling a love of reading and stories, wherever they might be found. When she started school, it didn’t matter about AR…that was just another way to get a good grade doing something she loved.

    And that’s work that isn’t, right? When you love what you do, get paid for it, it isn’t work…a valuable lesson to learn young.

    Miguel Guhlin
    Around the

  4. Tom says:

    In principle, Fryer agrees. “Kids should learn for the love of learning,” he says. “But they’re not. So what shall we do?”

    So we try paying students.


    Another patch on top of all the other patches that show that school isn’t working all that well. Why try to address the fundamental issues?

    It’s stupid to say kids don’t love learning. They simply don’t love school. I can’t blame them and I certainly don’t think we can’t pay them enough to like it.

  5. I thought the Time article was interesting also. My thoughts here:

    While I have found many students who chose books based on point value when I taught, those students were usually grudging readers.

    I have never seen AR points translated into a specific grade, but rather a part of a Reading grade. In our school students were asked earn a specific amount of points, not much and usually my 4th graders could earn most or all of their points with one good chapter book.

    I don’t like AR because it is a shortcut for teachers and administrators, but I don’t think it is bad. When I was a kid we read books and wrote book reports, which for most of my friends meant copying the inside cover flap. Today students take a test on the computer and ask someone else for the answers, try to sneak peaks at the book, beg for retakes, or just take a lot a tests until their guessing earns them enough points to satisfy the teacher.

  6. Jason Buell says:

    Stephen Krashen has a few articles on his site about AR. I think he decided at best it was neutral and we could be spending money on other things, like books. My admin and I have argued about it. She takes the Fryer stand that the low kids wouldn’t be reading at all. I can see her point. Most teachers at my school don’t use rewards but use it to help kids track their reading level and help them find books they’d be comfortable with.

  7. Beckie Large-Swope says:

    Our AR quarter ends on May 7th. We are going to take our students to the Rockies Game on May 14. Please know you are welcome to come observe any time. I can only speak to middle school. Every day I have students who get immediate feedback on their reading. I have watched student’s confidence grow and see them having fun with the program. I have no idea what it looks like for kindergarten students. Ani is fortunate to be born into a home with loving parents who have read to her since birth. Her world is a very print rich environment. That will outweigh anything else. There are things about the program I have problems with. Motivation is an issue. In this data driven world AR gives us feedback on our students.

  8. Kelly says:

    Another point of view on this is the, yet again, inequality of the schools in the District. Why do some schools have this AR program and others do not (regardless of it’s negative attention). How do some schools afford this and others do not?
    Also, since I do not know much about the program, when are students using this program? During Reading instruction or during Technology/Lab time? Both seem wrong to me, esp. in Kindergarten. Kids should be HOLDING books (although, I’m still not up to par: I just went to read about AR and apparently the kids are holding books, so I don’t understand if they are reading and then answering questions on the computer, or does the program read the book to them? younger kids?)….. and kids could be doing way more on the computers (research, podcasts, wikis) that will increase their knowledge of technology.
    And what does the teacher do while students are on this program? If the whole class is on it in the Lab, there doesn’t seem to be much teacher instruction going on (plan time?), or is it just a few kids in the classroom (and even then, I only have ONE student computer in my classroom and it is NOT connected to the internet b/c I am only granted ONE drop in my room and that is for the teacher/thin client….).
    What I am finding from my tiny bit of research about AR and schools using it is that they are boasting 2 things: kids love to read now b/c of this program AND it’s boosting test scores.
    I can think of LOTS of OTHER ways to get kids excited about reading, and if it’s another program that schools are using/paying for to raise test scores, then more power to them and keep it out of my school, b/c I’m tired of parents judging schools based on test scores…(Bud, I am not saying that is why you chose your school…but, if it’s the school that I think it could be, I do know a lot of parents that do choose that school b/c of it’s high test scores….and I’m just not exactly sure What that says about a school anymore….as for another school whose school marquee reads RESULTS MATTER, well, that makes me want to run in the other direction!).

    1. Bud Hunt says:


      Lots of good questions here. I will respond in more depth later – but I wanted to make sure that you knew that, for one, my children will attend a different school district than the one I work in and, for another, I didn’t look at a single score or collection of test scores to make our decision on where to send Ani. We were interested in programming, philosophy and tie in to other programs in the school district where my wife works and we live.

  9. We have AR at our school for certain grades and it drives me crazy because when I get these AR-kids, I find that in general, they can’t think critically about character development, theme or motivation of the author, or move “beyond” the text with their own thoughts.
    I feel as if my colleagues were taking the easy way out of teaching real reading skills, and then calling it “technology” because the kids are sitting in front of a machine (or is that another discussion for another time?).
    We are in the midst of a Literacy Initiative and I have complained about AR to our administration (without pointing fingers at anyone in particular) but we’ll see what happens, as we are also in the culture of data, and AR provides data.

    1. Bud Hunt says:

      But, Kevin, and this is one of the most important questions I have about AR, is that “data” useful? Does it give us anything we can’t get anywhere else? Is it used well, if at all?

      1. It’s not data that is used well at our school, as far as I can tell, but folks can say that they have “data” and, gosh, sometimes that simplistic term goes a long way in some circles these days.

