Summer By the Book

Closing the gap by helping families build a tradition of summer reading

June 25, 2015
Summer By the Book

Where does the achievement gap start? Here’s one place to look: Summer.

Research shows that low-income children can lose two months or more of reading skills over the summer. Children who do that consistently can wind up two years behind their classmates by the end of sixth grade. It used to be called the “summer slide” — but that’s too gentle a term for the severe, cumulative learning loss that disadvantaged kids can experience during the summer months, when they often have no access to books or teacher support.

In a world of digital distraction and unequal opportunities, READS for Summer Learning is exploring effective ways to get more kids engaged in independent reading — and to make sure reading leads to learning. Directed by Associate Professor James Kim, READS is a long-term research project designed to improve reading comprehension and prevent learning loss for high-poverty students in grades 2–5. The project is based in North Carolina, where it has served more than 6,000 students in 59 schools across the state. Kim and his colleagues are now looking at how to transition the project into a sustainable program that can be delivered by practitioners.

Kim spoke to the National Summer Learning Association about his research into effective summer reading strategies. Excerpts below; read the entire interview Q&A [PDF].  

You’ve done several studies on children and reading over the summertime. What have you learned?

We’ve learned that if you’re trying to improve children’s reading abilities, you have to provide books that match the child’s reading level and interest, and you have to know how to monitor comprehension.

So it’s not enough to just give a child a book and expect him or her to read it?

Access to reading materials is crucial, of course, but according to our research, that’s not enough, especially in the early elementary school years.

Many people are aware that children lose reading skills over the summer and that low-income children fall behind, compared to their more advantaged classmates. We also know that kids who read a lot over the summertime sustain reading comprehension and vocabulary. Consequently, some people conclude that, in order to increase reading skills, we need to increase access to books — but the research indicates it’s not that simple.

In fact, in one study, when we gave books to kids but did nothing else, they did no better than the kids who did nothing over the summer. There was no difference.

How can a parent, teacher, or other older adult figure out whether a child understands what he or she is reading?

There are different methods, but some of the most effective are relatively simple: Ask questions about the story and allow the child to ask questions; summarize or ask the child to summarize; and reread hard-to-understand passages. Essentially, make reading more of an interactive process in order to boost fluency and comprehension.

All good readers use those techniques, but fourth graders, for example, don’t know how to do that on their own. Teachers and adults need to be explicit.

Is there any quick way to assess whether a book is at the appropriate level, for example, if you want to help a child choose a book at the library?

There’s something called the five-finger rule. Ask a child to read 100 words from a book and teach the child to raise one finger for each word that is too difficult to figure out. If the child has more than five fingers up, the book is probably too hard. It’s a very easy tool for kids to learn.

Children should choose books that interest them, but the goal is also to find that sweet spot where the reading level is challenging but not frustrating. Then, get involved and work with young people over the summertime to help them exercise the simple but effective skills that will make them good readers.

Reading ABCs

All three of these ingredients are necessary for building reading skills, according to READS for Summer Learning:

  • Access to books at home, with a wide selection of genres
  • Books that are well-matched to each child’s reading level and interests
  • Comprehension activities — guided and monitored by an adult. Teachers can support summer reading with end-of-year lessons and follow-up phone calls. Parents and families can support it by asking questions and ensuring that kids are challenged but not frustrated.

How READS for Summer Learning Works in Schools

The project takes a multifaceted approach. Learn more about how it works.

  • Students take a standardized reading comprehension test at the end of the school year to assess their reading level and a survey to see what books they find interesting.
  • They get six lessons at the end of the year about the READS Reading Routine, which supports independent reading.
  • Relatives are invited to a Family Night to learn how to support young readers. 
  • Once school is out, students receive 10 free books, matched to reading interests and level, by mail.
  • Each book includes a tri-fold brochure that guides students through a READS Reading Routine activity specifically for that book; students complete and return the tri-folds (and get phone reminders if they don’t).
  • Parents/guardians get weekly reading tips via email, text, or phone in their home language. 

Additional Resources

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Usable Knowledge is a trusted source of insight into what works in education — translating new research into easy-to-use stories and strategies for teachers, parents, K-12 leaders, higher ed professionals, and policymakers. Usable Knowledge is produced at the Harvard Graduate School of Education by Bari Walsh (senior editor) and Leah Shafer (staff writer). Contact us at uknow@gse.harvard.edu.