Gossip Girl vs. Hamlet
A recent essay in The New York Times introduced me to Accelerated Reader, a reading management software system that has been around for more than 20 years, but that I had never heard of until now. Thank God. I shudder to think how it could have mangled my sense of literary excellence and maimed my love of reading.
Accelerated Reader presents teachers with a book list and it awards, or instructs teachers how to award, each book a point value. The points are based on the number of words in the book and its reading difficulty (a formula of [10 + reading level] x [words in book / 100,000]).
Students choose from the book list, aiming to reach a total point goal (perhaps individual schools or teachers establish this goal? I’m not sure). Once students finish a book (or pretend to finish), they take a computerized test. Past students of the program have said that these tests ask “What color was character A’s jacket in the third chapter?”-type questions wholly unrelated to theme, character, symbolism or anything important. Perhaps the quizzes are a good way to measure vocabulary, plot, etc. But are they really more effective than a group discussion, or a reading journal, at evaluating a student’s comprehension of the text or reading development?
What disturbs me most about Accelerated Reader is the arbitrary point system which assigns – I’m still trying to comprehend this – 8 points on a 50- (or so) point scale to Hamlet. One point less than the latest Gossip Girl book.
Here’s a sampling of the points awarded to other books:
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix: 44
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: 34
Jane Eyre: 33
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire: 32
Sense and Sensibility: 22
To Kill A Mockingbird: 15
Black Beauty: 10
Heart of Darkness: 10
I Like it Like That (Gossip Girl): 8
My elementary school used a program called “Book It,” in which we won a personal pan pizza from Pizza Hut after reading a certain number of books. We got to choose which books we want to read, read at our own pace, and certainly did not have to choose books based on points.
According to the article (and my peers who experienced the program in elementary school),
Librarians and teachers report that students will almost always refuse to read a book not on the Accelerated Reader list, because they won’t receive points. They base their reading choices not on something they think looks interesting, but by how many points they will get. The passion and serendipity of choosing a book at the library based on the subject or the cover or the first page is nearly gone, as well as the excitement of reading a book simply for pleasure.
I know the points are not based on literary merit, but even if students know this – which they probably don’t – Accelerated Reader cannot claim beyond a doubt that students will not subconsciously begin to rank the books according to their point value, deeming books with higher points as more advanced and more worthy of reading.
Perhaps children are more easily able to relate to and understand some books, such as Gossip Girl, vs. others, such as Hamlet (Now pause to ask: is this a good thing?).
And now, for your reading pleasure, two excerpts:
Her close-cropped brown hair was neatly tousled; her white cashmere V-neck was just deep enough to suggest a hint of cleavage without her having to worry about being sent home by Mrs. M, the headmistress, for dressing like a slut
To be, or not to be: that is the question
If anyone out there has participated in Accelerated Reader, or better yet, taught it – what do you think of it?