Schools sending students off on summer vacation and public libraries gearing up to get kids excited about summer reading programs are both in the business of making sure children become fluent, engaged readers. Unfortunately, the results of those efforts aren’t necessarily equal for kids in lower-income situations. Richard L. Allington, co-author of Summer Reading: Closing the Rich/Poor Achievement Gap (Teachers College and International Reading Association, 2013) talks about the reasons for that disparity and offers research-based suggestions for solving the problem, with particular ideas for librarians.
It’s no secret that kids often don’t keep up their reading skills over the summer. Can you comment on the extent of that loss and why it’s especially damaging for kids in low-income neighborhoods and schools?
What we know is that any child who fails to read during the summer break will lose some reading proficiency. We also know that children from low-income families routinely lose two to three months of reading proficiency every summer while middle-class children gain about a month. This creates a three to four month gap every summer. From grade one to nine children from low-income families lose two or more years of reading proficiency, during the summers when school is not in session. According to Alexander and Entwisle this means that more than 80 percent of the rich/poor reading gap accumulates during the summers. They also note that children from low-income families gain as much reading growth during the school year, when schools are open, as middle-class children.
What particular obstacles do low-income students encounter more often?
The basic problem seems to be…access to books. Children from low-income families own fewer books than middle-class children and, according to Neuman and Celano’s research, middle-class kids have 10 places to buy books in neighborhoods for every one place located in a low-income neighborhood. Our work has shown that school libraries differ, classroom libraries differ, and book-lending policies differ in schools attended by low- and middle-income children. In every case, it’s schools attended by low-income children that come up short in terms of creating easy access to books for children.
We completed a longitudinal study of the effects of providing children from low-income families with 12 to 15 self-selected books every summer. The children attended 17 different schools, all schools where at least 85 percent of the students were eligible for free lunches. The children were in grades one and two when we began the study and three years later we compared the reading achievement of children who were randomly selected to receive summer books with those children randomly selected to serve as the control group, and received no books for summer reading.
What we found was that providing self-selected books for summer reading produced as much or more reading growth as attending summer school! For the poorest children the effect of our summer book distribution was twice as large as attending summer school. The Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy has rated our study as reliable and powerful.
We now have the evidence that improving access to books for children from low-income families can have a positive and powerful impact on their reading development. Our evidence suggests that policy makers might reconsider summer school policies, especially for low-income children. Instead of spending a thousand dollars per student to support a summer school program, perhaps support the expenditure of $100 per student to provide kids with books they can and want to read.
Why aren’t current efforts to close the reading achievement gap working?
Current efforts to close the rich/poor reading achievement gap are not working because in most schools that focus is on the wrong target. It now seems true that how much students learn during the school year is not related to which schools they attend. However, schools that enroll many children from low-income families report lower achievement every year when compared to schools enrolling few poor children. But as Alexander and Entwisle pointed out, that lower achievement was already present when the children began school. Children from low-income families start kindergarten about six months behind middle-class students.
Then every year the poor children lose three months reading proficiency during the summer vacation period, basically because they don’t read during the summer. Middle-class children gain a month every summer because they do read during that time. Thus, by third grade, children from low-income families are a full year behind middle-class children; by sixth grade they are two years behind, by ninth grade they are three years behind, and by twelfth grade, children from low-income families are four years behind their middle-class classmates (see NAEP data). All this happens even though poor children gain as much during the school year as middle-class children!
Until schools (and state and federal policy makers) understand that the problem is not located with the school, or the teachers, or the lessons that poor children receive, I doubt we will make much progress in closing the rich/poor reading achievement gap. It seems clear that we could narrow this gap but there appears that little attention ts being paid to the only effective strategy currently available—improving the access children from low-income families have to books they can and want to read.
Can you talk about the importance of text complexity in building reading skills?
As far as “text complexity” is concerned, be cautious. We have a century’s worth of research indicating that if you want to lower reading achievement and reading motivation then you should give students books that are difficult for them to read. I am unsure why text complexity was seen as a solution to the problem of too few students developing reading proficiencies necessary for college success. I am even less sure why most of the improvement called for in the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) asks K-4 teachers, as Hiebert has noted, to produce 80 percent of the improvement. Our fourth graders have improved their reading proficiency over the past two decades while our twelfth graders’ scores have declined. If the CCSS aimed primarily at secondary teachers and targeted the quality of their lessons and the complexity of the texts they use, then I could better understand what the CCSS is supposed to do.
Nothing good will come from making third grade texts even harder than they currently are. Nothing good will come from evaluating text complexity using Lexiles. Nothing good will come from the new computerized testing schemes, except that some vendors will be making a lot more money from their educational products.
