My Alternative to AR (Accelerated Reader) for Secondary ELA

AR hopes to solve the age old question: How do we motivate students to read? For primary grades, a points-based system for students can be fun. “Gamifying” something “boring” like reading can help some students. However, in my opinion, AR for secondary ELA (6th-12th grades) falls short.

Disadvantages of AR:

The disadvantages of AR in secondary grades are many, but here are some that have affected my students’ motivation to read:

  • Timed STAR Test: To get an AR goal (the amount of points a student has to earn), students must take a multiple choice comprehension test. By the time a student reaches 8th grade, this test is around 33-35 questions long. Each question is timed, so when a student takes too long to complete any one question, it automatically skips to the next one. I’ve found that when students KNOW that the test is timed, it leaves them feeling anxious about getting the answer in enough time, so as a result, they rush and just pick any answer, or just pick a random answer to “get through it.” The ensuing AR grade equivalent score they get isn’t accurate to what they are actually capable of.
  • Rampant cheating: Students cheat on the AR quizzes to get the points they need to meet their goal. Aside from the ability to find the answers to the quizzes online, students can also pass quizzes if they’ve seen the movie or ask their friends. Also, sometimes the AR quizzes themselves contain comprehension questions that are extremely shallow, like, “What is the color of __’s shirt?” These types of questions have anything to do with the plot and if students don’t remember these extremely minor details, they fail the quiz, and it’s like they never read the book (even though they did!)
  • Limited reading selection: A common question students have asked me is, “Is the book AR?” and when I asked them why, the answer always was, “So I can take a quiz on it.” I’ve found that students only want to read books if the book is within AR’s system. Granted, they are many books within the AR system, but it’s very frustrating when a student wants to read a book that is not AR and discovers they won’t get “credit” for reading.
  • Content is not considered: I often have my middle school students scoring very high on the STAR test, for example, a student scoring a 12.9 (12th grade, 9th month equivalent) which is the highest score you can get. What books fall into this ZPD? History books like “The Commonwealth of Independent States” and classic books like Shakespeare’s sonnets. A lot of nonfiction books fall into this category as well. The lexile level is high, but the student may not be interested in the content or even ready for the maturity of the content within books that are in this range. There are also several books that have a low lexile level that are very high-interest with characters that are middle or high school aged. Again, it’s frustrating when students have limited choices.

Here’s what I do instead:

I created my own “book points” program that is not dependent on reading level, but rather student choice. I give my students a goal of earning 100 book points per quarter (for us, a quarter is about 10 weeks).

Students must choose an independent reading book every quarter and create a project based on the events, characters, and other features of the book. This is an alternative to traditional reading logs. For the project, I give students a choice board of projects they can complete, ranging from podcasts to posters to slideshow presentations, etc. More about the project in the link below!

I check in with students every two weeks about their progress. The project is due at the end of every quarter and we have a project showcase so that students can learn about everyone’s books and hopefully find something new to read next! This project is worth 50 book points.

The other 50 book points are earned in various other ways, such as passing AR or NewsELA quizzes (for my nonfiction reader lovers), creating book recommendation Flipgrid videos, writing book recommendations, etc.

Yes, I still incorporate AR in this way. For example, if students pass an AR quiz and earn 10 points, it equals 10 book points for my program. For students that love the AR program and still want to continue to use it, I provide an avenue to do so. Again, student choice is king! Check out the resource below for the book activities students can choose and complete.

How do you get students to choose a book they will like?

  • Book tasting: I lay out 4 books at each of my table groups and have them pick each up, read the synopsis and the first few pages. Then the groups rotate, until they’ve looked at 32 books. Usually this results in students checking out books that they’ve never thought to check out before!
  • First Pages Friday: Every Friday, I show students three books of different genres from the library. I take a picture of the cover and the first page and students vote for their favorite.
  • List books in library by genre: In my library, books are organized by genre, NOT by reading level (see picture below.) This is so students can find books of genres that they already love and enjoy instead of worrying about, “Is this in my reading level?”
  • Displaying new books: I try to rotate my display of books every week (see picture below). Sometimes the covers alone get students intrigued enough to pick them up and read the back and sometimes leads to books being checked out!
  • Book recommendations list: I create a book recommendations list for students categorized by genre that I pass out at the beginning of the year. Parents especially like to know what books may be appropriate for students. You can check out this resource at the link below.
Different colored dots for each genre
I place the dots at the top of each book.
Small display of books

How do I calculate book points?

Students fill out a Google form every time they complete an activity. I check the form submission and tally up these points once a week on Fridays.

How do students know how many points they have?

I keep track of all their points on a points grid that all students have access to. It looks like this for me:

What is a student wants to earn more than 100 points?

I keep a ranking of top 10 book points earners and update the list every Friday. I post these rankings in Google classroom and on the white board. I also send an email home to parents about the progress on the rankings each month.

The students in the top 10 rankings at the end of each quarter will get a new book of their choice or a fancy “Readers are Leaders” T-shirt (this is the one I buy from Etsy)! I usually buy the books from or I use Scholastic Clubs because I can earn points to buy even more books. I get the money to buy these books from parent donations and from my yearly stipend from my school.

One other special thing I do is I have a hall of fame in my classroom. This is the record of the most book points earned from my students from the past. It’s really fun when I get former students’ siblings in my class and they see their siblings names on the hall of fame – they want to try so hard to beat their score!

Digital top 10 (posted in Google classroom)
Top 10 written on my white board
Top 10 Hall of Fame (current and former students) underneath my white board

What has been my end result?

I’ve been doing this program for 8 years and I can safely tell you that my students are READING! And they’re excited to continue to read! Providing students choice has made all the difference in their motivation. I hope that this blog post has helped you in some way, and please reach out if you have any questions about it!

Happy teaching,


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