February 23, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Summer Reading and the Rich/Poor Achievement Gap | An Educator Responds to Questions

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.


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Daryl Grabarek About Daryl Grabarek

Daryl Grabarek dgrabarek@mediasourceinc.com is the editor of School Library Journal's monthly enewsletter, Curriculum Connections, and its online column Touch and Go. Before coming to SLJ, she held librarian positions in private, school, public, and college libraries. Her dream is to manage a collection on a remote island in the South Pacific.



  1. I too am a school librarian who jumps for joy when students ask if they can “take the whole series” because I know that what I am doing makes an impact. I am also in a very diverse school. I cannot, for the sake of one group of students, give away all the books for the sake of another. In addition, my book budget has declined steadily over the last 5 years and a “mere 10%” loss could clean me out in short order. I have never refused a child a book because there was a “limit” or stood in the way of ANY child who needed a book (including paying for some out of my own pocket). Educators know about low income students and the challenges they face every day–not just in the summer. Most of our schools are open in the summer, but I have worked in schools where I opened the library over the summer when the buildings were closed. Don’t talk to me about caring more about books than kids. There is a REAL difference between a LIBRARY and book distribution projects (projects which I have helped to create). I do not intend to “get over” teaching students about self-discipline and study skills and good work habits–also a part of our job description. Returning something that you borrowed that does not “belong” to any one person but to a larger group is like keeping a promise. The promise I made to all my students many years ago is that I would teach them everything I could about school, about life and about being a responsible human being. Not asking for forgiveness either.

  2. I feel that this article really ignores the public libraries, which typically do not close in the summer and have summer reading programs to encourage reading even when the school libraries are closed.

    • Nancy L. Erickson says:

      Here’s a quote to address public libraries as solutions: “…poor children may lack transportation. Research shows that public library use among poor children drops off when a library is more than six blocks from their home, compared with more than two miles for middle-class children…poor kids often aren’t allowed on the streets by themselves because it’s considered too dangerous.” This is from….Anne McGill-Franzen and Richard Allington on the Scholastic.com web site.

  3. Celia L. Bouffidis says:

    Some districts allot funds to give 1-2 books to their students to promote summer reading. Other districts will say they have no money for that. I am in a district that has schools sharing librarians, and where the library budget no longer exists. A few of our school librarians have not been able to purchase new books in the past few years. Richard Allington seems to be out of touch with life in urban public schools.

  4. Howard Abraham says:

    I rarely buy books for my daughter. It’s a delicate balance between choosing books that will challenge and entertain her as her skills improve noticeably on a monthly basis. We make a weekly trip to the public library to borrow books. She reads to me every night and then I read stories slightly above her level back to her so she hears new words in context and experiences stories with greater depth and more developed characters. We follow the same pattern whether school is in session or not. Bedtime stories have been our part of our routine since she was weened off the bottle on her first birthday. I don’t think access to book stores or income matters when we have such a fantastic resource available to all citizens at the public library. I will admit, however, that limited weekend hours does make it difficult to schedule a trip sometimes. We make it a priority.

  5. Lori Littlefield says:

    I am a district librarian for a small, rural Maine school system. In our high school, where I am located, I encourage students to borrow up to five books for the summer. I rarely “lose” books…and while I agree that the public library is a valuable resource, it is often not reachable by many of our younger population who’s parents control their movements. We have NO public transportation system, limited hours, and none of the five town libraries are consistent in offerings of books, materials, hours, or approach in dealing with kids. So, I took it upon myself to try and make a difference: http://tinyurl.com/ln2hkmv – is the result. This school year will show, hopefully, the continued excitement I saw on the faces of children racing to line up and select “free” books this summer, because I drove to around to them (parks, beach, playground, schools). It was an incredible learning experience, and while I may not agree with all elements of the article – I do see a huge gap that our children face each start of the school year. Closing that gap is important; helping kids to love reading is my priority.

  6. Cindy Brewer says:

    I am part of a church group that has taken books to children in eastern Kentucky for the past 10 years. Each child gets to pick and keep about 15 books and for almost all, these are the only books they own. They get so excited on book choosing day and immediately begin to read. There is one public library in the county but few children have any way to get to the library. They are afraid to check out books from the school library since they have no way to pay for a lost title — a real possibility considering the fact that these children often stay in different places on a regular basis. We have found that taking these books to the children is the real key to getting them in their hands.

  7. Nancy L. Erickson says:

    I agree with comments to the authors that they are too hard on librarians. I work in an urban district and have no book budget whatsoever–except from my own wallet. If I lost 10% of my school’s library books a year, within 5 years my collection would be cut in half. Also, the most popular books would disappear first. This serves no one well.

    Although the authors make some good points, they are committing the fundamental attribution error. The real fault lies in lack of funding for libraries.

    Solution: Here’s a solution I’m working on: keeping my district’s libraries open during at least 6 weeks of the summer. For summer reading to be effective, students need to choose books they really want to reading. That is the only way to provide AUTHENTIC self-selection of books for them. I’m willing to volunteer for an adjusted work schedule so that I can keep libraries open during the summer for book check out other literacy activities children would love. Librarians and libraries can prove themselves to be indispensable when they help close the achievement gap. Almost all schools have such a gap.