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Leading to Reading

For some, the urge to read whatever, whenever, wherever is strong and instinctive. For many others,

On the day Elaine K. McEwan jogged around her West Chicago elementary school with the sixth graders, at least one boy felt gipped. The school's students had been dutifully reading as much as they could all year long--2,400 pages or more for the older ones and 80-plus books for the younger set. The incentive? Classes meeting their goal would accompany the principal as she ran around the building ... wearing a bathing suit.

Nearly 3,000 books later, it was McEwan who had the last laugh. She emerged in what may have been seen as a spicy little number--in the early years of the 20th century. The ruffles on the powder blue suit hit just above the knee; the vest-like top featured puffy sleeves. And of course no vintage suit would be complete without a ruffled bathing cap.

The sixth grader took one look and mumbled, "You mean I read all those books for this."

McEwan recalls, "I think he was just interested in seeing what a principal in a bikini would look like."

Nearly every district has an educator who has pulled at least one outrageous stunt in the name of generating enthusiasm for reading. "They look good in the newspaper and kids get excited about them," says McEwan, now a consultant on strategies for raising reading achievement.

If a recent National Endowment for the Arts survey on adult literacy is any indication, it's more important than ever to sow the motivational seed. Released this summer, the survey documents, over the past 20 years, a 10 percentage point decline in reading books not related to work or study. Fewer than half of American adults reported reading for enjoyment in the survey year (2000-2001), with the youngest age group, 18 to 24, being about 15 percent less likely to read literature than others.

Educators know that reading builds vocabulary and background knowledge. Yet the National Reading Panel was unable to find any acceptable research studies showing a connection between reading incentives and reading achievement, McEwan says.

Reflecting on those findings, she has realized that it's not just about reading more but about holding students accountable for their reading, a concept she calls reading in the zone.

Still, there's no rule against making the activity fun. "We have a pep rally for athletics but nobody does a pep rally for academics," says Mark Peterson, superintendent of Lanier County School District in Lakeland, Ga., which recently won an International Reading Association award for its student reading improvement. Adults get an incentive in the form of a paycheck, he adds. "Why are we not providing incentives for our students to be the best they can be?"

In Lanier County and elsewhere, educators are doing just that. While reading motivation programs are often created and implemented on a school-by-school basis, experts say a multi-school effort can happen naturally when program successes are shared throughout the district. Here are 24 ideas to adopt or adapt:

Saving the Moment

Capitalize on anticipation by planning one-time or annual events celebrating reading:

1. Organize a competition. The first time Bonnie A. Hain experienced Frederick County (Md.) Public Schools' Reading Rally, she was awestruck. "I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of students at a middle school that were vested in ... these books. And it's held on a Saturday," says Hain, the district's curriculum specialist for secondary English and reading.

Months before the rally day, middle school student teams commit to becoming experts in one or more of the 10 book selections for that year. The reading coach (any staff member) assigned to each book preps the teams for a school-wide event, where students compete to represent the school district-wide.

On the big day, students, teachers, parents and administrators pack into a high school auditorium for the 13-school competition, featuring both short-answer, factual questions and dramatized book-based performances. The crowd pipes in with cheers, audible sighs and laughter throughout, and when it's all over a team is named the county's Reading Rally Champ. The excitement is even audible beyond county borders; the crowds can now cheer on district winners in a statewide rally.

Competitions like this one reach "kids who wouldn't normally or necessarily choose to read," notes Hain, adding that extra copies of the books are ordered for the school libraries and there's always a waiting list for them.

2. Make the summer sizzle. Incentive programs like the U.S. Department of Education's Summer Reading Achievers help turn a must-do into a want-to-do. This season, 10 districts and one state participated in the pilot, with students reading 10 books and completing a form on each. Back-to-school included prizes and certificates for successful students. In Kansas City, Kan., for instance, participants could earn a free book, or even a LeapPad electronic learning system.

3. Give a license to fish for books. California's San Bernardino City Unified School District connected tall tales to the journey a story can provide for its Big Fish Stories event, in which fourth graders in four local districts participate. At the kick-off--a fishing trip and picnic at a regional park--kids get a "fishing license," Goldfish crackers and other goodies, a free book and a reading log. Later on, those who read the most are honored.

4. Read Across America. One 2004 highlight from this event, held on or around March 2 each year, included 1,000 Santa Clarita, Calif., residents breaking the Guinness World Record for the most people reading aloud at one time. And a principal in Hinton (Okla.) School District rewarded his students for reading 25,000 books by parachuting out of a plane.

5. Link up with the African-American Read In Chain. Activities in this two-day February event of reading works by African-American writers range from staged public readings and media presentations to gatherings of families and friends. This year, at least 500,000 people in more than 335 individual schools and nine entire school districts participated, according to the sponsor, National Council of Teachers of English. While teachers often suggest authors, many students get to select their own books to read and share.

6. Celebrate Teen Read Week. This American Library Association initiative, planned for Oct. 17 to 23 this year, encourages 12- to 18-year-olds to "read for the fun of it" and vote in an annual top 10 books of the year contest. The 2004 "IT'S ALIVE! @ your Library" theme centers on horror, suspense, science fiction and modern science. Forensic scientists might stage a crime scene investigation at a library; or meteorologists could discuss natural disasters, connecting to a display of survival fiction.

