So, why "just say no" to AR and other canned programs?
Let's go back to choice for a few minutes, okay? Any time we limit choice, we act as censors. It does not matter whether we limit by lexile or level or even genre, a limit means someone is, in essence, not permitted to read freely. This is not to say that we cannot offer limited choices (select a biography, read a book of nonfiction, here is a list of 25 from which you are to pick 5), but the choice should be real (not choose Book A or Book B).
In my YA class, students can read books by some specific authors, but the titles are of their choosing. They read from sone lists (Printz, QP, GGNT, etc), but the titles are up to them. My required whole class selections have decreased from 25 (I picked them all) to 7, and I am working on taking that number to 5. In children's lit, 75% of books are student selected.
Limiting by arbitrary factors such as syllables, sentences, and semantics seems rather frivolous to me. Should we guide students at first? Sure. Should we place restrictions on them constantly? Nope. And, BTW, those blasted lists by grade level make me insane. Just because Book A is on the list for 8th grade should not mean a student in grade 6 should not be able to read it. Are we somehow worried that a re-reading is BAD? Research indicates, conversely, that it is actually GOOD (remember how many times kids want to hear Godnight, Moon or The Very Hungry Caterpillar?).
Excluding books by level, lexile, genre, form, or format is also a form of censorship. No GNs. Why? Must be fiction. WHY? Must be over 200 pages. Why? Think about requirements before being autocratic, please. Ask for a balance? Fine. Guest some alternative titles to someone stuck in a reading rut? Okay.
And return to another of my previous points about holding kids accountable? Conferring is just the best way I know of checking in with kids. In the 1970s Terry Ley wrote about DIR: Directed Individualized Reading. Patrick Allen's CONFERRING might be a valuable tool. Visit a classroom where conferring is used. If we read widely (and if not, why not?), we can certainly talk to readers about their books. When I first started reading-writing workshop, I had a list of about 40-50 books from which kids could select. They were books I had read and could discuss. As the school year progressed, my list grew from 40-50 to more than 100, many of the additional books suggested by the kids (BSC, SVH, anyone?). Kids loved that I had read the same books they did. Conversations were engaging and informative. I sometimes think programs allow us to be rather complacent about our reading because we have the program that does all the work. Who IS doing the work in the classroom?
Finally (see, I have time to write an actual conclusion), if you are looking for ways to introduce kids to a wide array of books, use a Book Flood or a Book Pass or some other variation of this activity. Janey Allen first wrote about it decades ago. Have a huge stack of books to distribute to kids. Set a timer for every 2-3-4-5 minutes (you decide the time that seems right for your kids). Kids read a book for the short period of time. They can note whether this might be a good fit for them or they can take themselves out of the "rotation" when they find one they do NOT want to pass along. Do this for some time every day or once a week until kids have found some books to read. Be prepared for the kid who has not found anything (should do a post on these kiddos). You can read more about this here: http://murrayhill.wikispaces.com/Book_Pass Or here: https://dcjason.wordpress.com/2014/08/30/book-pass-day-one/.
Let's drop the dependence on programs and worksheets and instead focus on real books, rea reading, and authentic response.