Sunday, January 23, 2011


I've spent a lot of time in kindergarten and first grade this year, and have become re-acquainted with the beginner books written by Margaret Hillert. Ms. Hillert is a former first grade teacher who developed a series of books designed to improve reading fluency in very young readers. For that purpose, her books are quite effective.

However, most of her books are baby bowdlerized editions of popular stories that manage to retell those stories without using key words. For example, her version of "Jack and the Beanstalk" does not use the word "beanstalk!" She does use the word "something" in that book, so it strikes me as particularly odd that she would omit beanstalk. I understand that she is trying to reinforce sight words for beginning readers, but in endeavoring to stick to that vocabulary, she misses the opportunity to introduce a word that the children she's writing for are certainly familiar with already. It boggles my mind.

So why is this on my mind at all? As I said, I've been re-reading many of Hillert's titles with my young charges, and reliving my son's early reading career. On Friday, I reread Hillert's What Is It?, a very cute story about two little elves following a long red string. Evan and I loved this book when he was little. The pictures are fun to look at, and we loved talking about where the string might lead next. Imagine my disappointment when Evan came home from school and told me that he'd failed the Accelerated Reader test for this story. I couldn't guess why he had failed, since we'd read the story several times and talked about each page at length. He read other Hillert titles with similar results, and that's when I discovered what the problem was.

Hillert's books are filled with such sparkling lines as "Up, up, up! We go up. We see something. What is it? We will go. Go, go, go!" These are not actual quotes, but quite similar to the content. AR questions are very specific, but Hillert's books are so nebulous that many children find it hard to answer the questions about them because they're so content-free. As I said earlier, they're great for developing fluency and teaching children how to read with expression. For telling a story and remembering details, however, they are poorly designed and not a good fit for the AR program. Since many school libraries are so focused on ensuring that every book in their collection has a corresponding AR test, and since the Hillert books are so good at what they were designed for and so bad at assessing reading comprehension and retention of material read, I suspect teachers are sometimes not getting an accurate picture of their students' reading ability.

Evan read very well as a beginning reader, but his teachers were not convinced because his AR test results were so poor. I finally had to tell them not to allow him to check out any more Hillert books. Only then did his reading scores improve.

I'm a huge fan of Accelerated Reader, and completely envious that my children got to participate in it, because there was nothing like it when I was a kid. I would have knocked it out of the park! I just don't believe that every book should have an AR test. Furthermore, I think parents, teachers, and students alike need to remember that sometimes you should just read because you like the book, not because you have to earn a certain number of AR points in a certain length of time. YMMV.*

*Your mileage may vary.