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An analysis of Reading Renaissance.

Abstract

During the fall of 2003, I conducted an analysis of the operation of the Reading Renaissance instructional reading program used in a local elementary school. My review of this program consisted of interviews and observations of the students, their teacher and the school librarian.

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Setting

The subjects of this study are the third grade students in the class in which I served as an intern. The demographics of the class are aligned as follows: twelve Caucasian males, three Hispanic males, three Hispanic females, five Caucasian females, two Black females and one female of Middle Eastern descent. One Caucasian male student is affected with Down syndrome and is mainstreamed in the class full time. Four students (two Hispanic males and two Hispanic females) are classified as English language learners (ELL). Accordingly, the total number of students who are the subjects of this study is twenty-six.

The school in which I served as an intern benefits under Title I guidelines and the students generally come from families of modest economic circumstances. Of significance, the ELL students in the class receive daily English language instruction in a separate classroom. This pullout program is taught by two ESL endorsed teachers who are fluent in Spanish and English. In addition to the ELL pullout instruction, a number of the students attend other specialized schooling. Two of the students receive "specialized reading" (i.e., remedial) instruction provided by the school district. Further, three other students in the class receive "reading resource" (i.e., special education) instruction to address more profound reading challenges. On top of this, four students in the class receive reading assistance provided through a federal program (known as "Title I Reading") and another student receives math assistance (known as "Title I Math") through the same program.

It should be noted that the state of Arizona is in the process of dismantling its ESL instructional programs under the mandates of the successful "English only" ballot Proposition 203. The new statute requires that ELL students receive instruction in a general education classroom and that all subject content be administered in English.

The Reading Renaissance Instructional Model

Reading Renaissance (RR) is a literature-based instructional reading program developed by Renaissance Learning Inc. in the 1980's (formerly known as Advantage Learning Systems). The goal of RR is to dramatically accelerate student reading growth through an intensive reading program and then assess student reading performance using management software called Accelerated Reader (AR). Despite its broad acceptance by over 50,000 schools in the United States, the educational community is deeply divided over the value and effectiveness of RR. There is research that supports RR as being an effective reading program when it is properly implemented and diligently applied (e.g., Paul, VanderZee, Rue & Swanson, 1996; Walberg, 2001; Sadusky & Brem, 2002). Conversely, many educators believe that RR is nothing more than a well promoted but inconsequential computerized tracking and assessment program (e.g., Pavonetti, Brimmer & Cipielewski, 2000; Serafini, 2002). One of the principle concerns articulated by critics of RR is that it is not considered by many educators to be an instructional program (e.g., Biggers, 2001; Stevenson & Camarata, 2000).

The RR program requires that students independently select and read books that are assigned a point value depending on the difficulty of the book (School Renaissance Institute, 2000). The point value assigned to the book is determined based on the textual difficulty of the book which is calculated by using RR's proprietary readability formula called ATOS (Advantage--TASA Open Standard). Initially, and from time to time thereafter, the student's reading level is determined by using a norm-referenced assessment. RR developed its own literacy skills diagnostic examination called STAR (Standardized Test for Assessment of Reading). Based on the findings of that assessment, a point goal is established that each student must obtain each marking period (typically a quarter in length).

AR is the technology-based element of RR and provides the statistical results of the reading practices of the students in the program (School Renaissance Institute, 2000). Once a student completes a book, he or she takes a short, arguably superficial, computerized quiz on the content of the book that is administered by AR. The quiz is administered in multiple-choice format and assesses little more than basic comprehension of salient facts of the book. The results of a student's performance on an AR quiz are produced on what RR calls a TOPS report which is short for Three Opportunities to Praise a Student. This report provides information about the student's pass/fail score on the quiz administered by AR on the content of the book just read. The TOPS report is generated for teacher, parental and student review. Upon successful completion of the quiz, the student is awarded points towards his or her overall point goal and ultimately, praised for passing the test.

The AR Diagnostic Report (an AR report that summarizes class progress during the marking period) for the class shows that all but three students are progressing towards their AR point goals. Two of the three students who are not succeeding in the program are classified ELL and the third is affected with Down syndrome. Of note, at mid semester, one poorly performing ELL student was reclassified as learning disabled and transferred to a self-contained resource program.

Instructional Reading Practice Promoted by RR

TWI is the instructional reading component of RR which stands for reading To, With and Independently (The Institute for Academic Excellence, 1999). One of RR's primary concerns, which we all share, is the lack of reading practice that occurs in many of our classrooms. To foster reading activities, RR promotes what it calls "Guided Independent Reading" which is performed within the TWI framework (Paul, 2003; The Institute for Academic Excellence, 1999). RR recommends that guided reading activities for the third grade involve fifteen minutes of being read to, fifteen minutes of being read with, plus sixty minutes of independent reading for a total of ninety minutes per each school day. It is primarily during the "read to and read with" sessions that teachers are expected to directly instruct reading skills, conduct minilessons, monitor and diagnose reading problems.

