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Speaker Gingrich Touts Reading Program's Payoff

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Reading pays at Hohl Elementary School in Houston, where 4th graders get $1 for each book they read through a motivational program called Earning by Learning.

The program for low-income students, already in 17 states and growing, uses local Zwcions to pay 3rd and 4th graders up to $2 for reading a book. Most of the local efforts are run during the summer by volunteers at public libraries or housing projects.

The five-year-old program is not unique in offering students economic incentives for academic pursuits. But it has been thrust into the national limelight recently, thanks to a high-profile booster: Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich.

The Georgia Republican sees Earning by Learning as a local outreach program with a key advantage--it does not rely on support from the federal government.

He regularly touts the program in his speeches, and was an early supporter. By 1992, Mr. Gingrich had given $40,000 he earned from speaking fees to professors at West Georgia College, where he once taught, to help start pilot reading programs around Atlanta.

"We are trying to teach [students] that being a pimp or a drug dealer is not the only way to make money," Mr. Gingrich told members of the National School Boards Association last month.

Program supporters reject the criticism of some education experts who have questioned the value of such rewards.

"We don't apologize for giving them money," said Mel Steely, a history professor at West Georgia who has helped run the program since its inception. "This is not a welfare system that follows them through their lives. This gets them started."

Expansion Plans

He said he did not know how many students participate in the program nationwide because not all local programs report to him.

Supporters said they are applying for a nonprofit charter to help with fund-raising. And they are scheduled to announce details next week of plans to expand the program in six cities, two American Indian reservations, and six small communities this summer.

Newspapers in Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York City, and Washington have agreed to co-sponsor programs in those cities, said Donald G. Jones, the president of Cyberstar, a telecommunications company in Fond du Lac, Wis., a telecommunications company in Fond du Lac, Wis., who will be the president of the Earning by Learning Foundation Inc.

In Houston, at least one teacher says the program is encouraging better reading habits.

"If you want them to read, then you should try any way you can," said Mae Ivin, a 4th grade teacher at Hohl Elementary. "For those who liked reading, now they're reading books rather than comic books."

This year, 112 of Houston's 168 public elementary schools participate in the program, which is sponsored by the Houston Automobile Association. Supported by donations from dealers, the program has paid $34,000 to about 4,306 students since 1992.

Students must make written or oral book reports to qualify.

The Houston model is unusual, however, because most of the other programs are run by volunteers with little direct school involvement, Mr. Steely said.

Experts' Views Mixed

Some reading experts give the idea cautious support.

"Most people in the literacy field would agree anything that gets kids to read is positive," said Victoria Purcell-Gates, the director of the Language and Literacy Program at Harvard University's education school.

But to help encourage reading for its own rewards, children need books that match their ability levels and interests, she said.

John T. Guthrie, a co-director of the National Reading Research Center at the University of Maryland, said research is mixed on the value of external rewards.

Such rewards can help motivation on undesirable tasks, he said. But long-term benefit comes only if the reward focuses on success rather than task completion.

"If the attitude is that reading is horrible, then rewards could increase motivation," he said. "But if you reward book reading, then you must reward understanding."

Incentives can be detrimental, Mr. Guthrie added, especially if they are given for tasks that can be done without rewards. "If you get used to reading for money and then it is taken away, you lose interest."

Others Using Incentives

Despite the reservations of experts, other incentive programs have also gained popularity.

Jostens Inc., a Minnesota-based supplier of educational products and technology, says that 4,500 schools participate in its Jostens Renaissance program, begun in 1988 to reward better school performance. Participating schools, for example, can issue "incentive cards" that earn for high-achieving or improving students free lunches, priority lockers, or coupons from local businesses.

As for Earning by Learning, it has also bridged some political chasms in the interest of helping at-risk students.

Rep. Charles B. Rangel typically butts heads with Mr. Gingrich on social issues. On this one, however, the New York City Democrat endorses the program for youngsters in his Congressional district.

"Sure, it's simplistic," he said in an interview. "But whatever works, we'll do. We know what doesn't work: longer jail terms."

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