Given the importance of making sure that kids continue to read over the summer months, how can schools with restricted budgets implement summer reading programs? Can you describe a program that’s both effective and affordable?
My first question when I am asked about addressing the summer reading problem is this: Does your school ensure that every child has taken at least 10 books out from the school library on the final day of school? There is nothing more problematic, for me, than kids with no books to read and schools with libraries filled with books that no one will read over the summer. So my advice always begins with “Empty out your school library before the final day of school.”
Folks often object, especially school librarians. “We will lose too many books if we allow them to take our books home for the summer.” My response, generally, is “Balderdash!” Schools must stop worrying more about protecting their books from children than worrying about children having such limited access to books. Yes, cleaning out the library will result in some books not being returned. But our experience suggests this is typically less than 10 percent of the books loaned. In my mind that is a small price to pay for the improved reading achievement that is observed when poor kids have books to read over the summer.
School and public librarians are in the business of connecting kids with books. In fact, we tend to be pretty passionate about it. What role do you see us playing in eliminating reading achievement disparity?
My first piece of advice would be to get over the issues of checking books in and out of the library. Get over past due fines for books not returned on your schedule. Get over serving as the protector of the books. Get involved in putting as many of your books in kids hands as possible.
I meet librarians who I love because they feel it is their calling to put books in kids’ hands. To provide books for children’s bedroom libraries. Librarians who rarely check out books but, instead, distribute the books they have to anyone willing to take one. These librarians are my favorite folks.
You’re absolutely right–too many books sit unused over the summer months for all the wrong reasons. But lots of librarians don’t give a hoot about the occasional lost book and jump for joy when a child reads for pleasure. Beyond putting books into kids’ hands, how do we become true collaborators in this important work?
I’m not sure there is any single way to become “true collaborators” in the mission to put books into the hands of children from low-income families. I’ve observed public libraries where there are all kinds of outreach and support for low-income families occurring. But I’ve also observed public libraries where nothing of the sort was happening or even on the agenda. The same is true with school libraries and school librarians.
What I think might be helpful is for every library to identify how books are being loaned to children from low-income families….Not always, not every library but, in general, [I observe that] poor folks don’t use libraries as much as middle-class folks. I’m not sure why.
Maybe ALA needs a special interest group for librarians “who don’t give a hoot about lost books.” Maybe creating such a group could transform libraries into settings where more poor folks would feel comfortable and welcome.
If you could improve how schools and libraries approach summer reading, what would you consider the most important steps to take?
I would say that we must help librarians understand that kids are more important than books. I am sorry if that offends some readers. Sorry, but not asking for forgiveness, because I see tons of books in school and public libraries at the same time that I see hundreds of thousands of children from low-income families with nothing to read.
We can complain that parents of low-income children do not bring their children to the library. Complain that these parents do not take advantage of the many programs the library provides. And so on. Or we can admit that most of our libraries are designed to serve middle-class parents and that is a primary reason that middle-class communities are far more likely to have public libraries than low-income communities, have more children’s books than libraries in low-income neighborhoods, and more likely to be open later and more hours every day.
We can complain, or we can change our approach and work to ensure that we spend most of our time, energy, and money on placing books in the hands of children [that need them]. We know from the work of Melosh that locating and stocking a bookmobile and then visiting low-income communities (in this case trailer parks in rural areas) is a way to distribute books to kids who would likely never get one and at the same time improves their reading achievement.
Librarians should box up many of the books stored in their libraries and take those boxes of books out into the community. Take the books out to give them away and tell folks who take them that you hope they will return them after they have read them. Make it easy for children from low-income communities to put their hands on books they want to read, make it easy to take such a book home.
Alexander, K. L., Entwisle, D. R., & Olson, L. S. (2007). Lasting consequences of the summer learning gap. American Sociological Review, 72(2), 167-180.
Allington, R. L., & McGill-Franzen, A. (2013). Summer reading: Closing the rich/poor reading achievement gap. New York: Teachers College Press.
Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy (2011). Evidence summary for annual book fairs in high-poverty elementary schools. . Washington, DC: Author.
Hiebert, E. H., & Mesmer, H. A. E. (2013). Upping the ante of text complexity in the Common Core State Standards: Examining its potential impact on young readers. Educational Researcher, 42(1), 44-51.
Melosh, G. (2013). Stemming summer reading loss in high-poverty primary grade students during summer vacation break. In R. L. Allington & A. McGill-Franzen (Eds.), Summer reading: Closing the rich/poor reading achievement gap. New York: Teachers College.
Neuman, S., & Celano, D. (2001). Access to print in low-income and middle-income communities. Reading Research Quarterly, 36(1), 8-26.
This article was featured in School Library Journal's Curriculum Connections enewsletter. Subscribe today to have more articles like this delivered every month for free.