Fresh Ideas: Summer reading has lasting impact on kids

Years ago, a colleague remarked that she’d asked her kindergarten class to bring in a favorite book from home. One little boy eagerly held up a newsprint coupon book, a piece of junk mail.

“Is that the only book you have at home?” the teacher asked, as gently as possible.

“Oh, no,” he said proudly. “My sister has one just like it.”

Wow. Just, wow.

What chance will that child have to practice reading, let alone become proficient, without books at home? That’s what reading experts, Richard L. Allington and Anne McGill-Franzen, explore in their book, “Summer Reading: Closing the Rich/Poor Reading Achievement Gap.”

Data clearly shows that children from disadvantaged households start school as much as six months behind their middle-class peers. While in school they make growth roughly parallel to their peers. Good news, right? Just not good enough. Those low-income students — who are already behind — lose a month or two of proficiency every summer. On the other hand, middle-class students typically gain a month during the summer. Do you see a problem?

It gets worse. The size of the gap snowballs every year. By third grade, low-income kids are a year behind. By sixth grade, two years behind; by ninth grade, three years. By twelfth grade the achievement gap has widened to four years. Four years.

Reading researchers estimate that the “summer slide” — the loss of reading proficiency over a summer — accounts for roughly 80 percent of the reading achievement gap between rich and poor students. That’s right. Summer. Not phonics. Not whole language. Not teachers. Not standards. And certainly not standardized tests.

In study after study, one indisputable fact is clear: the amount of time spent reading independently is the best predictor of reading achievement. Gee. Imagine that.

Sadly, for many low-income kids, summer means time spent without books. Researchers found that providing low-income kids with as few as 12-15 self-selected books for summer reading produced as much or more reading growth as summer school. For the poorest kids, the effect was twice as large as attending summer school. Talk about cost effective!

Let’s think of ways to put more books in the hands of our poorest kids during the summer. Not a reading list, mind you, nor a pre-packaged set of “books every eight-year-old should read.” Let them read about dinosaurs or disasters. Princesses or presidents. Killer whales or kittens. Children who enjoy reading, read more and become more proficient at the same time.

Librarians are uniquely qualified to help in this effort. And with a library card, every book at the Carson City Library ( is available. For free. This year’s summer reading program, “Every Hero has a Story” runs through Aug. 8 with crafts, prizes, story time, and special guests for kids up to age 17. And our air-conditioned library is now open on Sunday.

Perhaps your child likes owning her own books. The volunteer-run Browsers Corner, across the street from the library, has a literal ton of books. All are available at bargain prices, Monday through Saturday. Furthermore, both the Carson City Library and Browsers Corner are conveniently located right across the street from the pool.

Aside from test scores and achievement gaps, Ceridwen Dovey writes in the New Yorker on June 9 that reading also makes us happier, helps us sleep better, lowers stress, raises self-esteem and lowers depression. Reading sounds like the perfect way to spend a summer afternoon with the kids in your life. What are you waiting for?

Lorie Schaefer is a retired elementary teacher and reading specialist.


Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Sign in to comment