The length of the school day for my mentor class is only six hours long, including lunch and recess. RR independent reading and AR testing occupy the first hour of the day (though students are permitted to test during breaks in the schedule throughout the day). Clearly, the amount of time that is available for reading or other core curriculum instruction is limited and must be allocated judiciously. Later in the school day, my mentor teacher schedules direct literacy instruction using an instructional primer published by Scholastic (Scholastic, 2000). This is the primary literacy program used to teach grammar, sentence structure, composition, spelling, writing mechanics and phonics. In short, there is insufficient class time to conduct direct reading instruction for both the basal reading program and RR. As such, the "read to and read with" components of TWI are subsumed by the separate basal reading instruction. Accordingly, RR's role in my mentor classroom is limited to providing focused, uninterrupted reading practice. Therefore, the critical pedagogical issue I examined during my internship was assessing the intrinsic value of RR and the opportunity cost of not administering other instruction during that precious first hour of the school day.

Sustained Silent Reading is the Driving Force Behind RR

Over a twelve week period, I directly observed students take over twenty AR quizzes by actually standing behind the student who was sitting at the computer when the test was administered. In addition, from a short distance, I estimate that I observed the completion of more than one hundred AR quizzes. I observed that the students are motivated to read, making progress on their books, passing content based exams on AR and generally making good progress toward their AR point goals. All of these facts represent positive features of the RR program and demonstrate good use of classroom time and resources. However, I still question the overall quality of the student's reading experience since most of it is not monitored or directly instructed by the teacher.

RR has a component in its program that I have not seen studied the professional literature nor have I fully observed in the classroom. In its own product information, RR states that the teacher is the key to creating successful, self motivated readers. RR calls this aspect of their program "MIMI" which is short for Motivate, Instruct, Monitor and Intervene (The Institute for Academic Excellence, Inc., 1999). The teacher is required to challenge students to meet higher goals (Motivate), show students how to select appropriate books and teach mini-lessons (Instruct), review the status of the class (Monitor) and diagnose and address the student's reading problems (Intervene). My observations suggest that the most critical elements of the RR program that are underrepresented in the classroom are the Instruct and Intervene elements of MIMI.

The students in my mentor class have limited contact with their teacher about the content of the books they read and I did not observe their participation in activities that extend their interest in the book. As such, the students are strongly motivated to complete reading the book at hand, take a quiz and select another book to read. I never once observed a student turn to another and share a passage or moment from the book being read. Essentially, the RR experience represents little more than an isolated reading task. Accordingly, within the instructional framework of RR, there should be time set aside for book discussions, literature circles, artistic interpretations and other activities so that students can explore their feelings and attitudes about the books they have read. Further, the teacher must proactively inquire with the student about his or her knowledge and understanding of the book and otherwise examine elements of the literature that the student may not be capable of doing independently. Unfortunately, these sorts of activities are absent from many classrooms including the one in which I served as an intern.

In addition to the AR quiz, I recommend that the students be subject to a periodic oral debriefing about the content of the book just read. This conversation would be comparable to a book discussion that would occur in a whole language approach to literacy. I believe these talks would be important milestones in checking for oral comprehension and used to assess the presence of important student reading behaviors.

Does RR Succeed in Creating Measurable Growth in Student Reading Ability?

At the heart of the debate concerning the value of RR is the issue of quantity of reading vs. the quality of learning that actually occurs in the RR reading experience. I believe that the majority of primary school students do not have the cognitive skills and maturity to understand the full value and meaning of the books they read. RR's emphasis on assigning large volumes of reading without further exploration of a book's content narrows the reading experience and raises serious questions about student reading comprehension and understanding. Further, the considerable administrative responsibility AR imposes on educators effectively relegates teachers to little more than test administrators. I observe that the administrative requirements of the program combined with other classroom responsibilities leave little time to provide informative feedback or other reading instruction to the students. Teachers can address this issue by actually teaching some the RR books their students read. This would begin to ameliorate some of the concerns many educators have that RR is not a balanced instructional program or that it is not a whole language approach to teaching reading. In short, the teacher must increase her instructional role in the program and the students must elevate the quality of contact they have with the teacher and with each other about the books they have read.

