February 24, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

How to Create a Knockout Summer Literacy Program

Illustration by John S. Dykes

Illustration by John S. Dykes

Over the summer, librarian Lindsey Tomsu lets teenagers at the La Vista (NE) Public Library play hide and seek in the stacks, run movie marathons from 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m., and put on henna tattoos. The result: the number of kids signing up for summer reading at the library jumped from 78 in 2009 to 1,530 last year. Tomsu has about 60 offerings for teens during her 10-week summer program. The most popular—temporary tattoos—drew 72 attendees.

“The secret to the success is having them plan everything,” says Tomsu, whose teens brainstorm summer event ideas year-round. “We don’t take a break.”

Tomsu is one of a growing number of librarians developing strategies to get kids reading when school’s out to tackle the “summer slide”—the documented decrease in kids’ reading proficiency in June, July, and August. Many librarians are combining similarly inventive activities with statistic- and research-based initiatives that track summer reading outcomes. They’re aiming to redress a serious problem: the achievement gap that especially hurts lower-income kids, who typically lose two months of reading proficiency per summer, according to research.

That summer slide also accounts for about 80 percent of the reading gap between kids from low- and middle-income families—three years by the end of eighth grade, according to University of Tennessee researchers Richard Allington and Anne McGill-Franzen. In part, the reason for this is lower-income kids’ limited access to books—in their homes, libraries, or bookstores—during the summer, the scholars have found. By the end of high school, the gap is typically four years.

Summer slide affects the littlest bibliophiles as well. “Young children enter kindergarten very excited about learning to read,” says Linda B. Gambrell, professor of education at Clemson University, coeditor of Reading Research Quarterly, and past president of the International Reading Association. “[Their motivation] drops over the summer, so when they go back in September, they’re not quite as excited.”

In terms of projects, many librarians build on the 27-year-old Collaborative Summer Library Program (CSLP), a nationwide consortium of public libraries. Its themes—this year’s is science—are “starter ideas,” says Jasmine Rockwell, CSLP president and children’s and youth services coordinator for the South Dakota State Library.

Increasingly, initiatives are also informed by research showing the counterproductive role of non-literary prizes for summer reading achievement, such as toys. It’s also key to provide materials that kids like, not what librarians think is worthy.
Successful programs also involve early planning, bringing reading materials to kids where they are, free lunch programs, and collaborating with schools and community organizations.

Closing the gap by reading for engagement

Harvard’s federally funded, five-year READS for Summer Learning initiative (the acronym stands for “Reading Enhances Achievement During Summer”) is exploring reading outcomes when low-income kids are mailed books matched to their individual interests and abilities. This summer, in its fourth year, more than 6,000 third and fourth graders in 59 schools are participating. READS is working with seven school districts in the Raleigh-Durham (NC) area. The 500 or so titles include Newbery and Caldecott winners and popular books such as those in the “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” (Abrams) and “Junie B. Jones” (Random) series. “We do believe that one way to engage kids is to help them build their personal library of books at home,” says Helen Chen Kingston, research associate for summer learning at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Participating students take a pretest in the spring, the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, and fill out a reading preference survey; a posttest follows in the fall.

Children are drawn to series, biographies of celebrities, and funny stories, says Allington, who is a professor of education at the University of Tennessee. “When it comes to trying to create kids who actually read books, everybody wants to give them Silas Marner and Moby-Dick,” he says—things that don’t interest them.

To give kids the books they want to read, the Columbus (OH) Metropolitan Library (CML) last year started a “friendly faces initiative” to buy and display kid-popular titles. “They see ‘Dora the Explorer;’ they see ‘Power Rangers’ books,” says Kathy Shahbodaghi, public services director for CML. “Are Barbie books typically very well written? No. But do those serve as an entry point?” Yes, she ascertains.

