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November 11, 2013

Help! My Child Keeps Failing AR Tests!


Child AR Tests

 Hello!  Today I would like to tell you a little bit about how you can help kids improve their reading comprehension in general, and do better on AR (Accelerated Reader) quizzes if they have to take them!  If you’re are not familiar with Accelerated Reader, AR (for short) is an online reading comprehension quiz program that many schools use to motivate children to read more, with the goal of at least 85% comprehension as an average for every book that is read.  If your child or several children in your class continually read AR books but fail these quizzes, what can you do to help?  I am hoping to give some suggestions that could work both at home and at school.  And teachers, there is a downloadable PDF copy of the “10 Great Ways to Boost Reading Comprehension” for AR Tests that you can send home with your students at the end of this post.  Thanks!


"I'm reading Harry Potter at home, but here at school I have to read Hop on Pop because I'm still on AR level 1.5!"


Standard practice for AR is that children are only allowed to read AR books that they can successfully understand and test well on. So even if your child enjoys reading much harder books, normally schools will not allow a child to take a test on a book that is outside his or her “zone.” AR only rewards kids for reading books that they can pass comprehension tests on, because just saying the words aloud is not enough. There is little value to reading if there is no comprehension.

Every now and then, I hear a friend that is a parent or a teacher tell me that their child just HATES the AR program, because they are only “allowed” to read certain books that they are not necessarily interested in.  And then after they read them, they almost always fail the tests, even though they seem to be trying very hard to understand, pay attention, and remember.  It’s one thing to help children at home with very short books; it’s another to help them when the books are MUCH longer, especially when parents work, or there are multiple children in the house that all need homework help.

The biggest bummer is that often times schools offer HUGE rewards for kids that can rack up the AR points, and the kids really, really want them!  But reading is still hard, and getting the comprehension piece of it just right is harder still, and if it doesn’t fall into place nicely, both children and parents can feel like they are failing somehow, even though they are trying their best.  And one very hard thing about AR is that many schools want the children to pass the quizzes with 85%, but tests for shorter books have only five questions.  And getting at least 85% right on a five question test means you can’t miss ANY- or you’ll drop down to 80%!  So it’s a pass/fail situation, which can be very disheartening to some children who would like to be given credit for what they do know, rather than be penalized for not knowing the whole thing!


Children should be HAPPY when they are reading! If they are not, there's something wrong!


Children should be HAPPY when they are reading! If they are not, there’s something wrong!

One thing I often do to brainstorm ideas for issues like this is post the question on my HeidiSongs Facebook page.  There are a LOT of expert teachers and teacher moms that have a great amount of collective life experience and wisdom to offer up!  So many of these suggestions came from them.  Thank you to all of you that helped with this!


10 Great Ways to Boost Reading Comprehension for AR Tests

1.  Stop and Jot:  Set a timer so that it will probably go off about four times while your child is reading a book.  Each time the timer goes off, have the child stop and draw a quick picture of what is happening in the story.  They could also write down in words something interesting or important that just happened in the book.  This helps them visualize and remember what is happening in the story.  Here are some free downloadable worksheets with places for kids to draw pictures of what is happening in the story.


This worksheet has the words "first, then, next, and last" in the boxes. Children are supposed to draw pictures of what is happening in the books that they are reading to help them visualize the story in their minds.


This worksheet has the words “first, then, next, and last” in the boxes. Children are supposed to draw pictures of what is happening in the books that they are reading to help them visualize the story in their minds.


 This worksheet is the same as the one above, but has numbers rather than the words "first, next, then, last," etc.


This worksheet is the same as the one above, but has numbers rather than the words “first, next, then, last,” etc.


2.  Ask your child as many questions as you can think of!  Listen to your child read the book aloud.  Before your child turns each page, stop and ask your child questions about what he or she just read.  Here’s an example of a page from a book and some questions to ask:


Bark, George Pic


This picture is from the book, Bark, George! by Jules Feiffer.   In the story, they take George to the vet because every time they ask him to bark, he makes a different animal’s sound!  Here are some possible questions that you might see in a typical AR test:

-Who took George to the vet?
-Why did George have to go to the vet?
-What did the vet ask George to do?
-What did George do when the vet asked him to bark?
-What did George say the first time the vet asked him to bark?  (or the second, or third, etc.)
-How did George’s mom probably feel when she found out that George couldn’t bark?

I have coached many parents into helping their child pass AR tests, just by showing them this trick, and nothing more!  It also helps for parents to take a look at what kinds of questions are in a typical AR test at their child’s reading level.  So you may want to ask your child’s teacher if you can preview a test from a typical book so that you can get an idea of what kinds of questions to ask.  It doesn’t have to be a preview of a test your child will likely take.

3.  You read to me, and I’ll read to you.  Have your child read the book aloud to you, and then you read it to him.  Make a recording of you, the adult, reading the book fluently and with good expression.  (You can easily use the voice memo feature on my cell phones for this purpose.)  Then let your child read the book again WITH the recording you just made.  This was suggested by more than one of the teacher moms that responded on my Facebook page as a trick that they use at home with their own struggling readers.  You can also get many books on tape at the library.  Have your child read along with the narrator, and then try to read it themselves. 

4.  Find shorter books at the same grade level and test on those rather than chapter books.  One teacher mom said that she told her son that the Magic Tree House books were to be “just for fun” rather than for AR testing, because they took so long to review for a test.  She said, ” I have stopped him from testing on chapter books until he meets his AR goal. He is testing on smaller books so that he can pass the test. They are still 3.5 -4.0 reading levels just not chapter books. His Magic Tree House books are just read for extra reading now. He loves to read!!”

