Reading is a whole new ball-game

5th September 1997 at 01:00

Seven-year-old Keenan Francis shifted nervously as he was presented by the mayor with a plaque and a copy of his favourite book - Honey Bear, Funny Bear - before 30,000 cheering fans at a Boston Red Sox baseball game.

His accomplishment? Reading books.

Keenan was a grand prize-winner in a programme that rewarded 2,000 local children with hard-to-get baseball tickets for reading at least three books, choosing his favourite and writing an essay about it.

It was one of a bumper crop of rewards offered by American libraries, schools and bookstores to encourage reading during the summer, a time when books compete with jobs, movies, television and athletics.

"Children today have a much broader range of things they can do in their free time," said Kathy Toon, manager of the children's centre at the Dallas Public Library and director of that city's Summer Reading Challenge. "This is a lure to draw kids in. Ultimately we want the reading itself to be the reward. That's our goal."

The Dallas campaign rewards readers up to the age of 18 with stickers, plastic cups and school supplies for from five to more than 30 hours of reading. Those who read the most qualify for personal computers and savings bonds; many of the 16,000 participants attend a free performance of the Dallas Children's Theatre, underwritten by corporate contributions.

Other programmes offer T-shirts, free video rentals, gift certificates, posters of sports heroes and free entrees at restaurants.

Bookstores also have young reading clubs; in exchange for reading, children get coupons for discounts on their next purchase.

"Hopefully it's helping some of them," Ms Toon said. "In an ideal world we would hope that every child who signed up will read forever."

In fact, a study conducted by the public library in Normal, Illinois, found that children who participated in summer reading programmes retained vocabulary and comprehension skills better than those who did not.

But critics say that trying to motivate children to read with gifts will ultimately have the opposite effect. One, Alfie Kohn, author of the book Punished By Rewards, said reading rewards amount to "treating children like pets by dangling the equivalent of a doggy biscuit in front of them.

"The book comes to be seen as a tedious prerequisite, something that has to be gotten through in order to get the goodie," Mr Kohn said. "As soon as you lead kids to think of reading as something required for a reward, the book is devalued in the child's mind. The kid figures, 'If they have to bribe me to do this, it must be something I wouldn't otherwise want to do'."

It would be more effective, Mr Kohn said, for educators and parents to set an example by making books more readily available, reading with their children, giving kids a choice about what they read and encouraging youngsters to read with and to each other.

"A lot of well-meaning folks think that all that matters is that kids read," Mr Kohn said. "But it matters as much how kids read and why kids read, and in the long run we want them to find reading compelling, engaging and something they feel they have freely chosen."

That is precisely the goal of rewarding children for reading, Ms Toon counters.

"Eventually they'll pick it up on their own," she said. "You're going to have some kids who will come to just enjoy it, and who will see reading as something that's fun in itself, and not as something that's forced on them."

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