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Fighting the Summer Reading Slump

Can voluntary summer reading programs help close the achievement gap for ethnic minority and low-income students?

During the summer, in the absence of school, learning declines. Throughout these months, all children backslide in math — but in literacy, the gap between high and low socio-economic status children widens. Low-income students, who may not have the same level of access to books and literacy resources, tend to decline more than wealthier peers.

This summer reading loss has been extensively documented. The decline for low-income and minority students is especially problematic as it appears to be cumulative.1 Motivated by these findings, James Kim and Thomas White saw summer reading intervention programs as a potentially effective tool for closing the achievement gap.

Previous research indicates, however, that simply providing access to books is not sufficient to prevent reading loss. So, Kim hypothesized, specialized instruction by teachers together with directed scaffolding by parents would be necessary ingredients in a voluntary summer reading intervention program.

The Impact of Scaffolding
Kim and White (2008) conducted an experiment with 24 teachers and 400 students in two elementary schools within a large suburban school district in the Mid-Atlantic United States. Sixty-nine percent of the students were non-white (Black, Hispanic, Asian or other) and 38 percent received free or reduced-priced lunches. Kim notes that there were no motivational differences among students — meaning that their attitudes toward reading did not differ.

Students completing the third, fourth, and fifth grades all received ordinary reading instruction during the school year. But the students were randomly assigned to one of four experimental conditions before the summer break. These four treatment groups differed in the following ways:

  • Group 1: Control. These students received no additional instruction or materials.
  • Group 2: Books only. Over the summer these students were mailed books matched to their reading levels and interests, but they received no special reading instruction. Their parents were simply asked to encourage the children to read.
  • Group 3: Books with oral reading scaffolding. These students received books matched to their reading levels and interests, along with directed-oral reading instruction from their teachers prior to the end of the school year. Their parents received a letter asking them to have their children read aloud, and to provide feedback on their reading. The students then filled out a postcard describing their understanding of the books.
  • Group 4: Books with oral reading and comprehension scaffolding. These students also received books matched to their reading levels and interests, along with oral reading and comprehension instruction from their teachers prior to the end of the school year; their parents also received a letter asking them to have their child read aloud, and to provide feedback on the reading. In addition, these students were asked to identify what strategies they used — such as re-reading, predicting, and summarizing — to understand the meaning of the book. Students also filled out a postcard describing their understanding of the books.

All the students in the experiment received pre- and post-tests on fluency and silent reading ability.2 Kim and White made two significant findings in this study:

  1. Students who received oral reading and comprehension scaffolding (Group 4) scored higher on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS, used to measure general reading ability) post-test than students who did not receive any treatment.
  2. The combined ITBS post-test scores of students in the two scaffolding conditions (Groups 3 and 4) were higher than the combined scores of the other two groups.

Most notably, Black, Hispanic and low-income students in the oral reading and comprehension group gained from 1.7 to 5.1 months of additional learning. This impressive gain — on average four months — of additional learning for low-income students is enough to offset the three months of summer slump that this population typically experiences.

Most teachers believe that voluntary reading — where students self-select text and read silently on their own — promotes some reading skills such as fluency and word recognition. Kim and White's study, however, finds that students who receive books that are appropriate to their reading levels, without feedback and support, did not improve in fluency and silent reading ability. It appears that having appropriate books is a necessary but not sufficient condition. On the other hand, scaffolding matters.

Teachers' Role is Critical

In the two scaffolding conditions, Kim notes that the teachers' role was absolutely vital. In June, teachers in the study attended a two-hour training session led by an experienced language arts teacher who had developed and piloted lessons that met Kim and White's specifications for directed oral reading instruction.

Prior to summer break, teachers modeled for their students what good readers do, providing explicit instruction in either fluency or directed reading. Over the summer, students were sent postcards reminding them of the specific reading strategies they had learned in class: good comprehension techniques such as reading the title, summarizing, and making text-to-self connections.

Simplicity in Design: The Innovation Fulcrum

Kim believes that it is critical to conduct research that decisionmakers are likely to interpret accurately and utilize. In order to promote implementation of his work, Kim relied on the concept of an “innovation fulcrum”: the point of balance between operating complexity and customer satisfaction.3

Kim's innovation fulcrum was finding a tool that teachers would easily implement and that would also meet students' needs. Any successful intervention had to meet these two considerations. Simplicity was woven into every aspect of the research — from the name, Project READS (Reading Enhancing Achievement During Summer), to shipping books to students through the mail, to the color-coded cards that identify students in the four treatment groups.

Implications and Recommendations

White and Kim (2008) provide suggestions for administrators and teachers for planning a voluntary reading program. Here are their key recommendations:

  1. Teachers should teach and model oral reading and comprehension strategies toward the end of the school year.
  2. Students should receive eight or more level-matched books so that they have sufficient reading material.
  3. Students should be sent postcards over the summer recapping good reading strategies.
  4. Parents should receive letters asking them to listen to oral reading and provide feedback to their children.
  5. Postcard returns should be solicited so that program administrators can assess correct implementation of strategy.

In the broader picture, Kim advocates using research to create targeted policies that focus directly on improving literacy for low-income and minority students. 

For additional information on this research:

Kim, J.S., & White, T.G. (2008). Scaffolding voluntary summer reading for children in grades 3 to 5: An experimental study. Scientific Studies of Reading, 12 (1), 1–23.

White, T. G. & Kim, J. S. (2008). Teacher and Parent Scaffolding of Voluntary Summer Reading. The Reading Teacher, 62 (2), 116-125. International Reading Association.

Alexander, Entwisdel, and Olson (2001)
Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skill (DIBELS) was used to test oral reading fluency and Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS) was used to test silent reading ability.
3 Gottfredson and Aspinall (2005)

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