The Page Turner
Putting Books in Children's Hands
by Pamela Little
"The single summer activity that is most strongly and consistently related to summer learning is reading." (Heyns, 1978, p.161; see also Smith, Constantino, & Krashen, 1997). Yet too many childrenespecially poor childrenspend their summer with no books to read. What happens when children don't read over the summer, and what can afterschool programs do to get books into children's hands?
Summer Reading Loss
A number of studies document what has been dubbed "summer reading loss" among children of low-income families. These studies were included in a statistical meta-analysis conducted by Harris Cooper and his colleagues at the University of Missouri (1996). They showed that summer vacations created an average annual reading achievement gap of about three months between students from middle- and lower-income families.
A summer loss of three months each year becomes a gap of 18 months by the end of sixth grade. By middle school, summer reading loss produces a cumulative lag of two or more years in reading achievement, even when effective instruction during the school year is available.
Access to Books
To become skilled at almost any activity requires practice. According to a recent report of the National Reading Panel (2000), hundreds of correlational studies suggest that "the more children read, the better their fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension." (p.12)
Because low-income families have little discretionary income, the children of these families rarely have home book collections to draw on. School libraries are often the largest and nearest supply of books, but school libraries are usually closed during the summer. In addition, most public libraries in major U.S. cities have experienced devastating budget cuts, which have affected their hours of operation, staffing, and ability to purchase books.
Even within the population of low-income children, lower-achieving poor children demonstrated a greater summer reading loss than higher-achieving poor children (Puma, Karweit, Price, Ricciuti, Thompson, & Vaden-Kiernan, 1997). Children with less-successful reading experiences are less interested in voluntary reading than are children with successful reading experiences (Guthrie & Anderson, 1999).
One problem is that lower-achieving readers are typically asked to read books that are too difficult for them. The books we put in children's hands should be appropriate for their developmental level. Providing a wide variety of books of different levels of difficulty and about a range of interesting subjects and genres allows children to choose for themselves the books they can and will read over the summer.
Four Ways to Put Books in Children's Hands
The most obvious thing afterschool programs can do to reduce summer reading loss is to ensure that children from low-income families have a supply of appropriate books to read during summer vacation. This intervention doesn't fully address the many and varied reading needs of low-income students, but it's a start. Here are four ways of providing children with 10-20 self-selected books just as the regular school year ends.
Cooper, H., Nye, B., Charlton, K., Lindsay, J., & Greathouse, S. (1996). The effects of summer vacation on achievement test scores: A narrative and meta-analytic review. Review of Educational Research 66, 227-268.
Guthrie, J. T. & Anderson, E. (1999). Engagement in reading: Processes of motivated, strategic, knowledgeable, social readers. In J. T. Guthrie & D. Alvermann (Ed.), Engaged reading: Processes, practices, and policy implications (pp. 17-45). New York: Teachers College.
Heyns, B. (1978). Summer learning and the effect of schooling. New York: Academic Press.
National Reading Panel (2000). Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction (NIH Publication No. 00-4769). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
Puma, M. J., Karweit, N., Price, C., Ricciuti, A., Thompson, W., & Vaden-Kiernan, M. (1997). Prospects: Final report on student outcomes. Washington, DC: U. S. Department of Education, Office of Planning and Evaluation Services.
Smith, C., Constantino, R., & Krashen, S. (1997). Differences in print environment: Children in Beverly Hills, Compton and Watts. Emergency Librarian 24, 8-9.