7. Join Children's Book Week. Let's Book is the theme of this year's 85th observance, set for Nov. 15 to 21. Children's Book Council suggests events such as visits by local children's book authors and illustrators, book exchanges, and favorite book award programs.

8. Organize a family reading festival. San Bernardino's City of Readers program has held this event on the first Saturday of June for more than 10 years running. At a local mall, teacher on assignment Sheri Becar and her troop of more than 40 Youth Ambassadors set up two stages where students are recognized for reading achievement. About 20,000 attended this year, with every child receiving a free book from Scholastic, Becar says, adding that every City of Readers event features a book giveaway. The school system also participates, with 30 local districts, in an annual family reading rally with musicians, presenters and puppeteers.

9. Honor a single book or author. "One book" reading promotion projects get the whole community reading the same book at the same time. Popular selections include Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 and Mitch Albom's Tuesdays with Morrie.

To give a single author the star treatment, consider replicating Missouri's Mark Twain is Alive! program. One district's proposal for a related seventh and eighth grade program has students selecting Twain works to read at their own pace. Events would include the game Twain-O, based on Bingo and featuring student-nominated Twain books, as well as a Mark Twain Quiz Bowl.

10. Provide a Running Start. The challenge in this Reading is Fundamental program for first graders: Read 21 books. The motivating methods: school-level kickoff events, family reading rallies and recognition ceremonies. In Delaware's Red Clay Consolidated School District, the kickoffs have included pajama parties where children and their parents read and appearances from the moose mascot of the local minor league baseball team, says Suzanne Curry, manager of elementary education.

The program "really gives first graders a chance and the excitement of participating in something without a competition. They all have a chance to make goal. And in most schools, they all do," Curry says. The following year, she tends to see quite a few second graders wearing their Running Start T-shirts and talking to first graders about what to expect. The teacher anticipation is nearly as strong, and typically Curry will get multiple "when do we start?" queries early in the school year.

11. Stop, drop and read. San Bernardino's City of Readers has partnered with a local speedway to reward those who make time for reading. For the past two years, any adult or child who stopped to read on the specified day and time (Oct. 7 at 4 p.m. last year) got a free ticket to the big event, which was the Youth Ambassadors' response to No Child Left Behind. Since being left behind can relate to racing, why not tie in the sport to learning? Each driver was assigned an elementary school and read to the students there before race day. Just before the race, they made speeches about the importance of reading and education in general. It was a hit, Becar says, with the bleachers filled and surrounding area abuzz with a family bookstore and a trunk-or-treat event, where kids collected candy and socked it away in their new bookbags.

Savoring the Moments

Provide incentives and motivation-boosting strategies regularly to help students enjoy the gift of reading all year long:

12. Stop, drop and read every day. Springfield (Ohio) City Schools' Franklin Middle School is taking the stance that a universal reading time can be an everyday occurrence. For a 15- or 20-minute period each day, everyone--from the students and teachers to the janitor and junior cafeteria workers--will spend that time reading. "One of the goals is to encourage the enjoyment of reading by role modeling," says Kelly Collinsworth, the library media specialist, who adds that people get to read what they want. Collinsworth's own selection for Drop Everything and Read time may well be the latest Tom Clancy novel.

13. Start a 100-Book Club. When McEwan was in West Chicago, her school's library specialist formed a club based mainly on Newbery Medal and Honor books. Upon completing a book, students would be interviewed by the librarian. "Once you had an interview with her the first time, you never read another book the same way. ... She wouldn't let you sit there and say, 'It was a great book and I loved it.'

She wanted to know that you had digested it," McEwan says, adding that the one-on-one approach is something the average teacher wouldn't have time for. Students who passed the interview got their names on a big plaque put on display.

14. Leave the quizzing up to the computer. Renaissance Learning's Accelerated Reader software has more than 75,000 quizzes to test a student's reading comprehension. Districts may offer incentives for passing each quiz. One possibility: a "go to the head of the lunch line" pass.

15. Help students make book choices that challenge, but don't overwhelm. In Frederick County, teachers have recently started modeling self-selection, Hain says. Examining the book cover, predicting what the book is about and reading the introduction before deciding on a book are all strategies advocated by Iris Bond, a policy associate at Alliance for Excellent Education whose research areas include adolescent literacy. Exposing young readers to various genres is also a help. She suggests that teachers be aware of each student's reading level, as well.

In many schools, student reading levels are matched to text difficulty levels using the Lexile Framework for Reading. More than 100,000 books and at least 70 million articles have been Lexiled and can be searched for on the Lexile Web site. "One of the most demotivating things is for a student to get a book that he or she cannot comprehend," says Malbert Smith III, president of framework developer MetaMetrics.

16. Start or add to students' personal libraries. Because owning even a single book is so powerful, programs such as RIF are popular. In about 150 buildings within San Diego City Schools, Rolling Readers is the delivery method of choice. The nonprofit organization, which has chapters in 20 states, aims to develop lifelong readers by having volunteers "roll" into schools for weekly read-alouds. Up to a few times a year, each student gets a free book.