5.  Choose a book at the right reading level.  In AR, kids are supposed to do better when they stay in their “zone,” or ZPD.  The ZPD is the “Zone of Proximal Development” which is a fancy way of giving a child a range of reading levels (like 1.5-2.0, for example)  to stick with for instructional purposes.  Children in the AR program are usually given the STAR test to determine their ZPD.  They should choose books that are within that range of reading levels for success.  So if their range is supposed to be 1.5-2.0, don’t let your child choose a book with a 2.2 reading level, because he will likely fail that test.  And if you want your child to do the very best he or she can, have them choose books from the BOTTOM of their ZPD range!  So if the range is 1.5-2.5, choose a 1.5 or 1.6 level book.

Children sometimes choose harder books than they are supposed to because they are trying to gain as many AR points as possible so that they can win school contests given as incentives to read.  But most schools won’t count any points from a book that is read unless the AR test is passed with 85% or more.  So children shouldn’t be allowed to do this.  Parents should know that if their child keeps bringing home library books that are too hard, they may be able to ask their school librarian to put a note in the child’s profile that says that the child is not allowed to check out harder books.  Also, teachers can go into the AR system and set testing perimeters for each child, making it impossible for the child to take an AR test on a book outside his zone, because the system won’t allow it!  If the teacher does not know how to do this, he or she should ask a colleague at school for help, or do a “live chat” online with the folks at Renaissance Place and they will tell you how.

6.  Get stuck on a word?  Once your child figures it out, have the child go back and re-read the whole sentence.  Ask him what the sentence means.  Now go back to the top of the page and re-read the whole page!  If you could see the specific questions that children miss on the AR tests, and then think back on the pages that that part was on in the book, you may very well find that the page with that information was a page with a couple of tricky words.  When the brain switches to trying very hard to decode or sound out words, less brain power can be devoted to comprehension.  So you have to get past that and help your child become fluent with those words.  And those words often come up on the tests, too!  And if your child doesn’t know them, he’s more likely to miss that question, just from not understanding the question!

7.  Read an AR book five times before testing!  That’s my friend Mary’s rule for her first grade class.  (She is the teacher whose first grade class I help out in each week, and her class does great in AR!)  The children are expected to read their AR books five times before testing, and no excuses!

8.  If the book is informational, (non-fiction), have children take a careful look at the headings, table of contents, and glossary if there is one.  My friend Mary, the super terrific first grade teacher says that she tells her students that they should be able to read those words before taking a test.  In fact, she says it’s more like STUDYING those informational books before taking those tests!  So think of it as studying for a test- not just reading a book.  They read the book to get the information and try to remember it for the test- just like the big kids do!

9.  Have your kids practice finding the main idea of simple conversational topics first, then move on to books.  One teacher on my Facebook page said that she taught her students to listen to someone just tell a very simple story aloud, such as what they did for Thanksgiving or after school the day before.  Then she has the children all tell the main idea of that little “story,” as well as answer any “who, what, when, where, why” etc. questions she can come up with.

I would also suggest that teaching them to identify the setting, characters, and the different parts of the story, such as the beginning, middle, and end or conclusion.  That is also very good practice, since it makes them more aware of the story structure and what to expect when they are reading.  It also helps them become better writers as well!  Below is a little song my class sings to help teach the parts of a story.  Remarkably enough, it is called, The Parts of a Story Song from the Little Songs for Language Arts CD/DVD.




10.  What should you do if your child is STILL failing the AR test, even though you have tried lots of these strategies?  (The first two strategies were suggested by my teacher friend Mary, and the rest are from me.)

-Take the reading level WAY down until you find the level of books that your child is successful at.  Stay on that level for a while, and build up the feeling of success.  Then start inching the reading level up, little by little, keeping an eye on the test scores to make sure that you do not go past what the child is capable of doing.

-Discuss test taking strategies.  If there is a word in one of the multiple choice answers that the child has never seen before, then that’s probably NOT the correct answer!

-Check and see if your child can read “question words” fluently and easily, such as who, what, when, where, why, how, etc.  If they get stuck on just reading the question, then they can’t really answer it, can they?

-You may want to see if you can watch your child take a test (although you cannot intervene and tell answers!)  But watching a child take a test can be very revealing in terms of what is happening in the child’s mind.  I have watched Kindergartners fail AR tests on books that I KNOW they understand, simply because the child always chose the last of the four multiple choice answers!  (The child simply didn’t understand the format of the multiple choice test- go figure!)  I have also seen children choose their “favorite” answer, or the silliest answer, or the answer that seems to be the most fun, but NOT the answer that has anything to do with the contents of the book!  When you ask them why, they just smile and shrug!  (Can you say, “This child is not developmentally ready for AR???)  Until the child has the maturity to understand that the test relates to the content of the book, they really have no business taking an AR test, in my humble opinion!  But if it is required, we just do what we have to do.

-Check and see if your child has a solid foundation in phonics and sight words.  If your child is missing skills, then this is going to affect reading comprehension and therefore AR test scores. has lots of resources to help children with this, especially at the pre-K, Kindergarten, and first grade level, so check us out!  Here is a HeidiSongs phonics song and a HeidiSongs sight word song for you to check out.






Ten Great Ways to Improve Reading Comprehension


If you would like a printed copy of these suggestions for boosting reading comprehension, just click here to download a PDF copy.  I have edited it so that teachers could send it home if they like.  Parents may also wish to simply download it and refer to it now and then to help them remember different ways to help their child do better on AR tests or reading comprehension in general.



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