  10. Kevin, I was thinking along similar lines earlier this morning.
    It is very difficult to write a multiple choice questions that is at a higher Bloom’s level. Most of the AR questions are generally fact based. And what if AR asked a question that requires a student to intuit (?) a characters motivation and the answer is not what the computer expected? Is it wrong? Can it be wrong if you can justify your or the characters motivation?

  11. Barbara Barreda says:

    A lot of folks have made good points here. I think Kevin is on the right track.IBesides the cost of AR to the school the fact that it does not address anything other than basic recall has kept me from investing int it.

    However, I think we should be careful about how we look at AR and other things like it. I do not think AR is not intrinsically good or bad. I think the heart of the issue is why do we have the program, what do we expect of it and how are we using it. IMHOP it should never be a graded activity, nor in place of instructional time.

    As for motivation…we all look for motivation and rewards to encourage students whether it is a sticker, levels in a game, a trip to the treasure chest, or grades. I for one support the idea of video games in education and one reason is it rewards students for tenacity.

    1. Tom says:

      I think there’s a very big difference between motivation and rewards. I also see a pretty dramatic difference between progress in a game and being given things- be they stickers, treasure box trips or grades as a reward.

      Alfie Kohn says it better than I can.

  12. Barbara Barreda says:

    Sorry for my blurry eyed typos above- Should not post comments before coffee.

    Instead of a double negative I was trying to say..
    I do not think AR is intrinsically good or bad.

  13. Jen says:

    Bud, I was one of the ones who replied to you privately, and I still struggle with it. My daughter has learned to play the school game, and is fascinated with any kind of reward. Recently she was absolutely obsessed with participating in the magazine fund raiser so she could earn a sticky hand and light up ring.

    However, she’s a reader. She was reading before she came to the school, and I don’t think the program will have any impact on her love of reading. Now, she’s more likely to read a book, and then check it out to see if it’s an AR book. She loves when she finishes a book and then remembers to look, and discovers she’s read something above her level. She takes the tests at home, and I figure it’s better than watching TV, right?

    Motivation is bigger than extrinsic and intrinsic, and the effects are so individualized, you can probably disregard that research and focus on your own children. It’s been 33 years since I went through the SRA program and I still remember racing through those books. I also remember taking home phonics workbooks and completing them in an evening. I believe my love of reading and writing had nothing to do with these programs, but more to do with my personality, culture and environment.

    There are reward systems everywhere. This is our world. Previous research is useful, but most of the negative attention on behaviorism stems from results when the stimulus is removed. We now live in the world of the eternal carrot. What we need to teach, is the power of free will.

    Does it bother you to see students blog for comments or views? Are you bothered by clustermaps? Does it disturb you to see teachers excited about the number of hits on their student videos?

  14. Chris Craft says:

    Hi Bud,

    Thanks for pinging me on this. While I am not terribly certain what I think about AR, I do have some thoughts about motivation.

    However, I will keep them brief since your post is more about AR than about motivation. For what it’s worth, my school recently quit the formal AR program and has implemented something very similar. I am not sufficiently familiar with it to comment on its success or failure, nor am I qualified in that arena.

    I want to hone in on what you said here..

    “I know that motivation that springs from external sources isn’t terribly motivating when the external motivator is gone. In fact, I know that such external motivation can decrease one’s intrinsic motivation for the thing that being fiddled with.”

    This can be true, but depends entirely on the context. You brought about Deci’s work, he and a second author named Ryan went rounds about this very topic in a series of journal articles.

    Suffice it to say, I’d argue motivation is more complex than simply a series of external or internal motivators. I’d posit that motivation is more related to the anticipated value of an activity. When I was growing up I can recall asking teachers when I’d need a particular math skill later in life. Subconsciously I was trying to justift the effort I was going to have to exert to understand/learn/demonstrate the skill.

    When one expects little value from a task, one will likely exert little effort. This is precisely why many students abandon school or do only the bare minimum. They see no value in school. But that’s another comment, I suppose.

    What I am positing is based on the Expectency-Value theory of motivation, made popular by Eccles and Wigfield. I’d avoid the wikipedia article, it needs help.

    EV theory boils down to two questions..

    1. Can I do the task?
    2. Do I want to do the task?

    When it comes to AR, it may be that students anticipate recieving value from the prizes, etc they recieve for reading. I don’t know if that’s good or bad.

    I doubt it is creating in them an expectency of value for reading itself.

    Perhaps the incentives will help them realize they like reading? No clue.

    Either way, EVT forms a nice framework for motivation and deserves a higher place in our discussion.

    For more information on EVT, stay away from Wikipedia. Visit this link instead.


    Chris Craft

  15. Natalie says:

    I am enjoying the conversations that I see around the web about AR. Some of the concerns are valid. I’d like to throw in my two-cents as a former AR user.

    First, I haven’t used AR in 10 years. Second, I used it with middle school students, not high school where I now teach.

    One of the things that I find generally troublesome about the AR conversations is that people seem to be under the impression that it is JUST reading the book and taking a multiple choice test. When I was trained in how to use the program, that was far from the expectation.

