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Books and baseball a grand slam

For the sixth year in a row, the MTA is encouraging students throughout the state to celebrate reading over the summer. And once again, educators are finding innovative ways to use the MTA Red Sox Reading Game to promote literacy and learning.

Karen Cosko, the librarian at the Trotter School in Cambridge, is among those who tie the reading game into school activities.

"I have a huge Red Sox banner flying in the window of the library," Cosko said. "Many kids sketched individual Sox players and even the World Series trophy. I have the drawings hanging in the library."

The winning combination of books, baseball and the Red Sox has become an established catalyst for summer reading in hundreds of schools. Aside from the reading contest, it includes posters, TV advertisements and exciting events, including a literacy theme day at Fenway Park.

Last summer, nearly 50,000 children entered the contest. Coming on the heels of the Sox' world championship, this year's contest is expected to be even bigger, with participants pledging to read hundreds of thousands of books.

That, in turn, will help inspire success in the classroom, since research confirms that  the more children read, the better they read -- and the more students read outside of school, the better they do in school.

The MTA Red Sox Reading Game is open to all K-8 students in the state. Those who pledge to read nine books -- one for each position on the baseball field -- will be entered into a drawing to win free tickets to the Red Sox Game at Fenway on Aug. 26.

The game's literacy champion, All-Star catcher Jason Varitek, is rounding the literacy bases for a third season this summer.

"Without the capability to read and understand, I would not be able to do my job," said Varitek, who paid a brief visit to the contest's kickoff event in early May. "Even when I was young, I understood the value of education."

Many fellow MTA members join Cosko in using the contest as a way to supplement their existing efforts to promote summer reading.

"During the last week of school, the students meet their teacher for next year and are given a book to read over the summer. In the upper elementary, middle, and high school grades, an assignment accompanies the book," said Joan White, who teaches at the Malcolm White Elementary School in Woburn.  "We hang the posters up in the classroom, and I raffle them off with other classroom items during the last days of the school year. Having a role model such as Jason Varitek encouraging the children to read, especially during the summer months, is a great incentive for our students."

This year's posters feature Varitek holding the championship edition of Zachary's Ball by Matt Tavares, who grew up in Winchester. The book revolves around a boy who is making his first visit to Fenway.

Although the contest's primary focus is to boost summer reading, educators integrate it into many curriculum areas. In addition to reading and math, baseball can be used to enhance the study of history, geography, art and a range of other subjects.

Varitek is known for being the best-prepared catcher in the game. He is constantly reading scouting reports and studying opposing hitters.

"There are many things that are involved in getting out a hitter," he said. "You need to know the hitters' strengths and weaknesses and your pitchers' strengths and weaknesses, so you have to read a lot of information and add up and understand lots of statistics. The ability to comprehend all that is why I am able to do my job."

The campaign is funded though a grant from Verizon and an in-kind contribution from the Saturn UAW Union Partnership, which donated book gift certificates for contest winners. The contest also receives contributions from Staples, Borders, Scholastic, The Boston Globe and NECN.

To find out more about the reading contest, visit www.readingmatters.org, an MTA Web site that focuses on the teaching and learning of reading and ways to help parents, teachers and communities raise successful readers. The site provides contest details and includes reading tips, activities and links to resources that help promote summer reading.