A great summer reading program for students is buoyed by focusing on student strengths and maintaining excitement by checking in.

3 keys to successful summer reading (regardless of the languages students speak)

Begin by focusing on student strengths, provide more books than you think they can read, and maintain excitement by checking in throughout the break

Key points:

When I began teaching English as a second language (ESL), I had anywhere from seven to 13 different languages in my classroom because our district was in an area with a lot of recent immigration. It was an entry point for me to begin thinking about what a rich profession teaching is, along with how students develop their early reading skills, especially when they are learning multiple languages at once.

Today, I am the director of Literacy First, a program that the University of Texas launched almost 30 years ago with the mission of teaching students to read in the early grades. Literacy First fulfills its mission by offering a variety of support services, with a particular focus on achieving successful outcomes for growing readers, including one-to-one literacy interventions, teacher and staff training, instructional coaching, data-centered advising, and bilingual and culturally sustaining reading resources and interventions. One of the things I’ve learned a great deal about along the way is how to run an effective summer reading program for emergent bilingual students.

Here are three best practices that are effective regardless of the languages your students speak at home.

1. Encourage students to read at home by embracing their home language.

At Literacy First, we’ve always taught in Spanish. In fact, ours is the only program of its kind in the country that does early reading intervention and Tier II instruction in Spanish. We know from a couple decades of research that when children learn to read in their primary language, they are able to learn to read in additional languages more effectively.

If a teacher works on foundational skills such as phonological awareness, phonemic awareness, decoding, fluency, and comprehension in Spanish with a student who is more comfortable in that language, those skills will transfer, building better English results over time and offering that student all the amazing assets that come with being bilingual.

It’s also important to remember that the majority of emergent bilingual students in the United States are actually simultaneous language learners already. Many of them were born in the U.S., and all of them now live here in this English-oriented country. Most of them aren’t starting from zero, so I suggest a nuanced approach to thinking about the strengths students bring with them. What is their full linguistic repertoire? How can we assess and understand those strengths across languages to teach more effectively? Ultimately, it means understanding that bilingualism is the goal rather than English proficiency alone, and that means there is no hurry to jump to English without instruction in other languages. Students will make progress—even on their ability to read in English—as they develop their home language skills.

Students in Texas schools speak more than 120 languages, with 88 percent coming from a Spanish language background. Beyond formal summer school that teaches multilingual development and encourages families to nurture home languages, access to books in those languages or books that reflect students’ cultural backgrounds (such as those in the Capstone virtual library) can also support their reading development.  

2. Provide a constantly refreshed diet of new books.

When I worked at Austin Independent School District, we really latched onto this study from literacy intervention expert James Kim that found students in grade 6 could beat the summer slide by reading just five books over the summer. Today in Austin, there’s still a campaign telling students and families to “Beat the summer slide, take the 5 book dive,” as they distribute books all over the city. Even that small number of books has a big impact, especially for students who don’t have access to enrichment opportunities.

If you’re looking at younger students, however, they really need more like five books each week, and they need to be voraciously gobbling down those books. They need appropriate reading material at their fingertips in any way possible. Sixth graders need chunky chapter books, but younger kids are going to read books that are sometimes just two or three dozen pages long. I also see with my own younger children that when we get back from the library, only 10 of the 20 books we brought back are actually interesting to them, and sometimes only one is engaging enough to read with a parent and then later on their own. Younger children really need a constantly refreshed diet of new books.

Weekly trips to the library are a great way to give them new books, but not all parents have the time or opportunity to visit the library regularly. Digital libraries are also an excellent solution that doesn’t require anyone to leave the house. My kids’ school district offers PebbleGo, which they love because it has a huge selection of books and articles, and because it provides built-in support, such as word definitions and the ability to switch between English and Spanish.

3. Build in touchpoints to maintain momentum.

It’s important to build excitement about your summer reading program before school is out. No matter how well that goes, however, students’ reading momentum will slow down after the first few weeks of summer. To keep students and their families focused on reading, be sure to have a few touchpoints planned. Mailing out a few more books is a great option, and a book bus that travels around the district can be a fantastic way to bring members of the school community together during the summer. Teachers who have strong relationships—and shared language backgrounds—with their students can be instrumental in encouraging and inspiring them to read over the summer by sending planned messages or convening events. However, teachers’ efforts should be compensated and supplemented by school, district, and community support.  

When I was with Austin ISD, we partnered with a local bookstore that did some promotional work for us and offered discounts to families. We also partnered with the libraries within the district as well as a digital library provider to ensure students had a vast library at their fingertips, no matter where they were. The donations and other help from those partners were really instrumental in making our summer reading programs work.

Finally, many schools wait until spring to plan their summer reading program, but making it a year-round project is the most effective way to make sure your students have as many books as you can get into their hands, give yourself time to build excitement, check in to maintain momentum, and help all of your students avoid the summer slide, no matter what language they speak at home.

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