“We want reading to be something that students will choose to do rather than suffer through,” shares Melanie Hundley, assistant professor in the department of teaching and learning at Vanderbilt University. “When a book goes viral, we know our summer reading program worked.”
It’s also critical that these hot titles stay available, adds Allington. “If the wait takes all summer, you might have just lost a potential reader.” Ebooks can help. “What I think e-reading has done is it has really helped to take away the answer, ‘I’m sorry, but we just don’t have that book in,’” says Gail Dickinson, associate dean for graduate students and research at Old Dominion University and president of the American Association of School Librarians.

At the teen level, movie nights are an appealing draw. “You’re building comfort with the library,” Gambrell says. Advertise a showing of a “Hunger Games” movie by saying you’re going to give away five copies of the book, she suggests.

Partnerships that work

Successful programs recruit kids months ahead by reaching into classrooms, hospitals, and malls, and working with organizations such as museums and zoos. “Collaborations take a little more time, but in the long run, you’re going to reach more kids,” says Grace Worcester Greene, youth services consultant for the Vermont Department of Libraries.
The Chicago Public Library (CPL) last summer ran Full STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math) Ahead: Summer Learning Challenge, with programming partners such as the Museum of Science and Industry and the Brookfield and Lincoln Park zoos. While the kids still logged 300 minutes of reading, “they told us they liked making stuff and doing stuff,” says Elizabeth McChesney, director of childrens services at CPL.
During the school year, Queens (NY) librarians visit classrooms and send library card applications home through the schools to parents, says Vikki Terrile, director of community libraries for the Queens Library.
The Multnomah County Library (MCL) in Portland, OR, reaches 110,000 babies, kids, and teens—about 74 percent of the county’s under-18 population—during the summer. Getting summer-reading supplies into classrooms early “relieves some pressure from our public locations, since many kids start the summer with their game board in hand rather than flooding the library on the first day of summer to sign up,” says Katie O’Dell, MCL youth services director. As of last year, every student enrolled in the Kansas City, MO, public schools gets a public library card automatically. The Kansas City Public Library also keeps its mobile Books to Go and Stories to Go outreach programs, as well as its Books to Give initiative—providing free paperbacks—going year-round, not just when school’s out, says Crystal Faris, director of youth and family engagement.

Collaborating with school libraries

While schools and public libraries “serve the same students,” notes Dickinson, “we need to talk more” about creating collaborative initiatives that might mean keeping school libraries open in summertime. (See “In Idaho, School’s Open for Summer” by Lauren Barack, p. 34.) However, the biggest challenge to these alliances is time to plan, Dickinson says. “If you talk to any school librarian and any public librarian about, ‘What is your barrier? Why haven’t you developed a joint program with the other person down the street?’ their answer would be ‘Let me put that on my list to do.’ It’s not a lack of desire.”
Money is also an issue. “School libraries don’t have enough books to share with the public library for the summer, nor do they have the budget to replace anything that might be lost,” says Shari Ellison, youth services department manager at the Mid-Continent Public Library in Independence, MO. Plus, not all teachers or school librarians are on year-round contracts, and “it could be a lot of work on the school library’s part for tracking all those books,” says Rockwell.

Getting books in kids’ hands

Inventive outreach is the way to get books to those kids who can’t make it to the library on their own during the summer. As in other rural areas, “transportation is really a huge issue in rural Vermont,” says Greene, who is committed to bringing reading material books to kids wherever they are. “We have people who just take things out in their cars.”

In Queens, librarians held a storytime at a shopping mall every Monday last summer. Outreach efforts, including those at hospitals, involved bringing library card applications and a laptop so that kids’ cards could be activated on the spot.

Christy Aguirre, branch supervisor for Southgate Library in Sacramento, CA, collects magazines, adds stickers with her library’s name, and drops them at local oil-change stations, doctors’ offices, and “anywhere someone has to sit in the waiting room,” she says. “The whole focus we believe in is if you reach the whole family, you’ve got everybody.”

MCL works with more than 500 childcare and home-care sites to reach the youngest kids in housing projects and poor communities who aren’t library users, are new to the US, or have limited transportation. “We put our resources into taking summer reading out to where kids are,” O’Dell says.

