AR for Skillful Readers

If you are a very good reader, you may think that you should be reading harder and harder books in order to become a better and better reader. But there is more to being a good reader than being able to comprehend books with a high AR level. If you are comfortable with books at an AR level of 6.0, it is time for you to become a more sophisticated reader:
1. Develop an appreciation for different types of fiction: fantasy, mystery, historical and realistic novels.
2. Develop an appreciation for different types of books: science, geography, history, folklore and biography.
3. Learn to think about how books relate to life: how do the characters face difficulties, how do they interact with each other, how do they show courage and hope? How are you like the characters?
4. Learn to notice the quality of the writing: figures of speech, sensory details, powerful words, strong verbs, realistic conversations and a sense of rhythm.

Find books that will challenge you:
When you are on this website, look at these pages in the theme section for ideas: ‘Gr. 6 Lit. Survey’, ‘Gr. 7 Lit. Survey’, ‘Gr. 8 Lit. Survey’, ‘Literature Survey’, ‘Classics’.

A note to parents and teachers: While the AR  (Accelerated Reading) system of levelling books and providing comprehension tests is very useful for many purposes, it is not designed to push a student’s reading level endlessly higher. Several years ago when I first became acquainted with the AR system and wrote to the company with questions, it was recommended that I encourage students to focus on reading books of various genres, once they reached an average AR level of 6.0, and not confine them to reading books at the high AR levels. So, I now recommend that competent readers choose books at a variety of levels in order to broaden their knowledge of literature while still maintaining their reading skills.

Here’s a bit of interesting information: The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter and A Million Little Pieces by James Frey both have the same AR level: 4.2. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling has a higher reading level than East of Eden by John Steinbeck: 7.2 compared to 5.3. We generally think that novels for adults are more difficult than ones written for children, so how do we make sense of readability scales? Especially when one scale rates a book quite differently than another scale: East of Eden is rated as easier than Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight on the Lexile scale but is considered more difficult on the AR scale.

While the number of words in a sentence and the number of syllables in words are both commonly used to help determine readability, there are many other factors that need to be considered when deciding how difficult a book is to read. How large is the font? How clear is the print? How long are the paragraphs? How many concepts are there on a page? What is the subject matter? What is the writing style? A readability scale is only one of many factors to consider when choosing books to read.

To learn more about readability scales, you can go to . . .

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3 thoughts on “AR for Skillful Readers

  1. Dear Ms. Rosen,

    Thank you for your quick and comprehensive response. Your thoughtful insights have affirmed my approach to the AR system.
    I can’t wait to try out the “five finger test” on my own reading journey, as well as my son’s. I agree that sometimes less is more, and the greatest truths are usually the simplest. I also resonate with your list of “Secrets of Avid Readers.” However, I still struggle with the “sunk cost fallacy” of wanting to finish a book, regardless of how uninteresting it might be. I have this inner urge to see it to the end, even if it means skimming through the whole thing.
    My son has really enjoyed reading some of your suggestions from the “Why Read Picture Books?” list. We’ve been trying to borrow as many as possible from our local library. I’m glad that my son and I have found comfort and joy in reading various books, regardless of their genre or subject matter.
    I do hope to broaden my reading list to include more fiction. I’ve been gravitating towards non-fiction as I’ve gotten older, but I’m eager to explore more novels. Earlier last year, I stumbled upon some classic children’s literature by Roald Dahl when my child was reading them. I found myself enjoying them even though I wasn’t the target audience. (The lovely little house of Miss Honey/Jenny was still the same as I remembered it from when I was a child.) When I get a chance, I’d like to comb through your “NOVELS” section to see if I can come up with a list of fictional novels that I would enjoy.
    Thank you again for your generosity of time. I truly appreciate the effort you put into sharing your thoughts via these blog posts, as well as the kind replies to readers like myself. I’m looking forward to reading more from you in the future.


  2. Hello Jack,

    I’m glad to hear that you are finding this blog both enjoyable and useful. It is always a pleasure to share strategies that promote learning and encourage reading.

    Your reservations about the AR system are similar to mine. Almost twenty years ago now, I worked as a teacher-librarian in a school that strongly promoted reading at a specific level in order to earn points which were used to help determine report card letter grades. Not surprisingly, it became a bit of a status symbol among the middle school students to show off higher level books. The system was doing exactly the opposite of what it should have been doing: promoting a love of reading. Slowly, as the school changed from a K-7 school to a grade 6-8 school, the AR system was thankfully abandoned.
    While the system of reading levelled books can be useful for children beginning to read, I still am reluctant to use a points system to reward children for reading. It turns the activity into a competitive sport…
    I have much more to say but will reply later today or tomorrow when I have a bit more time. (Company just arrived at my door.)

    kind regards,

    P.S. It has been over ten years since I worked in a school that used the AR programme, so I cannot speak to many of the technical details of the system especially in regards to the changes the company has no doubt made in recent years. However, I can comment on some of the research in regards to finding suitably challenging reading material for children. Apparently, one of the most reliable methods is to use the ‘five finger test’: ask someone to read a page at random in a book; there should be no more than five words that the reader does not know. Attempting to read books that are too difficult leads to decoding words but not comprehending the material.

