Our school calendar is well suited to the middle and late nineteenth century. Back then, nearly everyone lived on farms. Farmers needed their children to work in the fields during the summer. So schools took the summer off to accommodate them.
Now, of course, most people live in cities or suburbs. Children no longer have to help their parents on the farm. But schools still take the summer off.
Students who don’t read during the summer lose some of their reading ability—the dreaded summer slide. Now, the students may not dread it, but stagnating or declining abilities make the start of school in the fall more difficult than it needs to be.
Why we need summer reading programs
A summer slide has worse consequences for economically disadvantaged students. If they were academically behind their more privileged peers at the end of school, they will be even farther behind if they don’t keep up their reading ability.
In fact, 80% of that achievement gap arises over the summer. Of all summer activities, only reading consistently contributes to learning.
Reading, like anything other skill, tends to deteriorate without constant practice.
Music students need to practice their instruments all the time. Swimmers need to swim all the time. And if football players don’t have to play football all the time, they still need to exercise to stay in shape. All that takes discipline.
So school children need to read every day during the summer.
Schools, libraries and other institutions operate summer reading programs. After all, if students read during the summer, they don’t experience the summer slide. That makes the start of school in the fall easier and more rewarding for students and teachers alike.
They instill the discipline to read. At their best, they help students enjoy reading. At their worst, they can stifle any desire to read for pleasure.
What families can do to encourage reading
- Read something every day—books, magazines, websites, it doesn’t matter just what—at a time and place where the children will see you doing it.
- Read to your younger children and have them read aloud to you. Actually, if you make the habit of reading together as a family, teenagers will not outgrow reading something aloud or listening to someone else read.
- If you go on some kind of outing, say, to a zoo, connect reading to it. Have the children read a book or article about their favorite animal.
- In fact, encourage children to follow their interests and read about them. Reading doesn’t have to mean books. They can read online reviews of products that attract them. They can read instructions for hobbies.
Ideally, children will grow up in a family of readers. They will be surrounded by reading material and regularly see others reading. But many children don’t receive encouragement to read at home.
In fact, many children grow up in “book deserts.” Not only is their own family not in the habit of reading, neither are any of the neighbors’ families.
But in that case, the community can help. It can also organize book donations to give away to children during the summer. Or set up book exchanges where people can pick up free books and donate used ones. And, of course, it can support the public library.
The trouble with too many summer reading programs
In school, a teacher must set a pace that all the students have to follow. That means that some students would like to move at a faster pace, so the teacher has to discourage them from reading ahead. And some students have to learn something before they’re ready.
While many teachers work hard to foster a love of learning—and in particular a love of reading––many others don’t.
Schools, especially high schools, often send summer reading lists home with students. And the students hardly ever really want to read what’s on them.
It’s all stuff someone else decided has literary merit. It’s probably old. And too often, children of color don’t find anyone like themselves in those books.
“Read this. It’s good for you.”
The reading lists often come with assignments to complete. These assignments communicate to children that reading for school matters. And perhaps that reading for pleasure matters less, if at all.
If the students want to read something for the sheer pleasure of reading, the school assignments won’t leave them time to do it.
Reading becomes a job.
How libraries can help
Maybe the librarians give out prizes. But giving out stickers or toys for meeting goals can detract from the pleasure of reading for its own sake.
Instead, libraries can work to reconnect children with their innate desire to learn. Librarians can serve as facilitators in letting children learn about what they care about. After all, there’s something to read about anything they enjoy. Informational reading to be sure, but the library probably also has stories of other children doing any interesting activity.
Reading thus becomes a means to an enjoyable end and not a chore.
Libraries, more than any other institution, are designed to encourage and support this kind of self-directed learning and exploration. And they can encourage children who already love to read to share their enthusiasm with others.
If kids can’t read what they want in the summer, when can they? / Donalyn Miller, School Library Journal. June 17, 2019
Why summer reading pays off year-round / Ben Firke, Home Room (U.S. Department of Education). August 4, 2011
Why your kids should avoid summer reading programs / Kerry McDonald, Foundation for Economic Education. June 22, 2017
Summer reading bug. Some rights reserved by San Jose Library.
Elementary school library. Some rights reserved by bestlibrarian
Girl reading (with green pillows). Some rights reserved by Steven Depolo
Boy reading. Some rights reserved by photogramma1
Girl reading (with pink jacket). Some rights reserved by oddharmonic