Getting youngster to read takes more than a book

May 05, 1991|By Moses Koch

Some children stay in school all night, some principals climb to the school roof, and a congressman pays kids, all with the same purpose: to encourage children to read. And inventive teachers devise intriguing ways to attain the same noble purpose.

Staying after school has always been a form of punishment, but at Dundalk Elementary School, some kids have stayed all night -- to read. In a program originated by two teachers, Wanda Ensor and Mildred McDaniel, and titled Prime Time Friday Night, some 70 fourth and fifth graders and their parents recently stayed at the school from 5:30 p.m. on a Friday to 8:30 the next morning in a group "read-in." Climaxed by a sumptuous breakfast on Saturday morning, this has been one device to interest children and their parents in reading. This and other novel stategies have induced many kids, who had not chosen reading as a major activity, to become avid readers.

In more sensational efforts, three elementary school principals have gotten their pictures into the newspapers by climbing to the school roof and performing antics amusing to the kids.

Fred Brown, principal of Lutherville-Timonium Elementary School, dressed in a tuxedo and ate a pizza on the school roof. Last June, Robert Marino, principal of Ashburton Elementary School sat on the roof ledge from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. reading and singing to the children. In Ohio, a male principal, dressed in woman's clothing, danced on the roof ledge.

The photo of the Lutherville-Timonium principal went out over the wire services. As a result, the practice of the principal-on-the-roof has been picked up in other states, including Arizona, Montana, and California. Each of these roof acts was the fulfillment of a principal's pledge in repayment for the children's having read a specified number of books during the school year. In each instance, this was an attractive add-on to more earthbound efforts to motivate reading.

For instance, to internally motivate reading, a teacher at Swansfield Elementary School in Howard County baits her fifth graders to hook onto the public library. Genevieve Allocco chooses a theme, such as science fiction or biography, then checks out a few appropriate public library books.

She brings these to class and reads to the children particularly intriguing chapters. She leaves the books on a classroom table for a week so the kids can handle them and scan them. After this she finds that they are circulating public library books on that theme, and gravitating more to the library. "The library," she says, "becomes an intrinsic part of their value system."

At least one reading teacher, Mildred McDaniel of Dundalk Elementary School, wonders with tongue in cheek whether the public libraries may have erred in circulating videotapes. She sees parents checking out an armful of tapes instead of books. Like most teachers, she emphasizes the importance of parents' reading as a model for their children.

Ms. McDaniel, one of 120 national winners of Thanks to Teachers' Excellence Awards, finds that the most important reading motivation to a child is a parent who reads with that child at least 20 minutes every day. "Introducing this practice at home," she says, "often transforms a child who has evaded reading into a child who reads avidly. "Thus," she adds, "books become intrinsically a part of the family's value system."

One motivation has been provided recently by Congressman Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). He has offered $2 to certain third graders for each book they read. Most teachers, however, would agree that for reading to become an ingrained practice, the incentive must be more inner-directed. There is reason to believe that Mr. Gingrich's method internalizes a welfare mentality, rather than a reading mentality.

Combining both external award and internal motivation, Pizza Hut presents a pizza party to kids whose parents certify to the child's having read a specified number of books per month. In addition, the company provides the school with a professionally prepared reading program which engages children into reading as an ongoing habit.

Other businesses promote reading in a different way. Allstate Insurance Co. provides more than 100 volunteers to Chase Elementary School. Each volunteer meets regularly with an assigned child to share interests and to read together. The result over three years has been a marked increase in the children's reading levels, many of those kids having been below grade level.

In Baltimore Highlands Elementary School, Pam Burke has her children write new endings to classic literature. For example, after reading Sherlock Holmes, the children wrote their own twists to the original climax. One class decided to put Goldilocks and the three bears on trial. They found Goldilocks guilty of trespassing.

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