Free lunch during the summer, with literacy

Libraries have also created successful initiatives that are essentially extensions of schools’ lunch programs, with literacy added.

O’Dell is expanding her lunch initiative to a second library this summer, working with Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon. “We saw people we’d never seen before. One family walked a mile every day to get there,” she says.

In Vermont, the organization Hunger-Free Vermont works with about a half dozen libraries. “There’s no checking to make sure the children who come in are qualified,” Greene says. “There’s no stigma.”

Last summer in Queens, 20 of 62 libraries served lunch in partnership with the New York City Department of Education. The kids don’t need to show a library card, but they must eat in the library. “What the librarians in many of the locations do is build a program that bookends the lunch program,” says Terrile. Last summer, Queens volunteers served 33,000 lunches over eight weeks.

The literacy focus doesn’t have to involve books, says Gambrell. “They could have volunteers come in and sit at tables and read short books or even read articles from the newspaper. Someone could sit each day and read the first two or three pages and say, ‘If you want this book, I’ll put it over there.’ ”

Effective prizes for reading achievement

Increasingly, librarians and educators are knocking traditional summer reading prizes. “Rewards, like punishments, can produce only one thing: temporary obedience,” says Alfie Kohn, author of Punished by Rewards (Houghton Mifflin, 1993). “In fact, research has repeatedly shown that the more you reward people for doing something, the more they tend to lose interest in whatever they had to do to get the reward.”

Psychologists distinguish between “intrinsic motivation,” where kids see the reading itself as meaningful, and “extrinsic motivation,” in which the reading is just a means to an end—like a prize, Kohn says.

“If you do want to give a reward, it’s probably better to give one related to the behavior you want to foster,” Gambrell says. “We want children to see books as the prize.… It says, ‘Look, literacy is valued.’ ” Some libraries give deaccessioned books they would otherwise sell. “If we’re spending money on incentives, not on books, it’s counterproductive,” notes Dickinson.

In Champaign, IL, kids “don’t miss the plastic prizes,” says Kristin Hungerford, a children’s librarian at the Champaign Public Library. “Instead, we use our budget to purchase popular book choices for prizes, thanks to the library Friends group.” Readers also get to drop marbles through a long marble maze.

Nearly 3,000 kids from birth to age 18 participated in the summer program and collectively read 2.8 million minutes last summer at Hungerford’s library. The competition prize has always been a brand-new book, though book bags or library card holders are also included.
In Queens, with 69,000 summer reading children and teens last year, one librarian said she would run a mile for every 200 books the kids read. Another said she would kiss a live frog—which she did while dressed as a princess.

In urban areas such as Queens, animal programs are a huge draw. “Many of our kids have never seen farm animals, and many of them don’t have pets,” Terrile says. If someone brings in an alligator and python, then kids check out animal books. CML hires performers every summer, and the “turtle lady,” who spreads about 100 turtles out on big mats on the floor, is the “rock star” hit, says Shahbodaghi—as are the books about turtles that are on display during her visits.

At Mid-Continent, teens write reviews of their summer reading books and earn “library bucks” that they can use to buy books or pay off fines, which, when excessive, cut off a patron’s use of online resources. A Mid-Continent study tracking how reading reverses the summer slide recently showed that average scores of kids who participate in summer literacy programs increased by about 10 percent. (See “Mid-Continent Public Library Proves Summer Reading Program Boosts Achievement”. )

CPL, with 71,616 participants last summer, gives kids electronic badges. “You can design a program that demonstrates the completion of a task or the mastery of a skill,” CPL commissioner Brian Bannon says.

