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.


Anonymous said...

I just discovered this author among the easy books at the library and they are just at my daughter's level. Very easy but slightly more complex than "This is an apple. This is an orange." There is a story to talk about instead of just a series of words. While typical kids would benefit from the introduction of more vocabulary, my daughter is enjoying the opportunity these books give to her to read an entire story with only a few mistakes.

JennyB said...

Margaret Hillert was my First Grade teacher, and to this day remains my friend. I credit my excellence in reading, spelling, and my love of books to her. What an inspiration! And I feel very lucky. Perhaps the author of this article needs to evaluate the 'AR' program. I work in a public library and I see no benefit from it. It is a bit like putting a person in a cage. And letting the parents off from inspiring their children's reading.


Jenny L. Bates author, "Opening Doors: an equilog of poetry about Donkeys"

Mellanie C. said...

JennyB, nearly a year later, I have to say, I looked at Ms. Hillert's books through the prism of AR and found them very frustrating. They are really not suited for this program. However, as a tool to develop fluency in reading, they are wonderful. They also provide opportunities for parents to model expression in reading so children learn to do more than read by rote.

Also, as an avid reader, I feel sorry that children are not getting the opportunity to read books just because they're drawn to them, but instead, hunt through the library for something they can take a test on. This trend is going to continue, I'm afraid, since teachers are having to squeeze so many other things into their day. The trend is to have the students use passages from their other core subjects for reading class, rather than focus on fiction and stories. They're encouraged to use AR to bridge that gap, but again, there's no room for reading that serves no purpose save entertainment. I'm so discouraged by this and alarmed and saddened that people who shape educational standards see this as okay.

Anyway, I just wanted to let you know that I've re-thought my post and come to a new appreciation for Margaret Hillert. Thanks for your feedback, and for giving me the opportunity to change my opinion!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your post about Margaret Hillert's books. I just became acquainted with them as I have been searching for beginning reader books for my child. My child is not school age yet, so I am also unfamiliar with Acclerated Reading. I appreciate having these insights in advance!

Mellanie C. said...

What Hillert's books do very well is help children develop reading fluency. The repetition of key words and phrases makes it easier for young readers to add expression to their reading because they don't have to work so hard on decoding unfamiliar words.

I really have come to a new appreciation of Hillert's books, despite having spent years being frustrated by them because of people (educators) using them in a way other than what they were designed for.