    Students were tested to determine their zone of proximal development, then teachers conferenced with them to select appropriate books. EVERY child had an individualized plan. I conferenced with my students at least twice every grading period to discuss, individually, what they were reading, what they thought about their books, what reading goals they had for themselves and what was next on their reading list. I helped kids find books that would interest them (we had 9,000 to choose from).

    Though students were rewarded with points they could spend in the AR store, the program was not passive in any way. I read YA lit constantly in an effort to stay in front of the kids and their interests; I needed solid recommendations for them. Sometimes conferencing would take more than a week with my struggling readers.

    I also selected books to read aloud to students. When I read aloud “The Giver,” my students checked out all of the copies in the library so they could follow along. We discussed for days the meaning of the ending and talked out a sequel to the story. This was all during our silent reading period.

    All of this takes a LOT of work on the part of the teacher to make this process meaningful, but I think it was worth it. Generally, my students enjoyed talking with the class about the books they were reading. Many changed their minds about reading; it could be fun after all.

    Has this part of the program gone away? If it has, I don’t know that I could support it either.

    By the way, some of the kids were motivated by getting the points in order to go shopping in the AR store. Most of our students came from very poor families, but they had a way (using their AR points) to purchase small birthday and holiday gifts for their friends and family. Yes, some of them bought silly toys for themselves, but others saved up for Mother’s Day gifts.

  16. I think you are focusing on a program when your instincts are telling you that it isn’t the program you should worry about. What you really need to do is examine why and how AR is implemented in the school. If you feel that the implementation or motivation doesn’t meet your belief system then you have a problem.

    On a much larger scale you are discovering a problem many teachers already have to deal with. What happens when your child is in a classroom with a teacher that has different ideas about education than you? How do you learn to deal with these conflicts?

  17. Jenny says:

    I teach in a school that used AR my first few years here and phased it out several years ago. We decided, as a staff with the guidance of a fabulous librarian, that it was not doing anything positive for our students.

    You can get data from AR, of course. I would argue that the data from AR is fairly pointless. As is most data from anything so standardized. Actually reading with or to students and talking with them about books will be so much more valuable. I think schools turn to AR for help but it strikes me as a lazy answer. And one that is not cheap.

    Kids love books. The most chaotic classroom in an elementary school will often immediately calm down if the teacher pulls out a book and begins to read. I’ll never buy that we need external motivation to get the majority of kids to read. We need to immerse them in books.

  18. Megan Howard says:

    I ran across your post as I was finishing up Renee Hobbs’ book entitled Reading the Media: Media Literacy in the Classroom. While her focus is on the secondary school classroom, there’s a section that addresses ‘Library Research, Curiosity, and the Meaning of Motivation” (p. 56-59) If you can get your hands on the book, I think you’ll find this section (and others) interesting and relevant to many of the issues you explore on your blog.

    The first sentence of this section – “Many students arrive in high school without a real appreciation for the internal joys associated with the search for knowledge.” Substitute ‘reading’ for ‘search for knowledge’ (or just add the words ‘through reading’) and it’s the main issue I have with AR programs. For all of the money and hoopla over tests and prizes, I see that it is doing very little to develop that internal joy which comes from engaging in text – these programs are definitely not actively or authentically engaging kids in order to cultivate love of lifelong reading. Many would argue that AR programs are meant to get books in the hands of kids, but I don’t think that does anything but teach kids how to work the system (as many parents/teachers have indicated above).

    The following quote from Hobbs struck me in light of this post: “Researchers have found that engaged readers have strategic knowledge about printed texts, use reading to gain knowledge, and are involved in the social dimensions of reading. Learners increase their motivation when they have opportunities for choice, challenge, social interaction, and success…When literacy becomes a lifestyle, seeking insights and being engaged in the quest for knowledge becomes a matter of following one’s intellectual heart. In communities where testing and evaluation are central, educators have no time to cultivate the habits of mind that may support the development of an adolescent’s lifelong motivation and engagement” (p. 56).

    While Hobbs is talking about library research, it parallels so much of what has been discussed in your post and in the comments. As a teacher, I’d much rather spend the time set aside for individual AR work and use it to build community, conversation, and inquiry around a smaller amount of books. In my experience, teachers can serve as much better motivators in terms of creating a culture of readers than tests and stickers can.

  19. Mary says:

    I have mixed feelings about AR also.

    My son was slow to learn reading. We had read to him nightly since he was a toddler. He worked with a wonderful reading specialist at school. He finally hit a smoother patch in 3rd grade, in fourth grade had a teacher that really inspired him, and in fifth grade, is now an avid reader. And we still read to him for a little while each night.

    His primary teachers wisely told me not to lose sleep over his progress, and to ignore AR and other tests. It worked.

    It all depends upon the importance the school and the individual teachers assign to AR.

  20. Naomi Mellendorf says:

    Today I turned down the opportunity to interview for a library media specialist position in a K-6 grade school heavily invested in the AR program; instead, I accepted the offer for a similar position in a district that does not use AR whatsoever. I will make tens of thousands of dollars less, but I’m so relieved that I won’t be a slave to AR.

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