Reading: the #1 Summer Assignment Worth Assigning

Research Says "Get Students to the Public Library!"

Reading improves academic achievement; choice increases reading engagement. GETTY Images

There are a number of reasons that researchers offer to teachers in order to encourage summer reading. The website SummerLearning.org outlines some of the research to support reading as a summer assignment:

  • Reading over the summer has the potential to prevent a decline in reading achievement scores from the spring to the fall, even the small step of reading one book can be beneficial;
  • Adolescents tend to read more when the adults in their lives encourage them to read, and also when they see those adults reading often themselves;
  • Adolescents who are already readers will read more often;
  • Preventing summer slide is most effective when community organizations—including schools, public libraries, community centers, parent groups, social service agencies, and others—work together to encourage kids to read, make reading fun, and to reach families about the importance of reading over the summer.

Reading Counters the "Summer Slide"

Research has demonstrated that summer vacation cannot be an “academic-free zone”. Education experts Thomas White (University of Virginia) and James Kim, Helen Chen Kingston, and Lisa Foster (Harvard Graduate School of Education) collaborated on reading research in elementary schools and published the results for Reading Research Quarterly stating, 

“On average, summer vacation creates a three-month gap in reading achievement between students from low- and middle-income families....even small differences in summer learning can accumulate across the elementary years, resulting in a large achievement gap by the time students enter high school.” 

Their findings determined that reading was the solution for eliminating the "summer slide". Most importantly, they noted that the loss of academic skills during the summer slide was cumulative: 

  • Summer learning loss accounts for two-thirds of the 9th grade achievement gap in reading between students from low-income households and their higher-income peers.
  • Students from low-income households with access to books over the summer see significantly more gains in reading scores from spring to fall than students from high-income households with access to books and those from low-income households without access to books.
  • Differences in children’s summer learning experiences during their elementary school years can ultimately impact whether they earn a high school diploma and continue to college.

The Role of the Public Library

What is one way  to get books into the hands of students?

In her definitive and classic study, "Summer Learning and the Effects of Schooling" (Academic Press, 1978), Barbara Heyns followed middle school students in the Atlanta public schools through two school years and the intervening summer. Among the findings of her research:

  • The number of books read during the summer is consistently related to academic gains.
  • Students in every income group who read six or more books over the summer gained more in reading achievement than children who did not.
  • The use of the public library during the summer is more predictive of vocabulary gains than attending summer school is.

Heyns determined that the major factors determining whether a child read over that summer were: 

  •  whether the student used the public library;
  •  the student's sex (girls read more than boys but also watched more TV);
  • socioeconomic status; and
  •  the distance from home to a library. 

Her conclusion was that,

"More than any other public institution, including the schools, the public library contributed to the intellectual growth of children during the summer. Moreover, unlike summer school programs, the library was used by over half the sample and attracted children from diverse backgrounds" (77). 

Reading for the Summer Assignment

In their 1998 article What Reading Does for the Mind, Anne E. Cunningham and Keith E. Stanovich conclude that reading is the single most important activity that should be on the minds of every teacher just before school dismisses for summer vacation: 

"…we should provide all children, regardless of their achievement levels, with as many reading experiences as possible. Indeed, this becomes doubly imperative for precisely those children whose verbal abilities are most in need of bolstering, for it is the very act of reading that can build these capabilities…we often despair of changing our students’ abilities, but there is one partially malleable habit that will itself develop abilities – reading! -- "(Cunningham & Stanovich)

This summer, teachers at every grade level should provide those experiences to build the reading habit. Find ways to get books into the hands of students and allow students to have a choice in reading!