The Page Turner

Summer Reading Loss

Access to Books

Appropriate Materials

Four Ways to Put Books
in Children's Hands


Putting Books in Children's Hands
Ways to Minimize Summer Reading Loss

    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 children—especially poor children—spend 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.

  • Better readers read more than poorer readers. Extensive, successful reading experiences help develop reading proficiency.
  • Summer reading loss is one factor contributing to the achievement gap between more and less economically advantaged students.
  • Children from low-income families have more restricted access to books, both in school and at home, than do their more advantaged peers.

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.

Appropriate Materials

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.

  1. Allow children to check out books from the program library for the summer.
    You might want to limit the number of books and schedule the library to open one day a week during the summer so children can return books and select new ones. Be cautious about penalizing children for normal wear and tear on books. There's no better way to discourage poor children from taking library books home for the summer than to emphasize fines for damages.
  2. Sponsor a book fair.
    At the book fair, children can examine a substantial supply of books and purchase the ones that interest them. Of course, a book fair works best in places where children's families have funds to buy books. Organizations that serve many children from low-income families might budget money to subsidize purchases, or perhaps local merchants can be persuaded to provide funds. Even if you can afford to allow each child to select only one book for summer reading, one is better than none.
  3. Start a "Books for a Buck" program.
    Make books available to children at low cost by recycling paperback books and by purchasing books through an inexpensive distribution program. A few such programs are:
    Purchase books during the program year in order to have a healthy supply children can choose from for summer reading. At a dollar each, books become affordable to many poor children.
  4. Create an "honor library."
    In an honor library, readers simply take a free paperback and bring it back when they are done reading it. Books can be donated from the community, purchased at garage sales, or, if funds permit, purchased new just for the honor library. Display books on a wire rack outside the program entrance each day during the summer so that children (and their parents) can drop by and pick up a book to read—and return one borrowed earlier.


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.


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