“Summertime, and the livin’ is easy.” When George Gershwin composed that song, he couldn’t have been thinking of our nation’s public libraries. For those of us who work in children’s departments, summer is the prime season for reading programs and the livin’ is anything but easy. In fact, more kids partake in public library summer reading programs than play Little League baseball. But unlike a ball game in which the final outcome is black and white, many questions persist about the value of summer reading programs. For instance, do they really improve kids’ reading skills and increase their desire to read? Do they lead to higher student achievement? Can they narrow the achievement gap between well-off and poor kids?
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Based on the findings of a recent three-year study by Dominican University’s Graduate School of Library and Information Studies, we can confirm what many librarians have long suspected: students who take part in their local library’s summer reading program significantly improve their reading skills. In fact, we found that kids who participate in these programs are 52 Lexile points ahead of their peers who do not. Summer reading programs are also an antidote for learning loss. So instead of losing knowledge and skills during the summer months, kids who attend reading programs actually show gains.
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This good news couldn’t have come at a better time. Although summer reading programs began more than a century ago and more than 95 percent of public libraries now offer them, people are challenging their value more than ever. In today’s tough economy, many library funders want proof that their tax dollars are being spent wisely. And in some cases, it’s not enough for libraries to measure the effectiveness of these labor-intensive programs solely based on surveys. Now, many library governing boards want to see the results of rigorous quantitative research.
Librarians have typically turned to Barbara Heyns’s 1978 landmark study to back up the benefits of summer reading. More than 30 years ago, Heyns, a New York University sociology professor, spent two years following nearly 3,000 sixth and seventh graders in Atlanta’s public schools. She found that children who read at least six books during the summer maintained or improved their reading skills, while kids who didn’t read any saw their skills slip by as much as an entire grade level. Heyns concluded that the single activity most strongly and consistently tied to summer reading programs was reading—no big surprise there. But she also discovered that summer reading—whether measured by the number of books read, the time spent reading, or even by how often kids used the library—systematically increased students’ vocabulary test scores, and that socioeconomic status had little impact on reading achievement over the summer.
Since then, there have been other notable studies that have examined the effects of summer reading. For example, in the 1982 “Beginning School Study,” researchers Karl Alexander and Doris Entwisle of the Johns Hopkins Center for Summer Learning (now the National Center for Summer Learning) found that by the end of fifth grade, students who didn’t read during the summer lagged two years behind their book-reading peers and that summer learning loss accounted for most of the achievement gap between students who lived in poverty and those whose families were better off. And in a 2001 report, “The Role of Public Libraries in Children’s Literacy Development,” the University of Michigan’s Susan Neuman and Temple University’s Donna Celano noted that “for every one line of print read by low-income children, middle-income children read three”—and the disparity between these two groups was greatest during the summer.
Given all of these factors, we were eager to test the theory that summer reading programs boost student achievement. We conducted our research from 2006 to 2009 with a $290,224 National Leadership Grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services. We teamed up with the Center for Summer Learning at Johns Hopkins University, especially at the beginning of the study, and the State Library of Colorado and the Texas State Library and Archives Commission. While other studies have explored summer reading programs from the perspective of schools or have focused on the efforts of individual library systems, ours is the first national study to tackle the topic from the perspective of public libraries.
About the study
We targeted students who were completing third grade. Why focus on this group? Because between the end of third grade and the beginning of fourth, students are especially susceptible to summer learning loss. Plus, at the end of third grade, many students are required to take state-administered standardized tests. If their scores aren’t up to snuff, they’re often given two choices: repeat their present grade or attend summer school and retake the tests. In addition, more than two-thirds of fourth graders fail to meet the “proficient” standard on the National Assessment of Educational Progress—our nation’s education report card. And among fourth graders enrolled in schools in high-poverty areas, the results are dramatically worse: more than 85 percent fail to reach the proficiency level. Another key reason our study homed in on third graders is that by the time students reach fourth grade, they’re expected to have made the transition from “learning to read” to “reading to learn.” In other words, it’s a critical stage in reading development, and we wanted to explore the role that public library summer reading programs might play in helping students become successful readers in school and beyond. Would these kids actually begin the new school year maintaining or gaining in reading achievement?
To answer that question and others, we followed students from 11 schools in eight states, including Virginia, Ohio, Mississippi, Kentucky, Illinois, Minnesota, Colorado, and Oregon. To be eligible for the study, each school was required to work with a local public library that offered a summer reading program for a minimum of six weeks. We focused on schools in which more than 50 percent of students received free or reduced meals and at least 85 percent were able to take the reading proficiency test in English. Ultimately, our study included schools in both large and small communities, as well as in rural, urban, and suburban areas, and we paid particular attention to students from low-income families. (For a complete list of participating schools and public libraries, as well as additional information on other aspects of the study, visit www.dom.edu/academics/gslis/downloads/DOM_IMLS_book_2010_FINAL_web.pdf.)
To determine students’ reading levels, we used the Scholastic Reading Inventory (SRI) Enterprise Edition, a computer-based assessment tool, and we surveyed students, parents, school and public librarians and teachers both before and after the summer reading programs.
What we discovered
As hoped, our findings showed that third-grade students who participated in summer reading programs scored higher on reading tests at the beginning of fourth grade and didn’t experience summer learning loss. They also scored higher on the post-tests than students who did not participate. Although students who didn’t participate in summer reading programs made gains, they didn’t reach the level of students who did participate.
