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Kids in Houston Earn Bucks for Reading Books

A special Earning By Learning program sponsored by the Houston Automobile Dealers Association is gaining attention as a model of school-business partnership.

A special program provides incentives to read for students in Houston's elementary schools. During the last school year, more than 6,500 kids earned a total of more than $106,000, says Rae Lynn White, coordinator of the Houston Automobile Dealers Association's (HADA) Earning By Learning program. The program benefits fourth graders in 122 Houston schools.

The program is simple. Fourth graders are paid one dollar for every book read and reported on to a teacher or volunteer.

"Earning By Learning has been a phenomenal success," says Adriana Castro, principal of Houston's Garcia Elementary School. "Parents have gotten involved in listening to their children read and in being responsible for monitoring at-home reading."

"In addition, the students' achievement levels in reading have risen, and when achievement scores in reading go up so will scores in other areas," adds Castro.

"I think no matter what you do in life you've got to be able to read and write and to express yourself, so we think reading is something we want to be encouraging," says Walter Wainwright, HADA president.

"We started this program on a pilot basis to see if it worked," Wainwright adds. "We learned that it did work and that it is having a positive impact, so we have now expanded it into more than 120 schools."

HADA handles all the administrative expenses of the program so that every dollar donated by other corporate sponsors or individuals goes to children reading books, adds Wainwright.


"The students have become better learners because they're better readers," says Michael Hill, a fourth-grade teacher at Houston's Alcott Elementary School. "And the students are transferring new words and new skills learned from their reading and using them in their writing."

"I am very thankful for this program," says Betty Goolsby, a fourth-grade teacher at Parker Elementary School. "It has made a substantial difference in reading comprehension and verbal skills with my class. The extra incentive has really sparked their interest in reading."

Kids involved in the program have opinions too. Here's what a few kids say about Houston's EBL program:

"The program made me want to read a lot of books. I plan to buy books with the money I earned." ---Travis

"I feel like a grown-up. I worked hard to read long books. Then I received a pay."---Joseph

"I am so glad that Earning By Learning came this year because at first I thought reading was so boring, but now I think reading is interesting and fun. Thanks to you I read every night. . . ."---Michelle

"You can learn many things from reading. . . . I realize that it is very important to read. My goal is to continue to read and encourage my sisters and brothers to read. . . . Thanks!"---Brittni


But Earning By Learning programs are not without their critics. Such programs are the equivalent of bribing kids to fulfill basic expectations, some critics say.

"Some 70 studies have shown that the more people are rewarded for doing something, the less interest they will have in whatever was done to get the reward," says Alfie Kohn, the author of Punished by Rewards, (Houghton Mifflin, 1993) and other books on behavior and education.

"The truth is that there are different kinds of motivation," Kohn said in a Learning magazine debate (March 1996, page 7). Extrinsically motivated students do one thing (read a book) so that they'll get something else (food, cash, or an A). Intrinsically motivated students do something for its own sake because it's enjoyable. The more we use extrinsic inducements, the more intrinsic motivation tends to decline."

"Some critics say `We shouldn't pay kids to read. It sends the wrong message,'" says Edward F. Kasputis, founder of Earning By Learning--Ohio. "But by paying kids to read, we create an association between earning and learning. And let's face it---a good reader makes a good student, a good student gets a good job, and a good job brings good pay. . . . By providing a tangible cash incentive, we are helping children see that `it pays to read.'"

"The HADA program is open to fourth graders only," says Rae Lynn White. "Countless teachers have told us that many children are in desperate need of an extra incentive to kick-start what will surely become a life-long love of reading."

The program has other benefits, White adds. Among those benefits are:

  • Adult attention. For every book read, a child spends 10 to 20 minutes with an adult, discussing the contents of the book. They learn that adults are interested in their progress and they benefit from positive interaction with authority figures.

  • Personal development. Earning By Learning helps build self-esteem. The program empowers children as individuals by showing they can benefit from taking positive action to improve their lives.

  • It's a family affair. The program encourages parental involvement and continued interaction between parents and children once the program has been completed.


Earning By Learning, originally established in 1990 by Congressman Newt Gingrich and Dr. Mel Steely of West Georgia College, was adapted by Houston auto dealers Charles Smith and Jay Marks in 1991. Since its inception, the Houston program has awarded more than $600,000. This year, HADA was awarded the prestigious Leadership in Action Award for education presented by Leadership Houston.

"When you start an Earning by Learning program in your home town, you'll be amazed at the number of people who will step out and support the program with their time and money," says Kasputis of his Ohio-based program. "The fundraising is the easy part!"

Article by Gary Hopkins
Education World®
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Links updated 8/10/2004