Planning now for summer programs is more important than ever as schools face widening learning gaps due to the pandemic. A few years ago, the summer reading options my district, Elizabethtown Independent Schools, offered were fairly meager.
We had a summer school program for students who were struggling, but we didn’t really have a program designed to reach all of our students and prevent the summer slide students experience during the long break. Our students were falling behind. We had approximately 50 percent reading at grade level by third grade. We knew something had to change.
When we began looking for a summer reading program for our early readers, we knew we wanted a partner who would let students select their own books and keep them after they read them. Eventually, we chose Kids Read Now, in part because the program not only lets students keep the books, but they’re delivered in the mail, which is pretty exciting to kids and even more essential during Covid-19 remote learning protocols.
No matter what program you use, here are the five keys to making a summer reading initiative a success. These apply equally well for extended breaks or home learning during the pandemic.
Family engagement is baked into the Kids Read Now program. Within two weeks of the end of the school year, participating schools can hold a live or virtual parent event designed to help families understand the program. Students get to choose nine titles for their wish list, and they receive three of them at the kickoff event or, in the case of a virtual kickoff, the first one will be mailed home. Each week another book is mailed to the home. Plus, each time a family member reports their child has completed a book, students will move a step closer to completing the summer challenge and earn a certificate and prize. At the event, families learn how to report books and learn about using the discovery sheet stickers in each book, which have four activities for engaging their children at home to build comprehension and reading skills.
Our teachers had families eager to begin before the family event even began, too. We’d never had a program where students got to keep books in such volume. So the teachers were excited and that excitement bubbled over to families as teachers notified and chatted with them about the event. Although this coming spring, those events may be virtual, the bi-lingual parent guides mailed home inform and excite families.
Throughout the summer, teachers kept track of student progress online and many helped keep reading at the front of everyone’s mind by sending notes home through Remind 101. Some of them even made phone calls. I could really see a difference in the number of books students were completing depending on whether their teacher was making an effort to reach out. I think it was a big piece of how much effort students kept up through the summer.
We really hope and push for families to actively engage with each of their children’s books because we’ve learned over time that family engagement is a key element of student reading achievement. Without that support, they just don’t progress as much, and reading is the foundation for everything else.
Allowing students to choose what books they read is the other key factor in their engagement. It gives them ownership of their learning and ensures they have books they’re interested in. This initiative was for students in grades K-3, and children that young don’t have control of very many things, so getting to make a choice is a big deal for them.
We have a free and reduced lunch rate of approximately 55 percent. Many of our students may not have any books in their homes, let alone titles they’re excited about, so our teachers were eager to help guide their choices. They sat down and talked through their choices from the Book Wish List with Lexile and AR levels noted, and made alternate suggestions if they thought something was so far above a student’s level it might frustrate them. But if a kid really wanted a book, they got that book. Just chatting through their choices with their teachers got them excited before they even had their first books!
Provide books for all reading levels
It’s important to make sure there are choices for students of all reading abilities. Again, this needs to be balanced with student choice. Our teachers wanted to ensure that there were several books at just the right level to avoid that frustration and allow students to enjoy some success.
Having nine books to put on the list was a huge help in achieving that balance. Our teachers were able to make sure that, no matter a child’s level, there were several on their wish list in an appropriate range while allowing them to choose others that may have been more challenging or a little easier but much loved.
Sometimes when we make kids read only those things that are at their level or within their Lexile range, we can beat the love of reading out of them if we’re not careful. So, we really tried to take an approach that allowed them to get a bit of everything if that’s what they wanted.
Offer choices in technology
These days, even a summer reading program is likely to have a technological component. In ours, technology comes into play when families report that their children have completed a title.
Some of our parents couldn’t do that through a computer because they don’t have internet access at home. To ensure everyone could participate, it was important that they be able to report books through their phones or a text message. Without that, we simply wouldn’t have been able to ensure equitable access for all our students.
Our parent-teacher organization also got involved in a pretty effective way. The PTO president connected with students and made a video together where the student talked about one of their books. They posted the videos to the Facebook page regularly throughout the summer and encouraged families to post pictures of their students with their own books.
Just about everyone is on social media these days, and putting those posts in their feeds was a powerful way of keeping summer reading in the fronts of family members’ minds. It was just a consistent reminder to keep reading throughout the summer.
Reading camps and summer intervention programs are great, but a summer reading program that reaches all students has the potential to become a community-building event. And the best part is hundreds of kids with their very own books at home.
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