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Stemming the Summer Reading Setback

April 8, 2014

Reading, regardless of the subject, builds competency and the stamina necessary to take on ever more challenging books.

By David Brill

We’ve all heard the proverb: “Give a man a fish, and he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he eats for a lifetime.” Two University of Tennessee researchers have given that old adage a new spin as it applies to encouraging children—particularly those from low-income homes—to become capable lifelong readers.

For more than thirty years, studies have shown that economically disadvantaged children suffer a decline in reading skills during the summer months. But reading education professors Richard Allington and Anne McGill-Franzen have stepped beyond the problem—known as “summer reading setback”—and arrived at an effective and affordable solution.

Results from their latest research suggest that giving lower-income children books for summer reading may be nearly as important as teaching them to read in the first place. Equally valuable is allowing the children to select books that interest them.

The Haves and Have Nots

For most elementary school students, the end of the school year marks a transition from the structure and stimulation of the academic environment to a couple of months of slack time. For kids from middle- and upper-income homes, summer breaks provide ample time for fun, but they also often involve “enrichment” activities that ensure access to books. If these children can’t find appealing titles in the bookcase at home, their parents may take them to the local bookstore or the public library. Not so for kids from lower-income families, many of whom may have the desire to read over the summer but lack access to books. Their parents may not have the financial means to buy books or the mobility to take them to the nearest public library.

“It’s hard to imagine, but some poor American families don’t own a single book,” Allington says. In fact, a University of Nevada study puts the number of book-deprived US homes at 3 percent, while a quarter of US homes own only ten books. Findings indicate that the number of books in a child’s home is among the strongest predictors of the child’s future educational attainment.

Meanwhile, according to Allington, too many libraries in Title I elementary schools don’t allow students to take books out of school—a practice predicated on the unfounded belief that poor children are more likely to damage or lose borrowed books.

Interest Makes a Difference

Summer reading gap Increases as time goes onTo test their hypothesis, the research team studied reading achievement among 1,330 students from seventeen high-poverty (Title I) elementary schools in two Florida locations: urban Jacksonville and the migrant worker communities of the Everglades. The investigation began with first- and second-graders and tracked their progress through the next three grades. Allington and McGill-Franzen sent one group to annual end-of-year book fairs to select—and keep—twelve to fifteen books that interested them from an extensive list of 400 to 600 titles. The other group didn’t receive any books.

The available books ranged widely in terms of subject area and included sports and pop culture books, series books (Goosebumps and Captain Underpants), and books with cultural relevance for minority students. Nine of the ten most frequently selected books were series books or explored pop-culture themes.

“We know that children will read books that interest them, and most kids are interested in pop culture,” McGill-Franzen says. “Reading, regardless of the subject, builds competency and the stamina necessary to take on ever more challenging books.”

The conclusion that what children read is much less important than that they read may be intuitive, but it’s not necessarily universally embraced. Some parents and teachers may cringe when they see a child reading the Unauthorized Biography of Britney Spears (the top choice among participants in the study’s first year), or engrossed in a Gossip Girl book that broaches the subject of teen sexuality. Research indicates that reading these books—or, for that matter, any books—imparts important skills.

Access Breeds Success

The study’s findings, based on student performance on Florida’s standardized achievement tests, were dramatic: children who received the free books retained reading skills over the summer, while the other group’s skills continued to erode. The program was deemed as effective as summer school attendance in preventing summer reading setback, and at a much lower cost.

Without ongoing practice, Allington and McGill-Franzen say, reading skills atrophy, much as a sprinter’s speed declines after two or more months without training. And the disparity in access and the resulting summer reading loss account for about 80 percent of the reading achievement gap that separates economically disadvantaged children from their more affluent peers.

A University of Missouri study actually quantified the disparity. While middle- and upper-income students gain two months of reading proficiency over the summer, kids from lower-income homes lose a month, creating an annual achievement gap of three months. Unfortunately, the gap only widens as these children advance through school.

“By the end of third grade, kids from Title I schools are one year behind their more affluent peers in reading achievement. By sixth grade, they’re two years behind. By ninth grade, they’re three years behind,” Allington says. By grade twelve, the gap has grown to four years, “but by then half of the Title I kids have already dropped out of school.”

Closing the Gap

Published in the journal Reading Psychology, Allington and McGill-Franzen’s study demonstrates that closing the rich-poor reading achievement gap isn’t complicated or labor intensive. And the book giveaways need not continue indefinitely.

“Economically disadvantaged children who are reading at grade level by the end of third grade graduate from high school at the same rate as children from middle- and upper-income families,” says Allington, who, for that reason, suggests providing younger (K–3) children with proportionately more free books than their older counterparts.

Nor is such intervention expensive. In fact, in the Florida study, the annual cost per student was only about $60.

Based on Allington and McGill-Franzen’s research, there is a greater understanding on how to stem, or even reverse, summer reading setback. Were we inclined to put it in the language of a parable, it might read thus: Give a child a book (and let them choose the title), and chances are good they will read for a lifetime.

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