6 Tips for Preventing the Dreaded Summer Reading Gap
Students and educators alike look forward to the lazy summer months when the pool, not the school, governs their days. However, taking three months away from the classroom—an approach that is common in most school systems—also results in a decline in reading proficiency that disproportionately affects low-income students. Moreover, research has found that struggling readers score higher on standardized reading tests at the end of the school year than they do at the beginning, indicating that these students actually lose ground over the summer.
Barbara Heynes' book "Summer Learning and the Effects of Schooling," published in 1978, detailed one of the first studies to find that students from low-income families showed a greater loss in reading skills over the summer than their counterparts from higher-income families—and this decline is cumulative. In "Lasting Consequences of the Summer Learning Gap," published in the American Sociological Review in 2007, Karl L. Alexander, Doris R. Entwisle, and Linda Steffel Olson showed that summer reading loss extended into high school, accounting for about two-thirds of the reading gap among ninth-graders.
Lack of access to books over the summer is one of the biggest reasons for this gap. While middle-income students often have reading material in their homes, the same may not be true for lower-income students. One of the most effective ways to lessen the summer reading gap is to provide reading materials to students over the summer. Here are six ideas educators and administrators can use to close the summer reading gap and get books into the hands of the students who need them.
1. Help students create customized summer reading wish lists
Students will be more motivated to read if they have a list of specific books they chose themselves. A month or two before school ends, start giving five-minute book introductions that include a quick synopsis of one fiction and one nonfiction text. Have students write down the titles that sound most appealing to them, then review the lists and star books that are appropriate to each student's reading level. Be sure that all books are easily accessible.
2. Send books home with students at the end of the year
There are a number of ways to get books into the hands of students who don't have reading materials at home. One option is to work with local libraries, which often have more books than they can fit on their shelves. Ask for a donation of overflow books and allow students to choose one or more to take home. Similarly, you can hold a book drive and ask school and community members to donate their favorite used books. You may also approach local bookstores and community organizations for donations to help provide books for summer reading. Include these in the full set of books available for students to create their wish lists, and consider asking students to bring the books back at the end of the summer to start building a collection. That said, try to provide at least one book for each student to keep. Personalizing books with an inscription will give them a sense of ownership.
3. Adopt a reader
Once students have finalized their wish lists, you can ask members of the PTO, parents, and community members to "adopt a reader," which would involve buying books from that student's wish list. They could present these books to the students at the end of the school year, or mail books directly to students at regular intervals throughout the summer. Receiving a book in the mail would add additional excitement around summer reading and keep students' at-home libraries fresh.
4. Partner with summer institutions
Many cities and counties offer summer programs for low-income children. Why not reach out to recreation centers and municipal pools for help in getting books to students? You could provide books to these places for students to take home and eventually exchange for more books. For financial support, look to community organizations, PTOs and local bookstores, as partnering with agencies already serving students is a simple way to reach students over the summer.
5. Use the public library
Local libraries can provide students with free books to read over the summer, but many low-income students face access impediments such as distance or lack of transportation. Book mobiles are one way to ease issues like these. Work with the local library system to get a grant, or raise money for a summer book mobile that could be as simple as a car with books in the trunk or as elaborate as a van with shelving. The book mobile can concentrate on visiting areas where low-income students are most likely to live. A great example of this is from Texas; to encourage kids to pick up a book this summer, this principal hit the streets once a week with a book trailer where kids who come to the trailer with a book can leave it and take a different one. For students to whom the library seems unfamiliar and therefore daunting, plan a field trip to the public library toward the end of the school year. Have a librarian show students around and issue each one a library card, and invite parents to accompany you. Make sure that students go home with a schedule of library summer programs, and post this information on your school's website and social media as well.
6. Open the school library
While the public library may not be easily accessible for students, the school library is typically easier to visit. Schedule times over the summer when the school library will be open for students to check out books. Even if your budget will only allow for one or two openings, these "Library Day" events will give students a chance to access more reading material. Toward the end of the school year, invite parents to a library open house so they can become familiar with the school library as well. You might also consider turning the days the library is open into events. Ask local restaurants or the PTO to donate finger foods; bring in an author, a puppeteer, or other entertainment; and provide seating areas for students to catch up with each other and discuss their summer reading. Be sure to inform parents of library openings and post reminders on the school website and social media. To maximize the opportunity, see if the school district can provide a bus.
Providing reading material and motivation to students is key to closing the summer reading gap. Use the ideas outlined above as a jumping-off point for your own creativity, and get students reading this summer!
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