Wilson High School ninth-graders this month will join a worldwide effort to answer some enduring questions about one of humanity's oldest and most necessary pastimes: reading.
One class of randomly selected students from the Hacienda Heights high school will take part in a two-hour reading test and half-hour reading habits survey. There will also be questionnaires for teachers and principals.
The same materials have been or will be administered in 30 other California schools, about 380 schools across the nation and, in translated form, about 35 other nations, the largest international testing effort ever, said Marilyn Binkley, the U.S. research coordinator.
The test is part of ongoing efforts by educators from Europe to the San Gabriel Valley aimed at getting students to read more and better. The test will permit direct comparisons between students and teaching strategies of other nations.
"In one Scandinavian country, children don't start school till age 7 and are not expected to do reading exercises the way we do," Binkley said. "But they'll hear stories" from their parents and other adults.
"There isn't a community in the United States that would allow us to keep kids from books until they are 7."
The Education Department will contribute $2 million to fund the study's American component. The International Assn. for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement will compile all the data at the University of Hamburg in Germany. The results are not expected before 1992.
Despite all the unknowns, researchers agree that reading well is essential both for students' intellectual fulfillment and their careers and that American pupils don't read well enough.
Consequently, San Gabriel Valley educators have been trying a variety of strategies, some based on research, some on educated guesses, to improve their students' reading. With encouragement from state officials, more and more districts are using literature to teach reading rather than drilling exercises from potentially boring, traditional reading texts.
Another tactic is establishing reading role models, such as Grandview Elementary in Valinda has tried to do. Among 65 guest speakers and readers during the school's Read to Succeed Week was Pat McCormick, twice a double gold-medal winner in the Olympics.
"They were all struck by having a famous person in here," teacher Patricia Nalette said of McCormick's impact on her eighth-grade English class. "They do need to see people like this.
Based on her experience, Nalette estimated that half her class, which includes many children from low-income families, would drop out before graduating from high school.
Raymond Lopez, 14, believes McCormick's visit could make a difference. "Not many people will take time to come to a . . . school and talk about their lives," he said. "That will turn a light on in your head."
The West Covina eighth-grader, who adores Stephen King novels, joined his classmates in saying he believed reading well is crucial. Raymond credits his father for his own interest in books.
"Reading makes you feel good about yourself, that you've reached that level of maturity where you can say, 'I want to read this, and I'm going to do it.'
"And if not for reading, people wouldn't have a pastime, time for themselves. That's what it is for me, time for myself."
Other activities to encourage reading include:
The Glendora Unified School District's second annual Community Read-In Tuesday. Last year, more than 100 teachers, secretaries, principals, custodians, administrators and other community members volunteered to read to elementary classes.
The event will kick off a weeklong read-a-thon, in which students agree to read for specific periods of time in exchange for a breakfast with the district's Easter bunny. The Mountain View School District held a similar program last week.
* The Los Angeles Unified School District's Literacy Awareness Week, starting Sunday. Events include a weekend conference for teachers to help them promote students' reading skills, programs on reading themes broadcast on the district's Channel 58 and the distribution of posters featuring celebrities promoting literacy.
* Potrero School's third annual Literature Sleep Over. Third-graders and their stuffed animals will sleep over at the South El Monte school Friday. Parents, teachers and other community members will read to student groups and participate in other literature-related activities.
* Edgewood Middle School's 600 Minute Club. If students at the La Puente school read a total of 600 minutes for fun between Jan. 28 and Friday, they will win a ticket to Magic Mountain.