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Reading Books - Is the Experience Its Own Reward?

WHEN an elementary school principal in Lexington, Mass., wanted to encourage her students to read more books, she struck a deal: If at least 90 percent of them would devote 15 minutes every evening to reading, she would "do something" for them in exchange.

The children spent several months considering what they wanted that "something" to be. Should they make her shave her head? Eat a fried worm? Spend a day on the roof of the school? Give them a day off?

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The principal, Joanne Benton, chose the roof, and last week she made good on her promise. She also declared the project a success, calling its 97 percent participation rate a "great way" to get students excited about reading.

Three cheers for Ms. Benton's good sportsmanship. But is this what reading has come to for children - a task so unappealing, on the order of eating spinach or cleaning their room, that only a principal on the rooftop will serve as sufficient motivation?

Apparently so, at least for some reluctant young readers. In another attempt at literary persuasion, House Speaker Newt Gingrich has launched a nationwide program called Learning by Earning. Students in a dozen urban areas will receive $2 for each book they read. A private foundation provides the money, and a group called Reading is Fundamental supplies the books.

Call it a bribe or think of it as an incentive. Either way, it's a far cry from summer reading programs of the past, where gold stars and a child's name on a library poster were considered sufficient reward. It's safe to say that no similar tactics are needed to get students to watch MTV or play Nintendo.

To pay or not to pay? That is the question parents and educators never quite resolve, whether the subject is reading books, making the honor roll, or doing household chores.

Those who favor rewards and incentives advocate a do-whatever-it-takes-to-achieve-results approach. But in a culture where everything comes down to the bottom line, nothing is ever done for its own sake - or, in the case of reading, for its own pleasure.

Payoffs treat reading as an unnatural activity - something people wouldn't do without a reward. They also treat students like trained seals expecting herring if they jump through a hoop. What happens when the herring is gone - in this case when dollar bills no longer float into children's hands after they finish a book, and when principals no longer climb to the roof as a way of saying, "Well done"?

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Nadine Rosenthal, a literacy specialist in San Francisco and the author of a forthcoming book, "Speaking of Reading" (Heinemann), suggests a better way of motivating children: Get parents to read to them from the time they're six months old through their ninth birthday.

After interviewing nearly 80 adults about how reading affects their lives, Ms. Rosenthal concludes, "The majority of those who were read to as children became readers, while those who weren't read to often became infrequent readers. Even I was amazed at just how often these generalizations were true."

Yet many parents, even avid readers, "do not recognize the significance of reading regularly to their own children," she writes. "They neglect reading ... and let the television baby-sit their children more often than they readily admit."

Once upon a time - and not all that long ago - children crawled into bed with a book and a flashlight. Reading after hours was a forbidden pleasure that justified any inconvenience, any risk. No adults had to bribe those young undercover literati to read - in fact, they would have had to bribe them to stop.

Those children have come out from under the covers and grown up. They watch television in the company of their children, with some pleasure. Perhaps all they can ask is that their offspring turn their eyes now and then from the screen to the printed page and try, really try, reading - an experience so neglected that it may almost seem new, requiring no rewards beyond itself.

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