Not all reading contests put children on on equal footing

Strategy: Some educators say reading incentives should measure time spent reading rather than the number of books to bring the most success.

January 30, 2000|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

At Bryant Woods Elementary School in Columbia, pupils are trying to read collectively for 1 million minutes this school year. Children at Norwood Elementary School in Dundalk have been challenged to finish 20,000 books.

And pupils at Park Elementary School, in the Anne Arundel County community of Brooklyn Park, know that anyone who reads 10 books by March will earn a certificate signed by Gov. Parris N. Glendening.

But while such reading incentive programs are an increasingly popular strategy in Maryland, they come with cautions from some educators.

Be careful when organizing a reading challenge, they say: Try to make it fair to all ages, manageable for all skill levels and immune to cheating.

"It's important whenever you have a program like this that teachers look at how they're put in practice in the classrooms," said Katherine Schultz, an education professor at the University of Pennsylvania, whose field is literacy and teacher education.

Schultz's concern is that pupils not get caught in the numbers game. Depending on how the program is implemented, "it becomes competitive; there's a disincentive to read long, complicated books," she said.

The idea of a reading incentive contest may seem simple at first glance, but there's a lot to consider when organizing a program, educators say. For one thing, is it fair to ask all pupils to read as many books as possible?

Younger children may find that easier than older ones, said Maria McNelis, assistant principal of Bryant Woods. For example, first-graders' books are shorter and filled with pictures, while fifth-graders read chapter books.

Children who read well will likely do better than those who struggle.

And pupils, in an effort to outdo peers, might read books by "leafing through the pages," McNelis said.

"I wanted a commitment from the students, actually sitting down and reading every night," she said.

That's why some schools, including hers, use time as the measurement of choice, rather than the number of books read. Books and pages can vary in length and difficulty, but a minute of reading is a minute of reading, said Doris Zingman, reading specialist at Atholton Elementary School in Columbia.

Atholton in the past has offered reading events that challenged pupils to read a certain number of pages at home each day. But now the goal is at least 20 minutes an evening, 20 nights a month -- or 2,000 minutes by March.

"Twenty minutes is really an equalizer," Zingman said. "It wouldn't be fair to say 30 pages -- 30 pages may take one child 20 minutes and another child an hour. We didn't want to penalize the weaker readers."

The goal is 20,000 books by May at Norwood Elementary, but staff members there feel they've hit on a good balance, too. The school has a reading incentive committee, and members thought carefully about equity when planning the program, said Principal Harry Walker.

Between kindergarten and the second grade, a book is a book. After that, children get credit for every 25 pages they read. That way, any friendly competition between grade levels is on more equal terms, Walker said.

He judges the strategy a success, based on the children's reaction. "They're very excited about it," he said.

That seems to be what the reading challenges have in common, no matter how they're organized.

Bryant Woods Elementary's pupils are raring to get to 1 million minutes -- they're more than halfway there -- and they say they're enjoying themselves.

"I just read and read and read," said Virginia Smith, 8, sitting near the charts showing the school's progress.

Adam Mall, 5, who's learning to read, said he practices the skill with his parents almost every day.

"Sometimes they read words to me," the kindergartner said. "Sometimes I read words."

Della Curtis, coordinator of Baltimore County schools' Office of Library Information Services, said she can see how some methods could work better with certain types of readers.

But Curtis -- who's seen incentive programs organized in many ways, including one in which cereal boxes and ads counted as reading material -- thinks the most important thing is offering the challenges.

"It is an educational responsibility for all schools to have some kind of reading promotion -- or two -- going on throughout the school year," she said. "When you make it fun, I think kids engage."

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