Looking more closely at the test results, students who participated in summer reading programs increased their scores by 4 Lexile points on the Scholastic Reading Inventory, while students who didn’t participate increased their scores by 15 points. Family trips and other influences that we couldn’t measure may account for some of the latter group’s gains. However, even at the end of the summer, students who participated in summer reading programs were still 52 Lexile points ahead of their peers who didn’t take part. Examining the student reading outcome results, we found that those who participated in their local public library summer reading program left school reading at a significantly higher level in spring 2008. When students returned to school in the fall, those who participated in the library program were still reading at a higher level but the difference was no longer statistically significant when compared to students who did not participate. Although the fall 2008 results didn’t meet the statistically accepted level of significance, as a descriptive and expletory study a significance level approaching .10 was encouraging.
Through surveys, we further found that teachers believed that students who participated in summer reading programs entered the following school year with a positive attitude about reading, were more confident in the classroom, read beyond what was required, and perceived reading as important. Fourth-grade teachers also observed that these students started the school year ready to learn, had improved reading achievement, appeared to have increased reading enjoyment, and were more motivated to read than their peers who didn’t take part in such a program.
Parents also noticed a difference. They observed that their kids read more than those who didn’t participate in summer reading programs, and they were better prepared when they entered school in the fall. What about kids who didn’t attend a summer reading program? There wasn’t a single parent who “strongly agreed” that their child was better prepared to begin the new school year. We also uncovered other interesting differences between these two groups of parents. Parents of summer reading program participants used the library more often, had more books at home, and offered more literary activities at home (such as reading with their children, visiting the library frequently, and providing Internet access) than parents whose kids didn’t sit in on summer reading programs.
We also found that more girls participated in the summer reading program than boys (53 percent compared to 45 percent), most of the participants were Caucasian (49 percent), and 61 percent of the participants qualified for free or reduced school meals.
A call to action
Research for purely academic reasons can be a theoretical exercise. But unless the information gained from such studies is turned into action, it does little to advance our everyday practices. That’s why we’re urging library staff, administrators, educators, and others to use these findings to transform attitudes about public library summer reading programs.
Our research and findings from other studies have shaped our call for action. Summer learning loss is more pronounced in children from families and communities that have a lower socioeconomic status. And access to books is lacking in those same communities. Public library summer reading programs help level the playing field.
Since one of the primary reasons for offering summer reading programs is to benefit children’s education, and therefore communities as a whole, library staffers need to team up with teachers and school librarians to identify nonreaders and under-performing students, reach out to them, and draw them into the library. These partnerships will get easier once the education community understands that public libraries can play a significant role in closing the achievement gap by helping children maintain and gain reading skills.
We also encourage library staff members to reach out to parents, grandparents, and other caregivers, since they’re the ones with the most influence over what a child does outside of school. Librarians shouldn’t ignore the impact that positive family values have on the children they wish to serve.
We also need to stress the social aspects of summer reading clubs. Peer interactions during library activities and reading discussions have a positive impact on students and leave them with the notion that reading and libraries are valuable.
Most children and teens receive support from at least one nonparent adult, so why can’t that person be a librarian? Librarians can easily nurture a child’s love of reading and lifelong learning. This is a role you should be prepared to assume.
Our research and that of others cited in our final report shows a disparity between reading and library use when it comes to affluent and poor kids. So public libraries need to provide more books and reading materials to children in depressed neighborhoods than to their more advantaged peers who have better funded and stocked libraries and more books at home.
Our research also found that more girls than boys took part in the summer reading programs and the participants were primarily Caucasian. So public libraries need to create more programs that attract boys and minorities. This includes programs that are more active and less passive, such as gaming programs and craft programs that encourage creativity, and by adding computer games, magazines, and graphic novels—all things that often attract boys to reading and the library. To reach tech-savvy kids, regardless of gender, libraries need to change how they collect data. We need to move from traditional reading logs to online logs. And we need to acknowledge the diversity within local communities and the multicultural nature of our nation as a whole.
Last, but by no means least, more money should be invested in summer reading programs—especially in public libraries that serve children and families in poor or depressed areas. And we need to make certain that all children have access to books, not only in the library but at home. It takes some work, but public librarians can partner with other nonprofit organizations, such as First Book and Reading Is Fundamental, to give books to disadvantaged children so that they can own books and build home libraries.
While June, July, and August may be the “lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer,” we hope that by implementing these recommendations in your libraries, “You’ll wish that summer could always be here.”
Carole Fiore (Carole@Fiore-tlc.biz), the author of Fiore’s Summer Library Reading Program Handbook (Neal-Schuman, 2005), was project manager for the Dominican study. Susan Roman (firstname.lastname@example.org), dean of Dominican University’s Graduate School of Library and Information Science, was the study’s project administrator and principal investigator.
Participants in the summer reading program were self-selected; i.e., we didn’t assign students to a “treatment” or “control” group. Children, both those who participated and those who did not, self-reported through surveys at the beginning of the fourth grade, providing attitudinal information. Children who didn’t participate in the summer reading program may have engaged in other summer learning activities of which we are not aware. There was a formal agreement between the libraries and schools, and the public libraries had full control over summer programs. While the study began with 11 sites and an anticipated 500 students who would participate in the study, only 367 signed parental consent forms were returned. The final number of subjects who participated in the study was reduced to 219 when students failed to complete all elements of participation. Even with this diminished population, the final number of participants allowed us to draw inferences and to use descriptive statistics in the study.