Rekindling the Joy of Reading

By Lisa Hernandez
2015 Librarian of the Year Award, Texas Library Association; Alternative High School Librarian, Pharr-San Juan-Alamo ISD; PSJA College, Career & Technology Academy, PSJA CCTA Library in Partnership with South Texas College Library

On April 18, 2012, “Rekindling the Joy of Reading” reading incentive program received the Young Adult Round Table Young Adult Reading Incentive (YARI) Award. “Rekindling the Joy of Reading” is designed to bring alternative high school (HS) students and books together by utilizing Accelerated Reader (AR) picture books which match or exceed reading levels (RLs) of AR young adult (YA) novels or literature. As an alternative HS librarian for seven and a half years, I have found that special purpose HS students need to experience reading success in a short amount of time, and by achieving literary goals, students begin to feel empowered by their potential as learners. AR picture books provide a leeway to visualizing text, acquiring new vocabulary, identifying literary elements, and improving test-taking skills; most of all, they instill academic confidence regarding AR YA books because of similar RLs. In addition, many alternative HS students are young parents, and my hope is the program will help them kindling the joy of reading in their own children.

“Rekindling the Joy of Reading” involves identifying AR picture books with designated word counts and of interest to HS students. Picture books which range up to 1,300 words work best. When using picture books with higher word counts, special attention must be given to the speed of reading to maintain students’ engagement with the story. Regarding the selection of picture books for HS students, I use my professional judgement by reading through the text identifying high-interest themes, high-level vocabulary, literary elements, and RLs that match or exceed AR YA literature. Some books I have used are the following: Nubs: The True Story of a Mutt, a Marine & a Miracle by Brian Dennis which has an AR RL of 4th grade with eight months of instruction, 4.8 and Rosa by Nikki Giovanni which has an AR RL of 4th grade with nine months of instruction, 4.9.

What child or adult does not enjoy hearing a good picture book read aloud? After reading a picture book to students, I often hear them say, “I have not been read to in a long time.” On several occasions, students have asked for an encore. After the reading, students take the AR assessment and receive a number grade. With a passing grade, alternative HS students receive instant feedback which begins to solidify literacy success on a small scale, which then becomes manageable on a greater scale, YA books. Students must be provided literacy strategies that work in their favor for their academic success, especially when it comes to passing exit-level assessments.  
Prior to my current full-time position with PSJA College, Career & Technology Academy (CCTA), I was the HS librarian for four alternative HS libraries. My first two years, I would often hear students say, “I don’t like to read.” When I began reading AR picture books, I heard them say it less and less. The program’s positive effects have impacted three types of alternative HS readers: advanced, reluctant, and struggling. 

With alternative HS advanced readers, AR picture books serve as a conversation starter to literacy. These students usually have personal libraries of YA books at home, and they typically score high on the AR STAR, a norm-referenced test which reveals, but is not limited to, grade equivalency (GE) and ZPD. Several alternative HS students have scored a 12.9 GE. With their score, they are assigned a ZPD range of 5.0 to 12.9. What I find interesting is the starter ZPD RL, 5th grade. By the assessment, the student has proven a GE of 12th grade with nine months of instruction; however, they are allowed to read books with elementary RLs. Why? What I have experienced is that many, if not most, YA novels and literature range within 4th- 7th grade RLs; hence, the elementary starter RL. In the next paragraph, examples of this fact are provided. Note, however, the sample AR YA RLs are below 5.0. 
For alternative HS reluctant readers, reading YA books can be a daunting task. When students come into the library and see wall to wall YA books, they feel overwhelmed. After I explain to them that AR picture books have the same reading levels as AR YA books, they are surprised because they automatically equate word length to a higher RL. Once they understand the correlation, they accept picture books as reliable literary sources for HS students. For example, Nubs has the same AR 4 .8 RL as Angel by James Patterson, and Rosa has the same AR 4.9 RL as Twilight by Stephenie Meyer. When students pass a picture book AR assessment which matches an AR YA book’s RL, their academic confidence soars to new reading heights. A paradigm shift takes place regarding the potential success with YA literature, and wall to wall library books become manageable and obtainable. 

As Texas educators know, students are administered state assessments: Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) or State of Texas of Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR). I have found similar word counts between picture books and state-released assessment passages. With similar word counts, alternative HS struggling readers build reading endurance by reading AR picture books. Many of our alternative HS struggling readers are classified as Limited English Proficient. AR picture books allow them to practice the English language within AR YA RLs. Furthermore, AR assessments are multiple-choice format like TAKS and STAAR, so their test-taking skills sharpen along with improving their literacy skills.
For the 2014-2015 school year, in a school district with 32,000+ students, our Nationally-Recognized Dropout Recovery Program PSJA CCTA was honored for having the 1st District AR Millionaire. To become a PSJA CCTA AR Millionaire, a student reads a million words in the AR program, tests on AR books within or above their zone of proximal development (ZPD), and has an accumulative passing average. As reading incentives, AR Millionaires receive a gift basket, an autographed YA book, and their picture posted on our library webpage. From December 2010 to September 2015, I have witnessed thirty-eight alternative HS students become AR Millionaires, and eight of them went on to become AR Multimillionaires. Even though many students who participated in the AR program did not become AR Millionaires, many of them had word counts ranging from 100,000 words to over 900,000 words, which translates into 2 to 18 novels read in a school year.        
The program has positively impacted our community by witnessing more and more alternative HS students graduating with their HS diplomas. “Rekindling the Joy of Reading” is significant and valuable because it impacts the learning process in a positive and a creative way. In order to be successful across the curriculum, alternative HS students need to acquire life-long reading habits. The program allows them the educational opportunity to transition from high school reading skills to college and career literacy opportunities. 
In the spring of 2015, students participated in a district initiative, “Readers Are Leaders.” Seven of our alternative HS students were able to complete the program. In order to be recognized as a participant, students had to read and test on twenty AR books—picture and/or YA books—ranging within different genres, ranging within their ZPD, and maintaining an 80 percent or higher average overall. Students received a certificate, an autographed book, and a celebration in their honor. A highlight of the program included four students graduating with their HS diplomas during our May graduation ceremony. Two of the four graduates enrolled as college students with local institutions of higher learning. Just this past 2015 fall semester, four students became “Readers Are Leaders”, and two of them graduated with their high school diplomas. Hooray!
To view more AR picture books which match or exceed AR RLs of YA books, click on the following link: .


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