Most of the literature that I reviewed concerning RR has been done by research professionals who examine norm-referenced or other summative test results of schools that have implemented RR and then compare those results to control schools that do not employ the program. These researchers then draw qualitative judgments about the value and effectiveness of RR based upon this comparative examination. As a non-professional observer, I respectfully submit that future research concerning RR must be far more intimate than these large scale, impersonal attempts to evaluate the value of RR from the "outside in". In fact, I believe that the most important research has yet to be performed on RR. Until professional researchers move into the classroom and conduct first hand, real time observations of the students participating in RR, the determining factors that will guide us to a more meaningful understanding of RR will not be fully identified or examined. It is my sincere hope that the methods I employed during my internship represent the type and manner of inquiry that will be utilized by researchers in the future. Quite simply, I believe that it is an inadequate methodology for researchers to limit their examinations to an analysis of the comparative test results achieved by the students who are the subjects of the studies. A true understanding of the quality of the RR reading experience may only be attained through direct observation of the students who read the books and take the AR quizzes. To that end, I enjoy the unique distinction of knowing all of the first names of my students.

Conclusions and Reflections

With falling test scores, parents, politicians and educators sought alternative means to teach the core subjects. Into this scene (or vacuum) enters RR with a promise to increase literacy with a novel, technology based approach to reading that can be implemented in a variety of educational environments. Further, there is credible statistical evidence that the use of RR is positively correlated to higher scores on standardized achievement tests.

There are tremendous pressures on educators to increase student academic performance (at least to the extent that academic achievement is fairly and accurately measured by standardized assessment). With RR, educators now have a new instructional option with which to teach literacy and possibly improve standardized test scores at the same time. Consequently, it's not difficult to appreciate the temptation on the part of educators to install a seemingly credible, well promoted, "one size fits all" literacy program that could dramatically increase student reading performance and scores on standardized tests.

RR is a supplemental reading program and is not intended to take the place of a principal reading program. Consequently, I am not sure that it is possible to point to a single program model such as RR and conclude that it is the determining factor in increased student reading performance. With that said, the discomfort I experience in observing the operation of the RR program in my mentor class is twofold. First, the RR program is administered in a manner that I consider detached from the teaching process. To reiterate my prior statements, RR does not successfully incorporate the essential elements we see in a balanced reading program and in direct, whole language instruction. Second, although AR quizzes may be adequate in measuring basic comprehension, the more discrete and less comprehensible elements of a book's theme, tone, message and broader meaning go largely unexamined.

Ultimately, children learn to read through explicit literary instruction facilitated by adult teachers. Unfortunately, the programmatic design of RR does not enhance that process and in fact, tends to diminish the instructive role of the teacher. Accordingly, what I have concluded about RR is that it does have some value in elevating student reading performance by virtue of its significant reading activity. However, the gains realized in the student's technical reading proficiency can not be justified absent direct reading instruction and a more meaningful exploration of the books read in the program.

Resources

AR Made EZ. (2000). Madison, WI: School Rcnaissance Institute, Inc.

Biggers, D. (2001). The Argument Against Accelerated Reader. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 45(1), 72-74.

Literacy Place: Practice Book Volume 1. (2000). New York, NY: Scholastic

Paul, T. D., (2003). Guided Independent Reading: An Examination of the Reading Practice Database and the Scientific Research Supporting Guided Independent Reading As Implemented in Reading Renaissance. Wisconsin Rapids, WI: Renaissance Learning, Inc. Retrieved November 10, 2003, from http://www.renleam.com/girp.htm

Paul, T., VanderZee, D., Rue, T., & Swanson, S. (1996). Impact of the Accelerated Reader on Overall Academic Achievement and School Attendance. Madison, WI: The Institute for Academic Excellence.

Pavonetti, L. M., Brimmer, K. M., & Cipielewski, J. F. (2002). Accelerated Reader: What are the Lasting Effects on the Reading Habits of Middle School Students Exposed to Accelerated Reader in Elementary Grades? Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, 46(4), 300-311.

RR 501: Introduction to Reading Renaissance. (1999). Madison, WI: The Institute for Academic Excellence, Inc.

Sadusky, L. A., & Brem, S. K. (2002). The Integration of Renaissance Programs into an Urban Title I Elementary School, and its Effect on School-wide Improvement. Tempe, AZ: Arizona State University. Retrieved November 10, 2003, from http://www.public.asu.edu/~sbrem/.

Serafini, F. (2002). Accelerated Reader: A Position Statement. University of Nevada-Las Vegas. Retrieved November 13, 2003, from http://serafini.nevada.edu/Handouts/AP%20Position%20Statement.htm

Stevenson, J. M., & Camarata, J. W. (2000). Imposters in Whole Language Clothing: Undressing the Accelerated Reader Program. Talking Points, 11 (2), 8-11.

Walberg, H. J. (2001). Final Evaluation of the Reading initiative. Report to the J. A. Kathryn Albertson Foundation. Retrieved November 10, 2003, from http://www.jkaf.org/pub/forms/readevw.pdf

Dean Carlson is enrolled as a student in ASU's college of education, post-baccalaureate certificate program in elementary education.
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Author:Carlson, Dean George
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Date:Sep 22, 2004
Words:2930
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