At San Diego's Emerson/Bandini Elementary, students tend to come from low-income households "where parents are working hard to put food on the table. There is little time at the end of a busy work day to read to children and little disposable income available to buy children's books," says site coordinator Jane Hopkins. Rolling Readers recruits, places and trains the volunteers, who read and discuss a book during each visit and then send home a family discussion sheet.

17. Make parents reading partners. Emerson/Bandini holds interactive family conferences where parents learn to read and discuss books with their youngsters. And in Buffalo, parents are asked to sign off on a card, indicating that they've read at least 15 minutes each day, explains Linda Smolen, director of reading. This and other family literacy efforts have helped improve students' reading attitudes there.

San Bernadino's Family Story Time Television show, hosted by local teens, promotes parent involvement in reading and other educational success essentials. And teens in the district have put their message about books to song. A 100-voice student choir has performed I Believe It's Fun to Read to the tune of R. Kelly's I Believe I Can Fly at parent kickoff events. And two City of Readers CD's (plus one in Spanish) have been released locally.

18. Give younger students adolescent reading role models. San Bernardino's Youth Ambassadors--a teen group made up of volunteers and paid interns--are instrumental in the many events that Becar oversees each year. "They give 200 percent," she says, in sharing their enthusiasm for reading. Take Nickie, for instance, who was raised by her mother and had moved to California from South Dakota as a ninth grader. Now a college sophomore, Nickie has participated in nearly every single City of Readers event and has even become a leader among the corps. "Children gravitate to her," Becar says, adding that she's "seen kids wait in line for a turn to read to her."

19. Encourage students and staff to "read it forward." McEwan knows of a Billings, Mont., high school teacher who put her own spin on the "Pay It Forward" movie theme. Students and faculty post online book reviews, which others may read and discuss. Whether students will admit it or not, the opinions of their teachers matter, McEwan says. "Teachers are mysterious people and, like celebrities, you like to know what kind of car they drive, what their [spouse] looks like, what they're reading."

20. Adopt reading programs with motivational aspects built in. For adolescents, one important aspect is including a cooperative learning environment, says Bond, who collaborated on AEE's issue brief, How to Know a Good Adolescent Literacy Program When You See One: Quality Criteria to Consider. Group work and discussions are a natural fit for social teens. Programs should also compel students to use reading to gain knowledge and address the "Why Read?" question.

For students just learning to read, technology can be a big motivator. The software-based Waterford Early Reading Program from Pearson Digital Learning, for example, mixes it up with a variety of mediums and a cast of characters. The take-home library of books, videos and cassettes is another read-a-lot booster. In the six Waterford schools in Ferguson-Florissant School District in St. Louis' North County, educators are raving about it, says Savannah Young, assistant superintendent for elementary education. When she visits classrooms engaged in Waterford, Young says, "You can tell from their body language that they are engrossed in it."

21. Create book nooks. Once students are adept enough in reading to crave curling up with and getting lost in a book, cozy is the key word. In Adamsville Elementary, part of the Jefferson County Board of Education in Birmingham, Ala., empty areas and corners of the school have been transformed into inviting book nooks. The International Reading Association even cited these spots in presenting the school with an award for forming a strong community alliance to promote reading.

The concept can also be expanded so that students have a cozy place for book discussions. Bond knows of at least one district that has brought coffeeshop-like comfort (sans espresso) to its schools for that purpose.

22. Appoint students paperboys (and girls). Newspapers in Education partnerships, such as the ones that Buffalo has with USA Today and the Buffalo News, are one way to get students hooked on reading. About three-quarters of the district's 43 elementary schools were involved in the USA Today Partners in Literacy project two years ago, and last school year grade seven was chosen through the paper's grant program, says Smolen. The news format and chance to learn to write like a reporter acted as motivating forces for the students. "Plus the paper itself is so colorful. You can cut it up. You can't cut a textbook up," she adds.

23. Read across the U.S. While students can't cut up a map either, they sure can imagine peeling out across it. One Frederick County middle school reading specialist created a USA bulletin board. Each time students got through a certain number of books, a car (which started at home in Maryland) would move one state over. Now a number of other reading specialists across the district are planning to replicate the idea, Hain says. Likewise, the national nonprofit Books and Beyond suggests a Jog America theme where students "jog" from state to state by reading.

24. Make students word millionaires. For the 2002-2003 school year, Denver Public Schools' superintendent and chief academic officer introduced the Million Words Campaign to create excitement about reading everyday. More than 12,000 students struck it rich by reading the equivalent of one million words that year.

Meanwhile, in Saint Paul, Minn., the superintendent and mayor are partners in another six-zero initiative. Saint Paul Reads, launched in 1999, challenges all students and citizens to read at least 25 books a year. Schools have exceeded their total million-book goal each year since. With the official campaign mascot, a bookworm named Dewey Read, making appearances throughout the city, how could anyone resist the challenge?

Melissa Ezarik is features editor.

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