    Of course, the AR system does work well for teachers who are trying to assess the literal reading comprehension level of many children at once. All the testing is done by the computer. Furthermore, much of early reading instruction focuses on literal comprehension. And just as treats sometimes motivate children, earning points can sometimes motivate them to spend more time practising their reading skills. But there are better ways to encourage reading that will lead to a life time of enjoying books. When I taught grade 8, students performed short humorous skits using the techniques listed on this page:

    I used to take grade seven students to a public library once a month. The students all got practice bringing their money, getting on a public bus, behaving properly in public, and borrowing a dozen books from the library. One parent later told me that she had been grateful that I was teaching her rural child how to be use public transportation, but she thought requiring her son to take out a dozen books including at least 6 picture books was a waste of time. “He just stacks the books beside his bed and then brings them back to school – unread – on library day.” But after six months, something changed. “He came home from school,” she said, “and told me he wasn’t feeling well and was going upstairs to bed to read his books.” She was suspicious, so sent her husband up – when he came in from the barn – to check on him. Sure enough, her son was in bed, reading. Sure enough, surrounding students with all sorts of books, at all sorts of reading levels, in vast quantities, helps build readers.

    One of most effective ways to encourage enjoyment of reading, I found, was to promote picture books, many of which are not for young readers but instead address quite sophisticated topics and focus on scientific or historical information. We should remember that the purpose of reading is far greater than the goal of simply increasing literal comprehension skills. ( Furthermore, good readers of picture books do not only focus on the words on each page; they look at the illustrations, which should be providing additional information not supplied by the words.

    And good readers of any type of material, do far more than decode and comprehend the sentences of text:
    – and

    So, can the AR system be useful? Yes, if…
    1. it enables a teacher to let children read books of their choice but still be able to efficiently check on their reading comprehension skills;
    2. it does not become a major component of reading instruction and evaluation;
    3. it motivates young children who are very goal-oriented and action-oriented to open a book;
    4. it is regarded as a bit of a lark, a bit of a challenge; a bit of a game: a fun way to check on a child’s ability to read for details;
    5. it does not replace conversations about the connections children make between what they have just read and their own lives.

    As a humorous aside, I once took an AR test on a novel that I had taught for many years. I failed. Couldn’t remember the colour of the main character’s dress, which was briefly mentioned on one page. Fortunately, no one yet has told me that I’m a poor reader.

    Finally, here’s a picture book that even the most reluctant reader can understand and enjoy. No words at all, but every person to whom I’ve shown the book understands the inferred message and laughs: Wehrli, Ursus. The Art of Clean Up: Life Made Neat and Tidy. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2013.

  3. Dear Ms. Rosen,

    I recently came across your blog and I have been enjoying reading through it. I love the way you write about books and reading. Your passion for literature is evident in every post, and you always find a way to make reading seem exciting and accessible. I especially appreciate your posts about children’s books, as I am always looking for new books for my son (Grade 3). We both enjoy reading and the great outdoors of Maple Ridge.

    I also appreciate the way you use your blog to connect with other parents and educators. Your comments are always thoughtful and helpful, and I have learned a lot from you. Thank you for sharing your love of reading and children’s literature with the world. Your blog is a true gem, and I am so glad that I found it.

    I also wanted to let you know that I have been using some of your teaching tips with my son, and they have been working really well! He is now more engaged in reading, and he is learning so much. Thank you again for sharing your expertise.

    We briefly experienced the Renaissance AR system earlier this year. I found its scoring system quite elaborate, and son enjoyed getting points for each he read. I have somewhat established a rewarding system based on the number of points he gets through AR, such as exchanging those points for a certain amount of screen time. That said, I agree with you that it can be a helpful tool for tracking student reading progress and motivating students to read. However, I also have some concerns about the system, which are similar to the concerns raised in your article, and align with what was mentioned in this post (

    One of my main concerns is that the AR system can focus too much on speed and quantity, rather than on quality and comprehension. My son may be incentivized to read books that are too easy for him in order to earn points quickly, and he may not take the time to really understand what he is reading.

    Another concern of mine is that AR can focus too much on literal comprehension and not enough on critical thinking and engagement with the text. This is because the AR comprehension quizzes often focus on factual questions about the text, rather than asking readers to think more deeply about the story or to engage with the text in a meaningful way.

    It seems like you had a front row seat in the development and implementation of AR system. I would be interested to hear your thoughts on some additional questions I have about the AR system, such as:
    • How does the AR system account for different reading levels?
    • How does the AR system measure comprehension?
    • How is the AR system used to promote a love of reading? (not becoming a chore)
    • Do you think the AR system is a fair and effective way to assess student reading comprehension?
    • Do you have any suggestions for how to mitigate the potential negative effects of the AR system?

    I look forward to reading more from you in the future. Perhaps we can learn more from you via a coffee or a trail walk.



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