How to eliminate the summer slide

A researcher shares his insights into building a successful supplemental reading program and avoiding the summer slide

More than 100 years of research have documented the summer reading slide, the loss of skills that students experience from the end of one school year to the beginning of the next. Like musicians or athletes, if students don’t practice, they tend to lose their skills. Over the three months or so of summer, many kids experience decay in their academic abilities, especially when they don’t have opportunities to read.

Research has also suggested that the summer slide is particularly harmful to students from low-income backgrounds. Because they tend to have limited access to quality reading materials, quality libraries, and other resources that would help them sustain their literacy skills, low-income students lose about two months’ worth of grade level equivalency in reading skills over the summer. Middle-class kids, meanwhile, tend to pretty much hold constant over the summer.

Related content: How we reinvented our district’s reading program

In addition, research has shown that these summer learning deficits that low-income children experience accumulate year after year. As they go through school, their achievement scores fall farther and farther behind the scores of their more economically-advantaged peers. In fact, these authors found that by the beginning of high school, about two-thirds of that income-based achievement gap was explained by the summer learning differences.

Policymakers and educators across the country have used two types of programs to address the summer slide. School-based programs are delivered by teachers, college students, or other trained tutors in school-based settings. More recently, there’s been a growth in home-based programs that are directed by parents and family members. Potentially effective programs can combine elements of both.

One such program is the nonprofit Kids Read Now. A study I led in 2018 found that when students and families took advantage of the full complement of nine books that Kids Read Now offers at no cost to families, students had a gain of 2.5 months of learning, more than eradicating the typical summer slide. For schools and districts looking to implement a supplemental summer reading program, here are some keys to success that my research identified.

Student choice in reading options

Students are most likely to be really interested in reading if they’re choosing material that’s exciting to them. If there’s a child who is really interested in sports, having the opportunity to select books that address that theme is going to encourage greater reading over the summer months.

Teachers can be helpful in the decision-making process, especially in terms of trying to suggest books that not only meet kids’ specific interests but also target their ability level so they will be relaxed readers and want to read more.

Family involvement and encouragement

Having parents encourage reading at home is important to sustaining kids’ engagement in learning and literacy. To make sure parents have a clear understanding of their role in a summer reading program, it helps to have an in-person kick-off event where they receive written guidelines and have a chance to ask questions.

Involved parents will monitor their kids’ reading activities over the summer months to keep them making progress and to confirm that they’re understanding what they read. Effective components to support this process include discovery sheet questions that parents can discuss with their children to improve their reading comprehension. Schools can support parents by checking in regularly. Calling, texting, or emailing every parent each week helps keep them involved in their student’s reading progress.

Celebrating short-term and long-term successes

Having parents work with their kids is a definite positive, but tangible rewards help, too. With Kids Read Now, for example, every time a student completes a book, their parents can request a new book. Students who complete the recommended nine books over the summer get a prize and a certificate of recognition once they return to school in the fall and schools are encouraged to have a fall celebration to acknowledge families’ participation.

These components, when implemented together and with fidelity, can not only eliminate summer reading losses in students but close the achievement gap between students from low-income backgrounds and their peers.

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