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Winter 2011

Lecture Hall: Assistant Professor James Kim

James Kim reads under a tree.Photo by Briget Ganske

James Kim, Ed.M.’98, Ed.D.’02, had to pound the pavement — hard. At some point, most professors do when they’re trying to find funding for a research project, but for Kim, the stakes were higher than usual. Kim was a finalist for one of the U.S. Department of Education’s recent Investing in Innovation (i3) grants. If he wanted the $12.7 million being offered, he had to scramble to raise 20 percent in matching funds. This past September he did, which allowed him to begin phase one of Project READS (Reading Enhances Achievement During the Summer), a reading intervention program for low-income children in North Carolina. The project gives books and lesson cards to students to read during summer vacation. The hope is that it will prevent them from falling behind academically. As research shows, and as Kim saw when he was teaching seventh-grade history in the mid-1990s, almost all students backslide a bit when they’re away from school for that long, but the gap between middle- and low-income students is especially wide.

“In our district, kids learned about U.S. history from the colonial era to the Civil War in sixth grade and Reconstruction to the present in seventh grade,” he says. “In September, it was clear to me that many of my students forgot what they had learned and had not read much in the summer. So we’d spend a few weeks on review materials.”

In graduate school, he continued learning about “summer loss,” as it’s known, and started creating a model for preventing it. After running two reading experiments, he and his team realized that simply getting kids to read over the summer wasn’t enough: In order to improve on comprehension, kids needed a mix of books they enjoyed, companion teacher-created lessons, and parent participation. In October, Kim spoke to Ed. about motivation, parents, and why the i3 grant was critical.

How many books prevent summer loss? In the READS program, children typically receive eight books over the summer. It is a bit like Netflix for kids — but books, not movies. Every two weeks, each child receives two books and two reading postcards. In one of our studies where we saw a positive impact of READS, children enjoyed comprehension gains if they received the books and the end-of-year comprehension lessons. Children who received only books did no better than a control group. These findings suggest that the combination of the eight books and the teacher lessons are critical to making a difference in children’s reading comprehension skills.

How do you know kids are actually reading the books? We use a lot of different measures. We need to ask kids directly, survey their parents, and look at performance on real-time measures.

Real-time measures? In my work, we do this by teaching children to complete reading postcards after they complete their books — this is the real-time measure. Another real-time measure is having teachers call children and record the conversations to see how well children are reading their books.

Isn’t it difficult to motivate kids to read during their months away from school? It is very important to tap into children’s intrinsic motivation. We do this by giving children opportunities to indicate their reading preferences.

You found that in order for this to work, parent involvement is important. We encourage parents to view themselves as key partners in the intervention. During the end-of-school-year lessons, teachers instruct children how to read aloud to their parents for homework. Parents are taught simple strategies for motivating their children, such as providing feedback on their children’s reading fluency and asking simple comprehension questions.

Teachers must love this. We often receive positive feedback. Teachers find it easy to understand and implement. Our work underscores the importance of the teacher. In the absence of teacher-directed lessons at the end of the year, children enjoy no improvement in comprehension — even when they receive the books. To me, this is good news for American education: Teachers are critical for children’s success; they can even influence children’s success in the summer when they aren’t in school!

Growing up, what were you like as a reader? I was an average reader. But one thing always made a big difference — my teachers. When my teachers did read aloud, I wanted to read those books.

Was the i3 grant critical for you? The i3 grant enables us to conduct large-scale studies over a five-year period. This kind of research requires lots of time and money. It would definitely not have been possible without the i3 funding and the matching contributions.