Reading is not a solitary activity at The Dr. Lydia T. Wright School of Excellence in Buffalo, N.Y. Through a series of compelling experiences, reading at this inner city school becomes a form of community-building. Even better, in its four-week program designed to improve reading scores on standardized tests, children may be having so much fun that they miss the educational thrust.

Themes change annually. Two years ago it was "Wrestle With a Good Book," with the school's principal dressed up as a sumo wrestler (in a rented blow-up costume) battling a book in the culminating festivities. "The kids loved it," says special education teacher Patricia Smith.

Last year it was "Leap Into a Good Book," with pictures of a pond plastered everywhere, stickers representing the pond's life cycle awarded for reading, and the principal suited up as a frog, hopping around the gymnasium—all of this tied into a hopathon to raise money for charity.

Using activities for dual purposes is common. When community members—including judges, police officers, and ambulance technicians—come in to read to children during the month, they appear in uniform and also talk about their work and have their picture taken for a display in the front hall that includes their name and job—all part of career awareness activities.

The energy seems endless. Seventh- and eighth-graders read to younger children. There is fun tied to Dr. Seuss' birthday. And on Storybook Day, students, teachers, and staff dress up as their favorite characters such as Cruella De Vil from 101 Dalmatians.

One week is designated as the time to "Get Caught Reading." Children hand in a reading contract signed by their parents ahead of time, and then once during the week a volunteer staff member or teacher calls them between 7 p.m. and 7:30p.m. to catch them reading (for the older kids) or being read to (for the younger ones).

If they are reading when called, then the next day at school they are recognized on the intercom and called to the office to have their picture taken for a "Look who got caught reading" display. (Smith says they've learned by trial and error that it's important to have the youngest children called early in the week so as not to disappoint them.)

One of the unexpected benefits of this program has been the way it builds community within the school. "Children will go up to a teacher they didn't know or someone who works in the cafeteria and say 'You called me,' " says Smith.

Reading is also tied to geography through a pair of traveling mascots called Pablo and Mary, similar to the more familiar Flat Stanley. Everyone who visits the school is asked to take home a Pablo and a Mary and to send postcards from these mascots whenever they travel out of the Buffalo area. These postcards are then read by students over the public address system. Next year this geography connection will be expanded with "passports" that students can get stamped by reading.

Test scores have definitely risen at Wright, though the school's expansion from 500 to 1,100 students in two years creates a bit of a statistical challenge.

Making Progress

Wright is far from alone in its emphasis on reading, which exists to some degree in just about every elementary school. Concern about test scores that don't reflect "adequate yearly progress" as defined by the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 has only intensified the focus.

This is especially true at places like Pepper Elementary School in Oak Park, Mich., which has been identified as failing to meet state reading and math requirements. Paid tutors, a paid parent facilitator, family nights, information nights, grade level nights, and content area nights are among the ways the school has worked at improving student achievement in reading.

The reactions from parents about the low scores and the efforts to raise them have evolved, says Principal Carol Johnson. "When they saw the list in the newspaper, a number of individuals said our school must be failing," she says. "The PTO effectively communicated what it was we were doing. And our parents were our best allies. They said 'Although we're in the newspaper, we're not going anywhere,' " referring to the option to transfer children to a better-performing school.

In fact, says Johnson, parents who had been uninvolved found themselves "a little bit on the hot seat for not helping," and parent involvement has increased. Test scores have, too. Reading scores are up a dramatic 23 points, to 63 percent meeting or exceeding grade-level requirements. Math scores have risen 22 points, to 57 percent meeting or exceeding requirements.

Now that the stress level has eased somewhat, the new PTO is looking for ways to help. President Kathy Hill says there is interest in developing a game show format to make learning more fun and to reduce pressure for the students.

More Reading Ideas

At Fairmount Park Elementary School in Canton, Ohio, students receive a bingo card, with each square listing a family literacy activity. Children and a family member have to do such things as read and follow a recipe to make a dessert, write a thank-you note to a community service worker such as a police officer, and write a list of products at the grocery store using the letters A through Z. Students who collaborate with a relative to complete all 25 activities during the month receive a paperback book as a prize, and the game is repeated for three additional months.

At Families Who Write & Read Succeed Night at Park Avenue School in Danbury, Conn., families receive a small book. The pages are all blank except for an opening sentence, with instructions to write about a theme such as helping hands or poetry.

At P.S. 152 in New York City, parents are invited to breakfast by the principal once a month and presented with a children's "book of the month." Taking turns, they read the book out loud, with the principal then demonstrating how to ask their children questions about the book.

Interested in running your own reading event? Our free Family Reading Night kit has everything you need to hold a great event, including planning tips, theme and snack ideas, and creative activities.