Eliza Dresang, the Beverly Cleary professor for children and youth services at the University of Washington and author of Radical Change: Books for Youth in a Digital Age (H. W. Wilson, 1999) encourages badges as well as “ancillary activities for teenagers—making book trailers, making short videos and putting them on YouTube—that relate to a book they’re reading.”
Tracking results, focusing on outcomes

Like a growing number of libraries, CPL is focusing on time spent reading, not number of books read. CPL’s previous goal was to have kids read 10 chapter books or 25 picture books. The new goal is 300 minutes of reading any type of material. Last year, kids got a raffle ticket for every book read and a chance to win one of 80 Kindle Fires. They were asked to reflect on something they learned rather than write book reviews, McChesney says, and 97 percent wrote at least one reflection.

To keep track of participation and books or minutes read, some library systems buy software by companies such as Evanced Solutions or Counting Opinions, while others rely on free Google Docs or a Wiki and use their limited budgets for books.

“We’re in the age of accountability now,” Dickinson says. However, accountability regarding summer reading outcomes can be controversial, because of libraries’ variable Internet access, and some educators’ reluctance to subject kids to more tests. “I think assessment is a good thing, but it has a time and a place,” says Maria Cahill, an assistant professor in the school of information sciences at the University of Kentucky. “Maybe in summer reading programs, that’s not the time or the place.”

“If [measurable outcome] is all that we are focused on, then a lot of the fun is being taken away,” says Rockwell. “There’s a balance that needs to be struck between fostering that love of independent reading and making sure they have books that challenge them also.”
She and others oppose too much focus on primarily leveled reading during the summer. “If they have to go to a certain section of a library, only read off a certain set of shelves, they’re not allowed to choose what they’re reading,” she says. “Even if it’s a program manual or a guide on how to fix your car engine, it’s still reading,” she says.
The bottom line is fostering interest, all agree. Gambrell recommends letting kids fill a bag with three things: a book to read now, one to read next, and a quick read like a “Guinness Book of Worlds Records” or a magazine. Dickinson advises getting families involved where parents and their young kids or teens read the same book.
Tomsu’s kids have watched archaeology-related movies such as Indiana Jones and created a life-size Candy Land game. “Because we’re teens, we know what other teens usually like,” explains Sarah Kreber, 16, one of Tomsu’s advisers.
“We really are a community hotspot during the summer,” notes Aguirre. “Summer reading is my Christmas.”

Springen_Karen_ContribKaren Springen, who spent 24 years at Newsweek, teaches journalism at Northwestern.

Summer Reading Resources

Capstone Inspirations for young bookworms.

Lerner Vacation picks include series for reluctant readers.

Mackin Summer Reading Packages The distributor offers individualized books and
backpacks for K-8.

Penguin Summer Reading Resources and links include readers’ guides.

Random House Summer Reading Brochure These titles complement the 2014 CSLP
science theme.

Scholastic Summer Reading Challenge This initiative invites kids to set a new summer reading world record.

TeachingBooks.net Materials supporting the CSLP include videos, books, and lesson plans.

This article was published in School Library Journal's March 2014 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

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  1. I’m curious about the opening paragraph. That all sounds like so much fun for teens, but I missed an explanation of how those non-reading, non-narrative, non-text-based activities work to minimize the summer reading slump.

    • Karen springen says:

      These programs get kids to want to visit the library, where they inevitably see books (invitingly displayed!) that they check out to read at home. They also promote summer learning, not just summer reading. Anything that makes the library a cool place to go (think YOUMedia) is a win – win for everyone. Just like its hard to walk into a store and not buy something , it’s hard to walk into a library and not check out a book !

  2. These sound like great suggestions! As a parent and a publisher, my hope is that libraries this summer ensure their children’s digital collections are fully stocked. My kids like to swap back and forth between digital and paper books and its refreshing to see them using their “screen time” to read. But that only works if there are enough picture books, early chapter, and middle grade titles in the digital collection.

  3. Our summer literacy outreach programs brings books to our students in their neighborhoods. Find out more about our Books on Bikes program in Charlottesville, VA.

  4. I’m curious about the research behind this statement: “Increasingly, initiatives are also informed by research showing the counterproductive role of non-literary prizes for summer reading achievement, such as toys.” Can you provide the research study that found this information? I want to share it with our library management, but would prefer to have more information to share.