UT Researchers Demonstrate Test Scores Soar With the Summer Reading Book Fair

By Dr. Richard L. Allington and Dr. Anne McGill-Franzen, professors at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, TN

For students embarking on summer break, the word “slide” brings to mind hours of fun on a playground or at a water park. The “summer slide” that teachers have come to know has a less sunny side, referring instead to students’ loss in reading achievement after taking a summer vacation from reading.

However, our recently completed three-year study gives hope for avoiding the summer slide as reading achievement increases significantly when students receive books for summer reading at home.

Our research shows that access to books is the key to reversing the summer slide. Students with access to books and other reading material over the summer have a significantly higher level of reading achievement than those without access. In fact, students in our study continued to reap the benefits of summertime reading throughout the following school year, when they showed a 35 to 40 percent grade-level increase in reading achievement in the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT).

Previous research has shown that children who do not read in the summer lose two to three months of reading development a year, while students who do read gain a month of reading proficiency. The result is a three- to four-month gap every year, which will snowball into a 1 1/2-year gap between the time children complete kindergarten and the time they finish fifth grade.

Three differences distinguish our intervention from previous research. First, our experiment spanned three years as opposed to one year. We extended the study period in light of previous research, which showed that a single summer school session did not significantly improve reading achievement.

Second, we integrated student choice, whereas previous studies had given students predetermined books. Research has demonstrated that choice increases motivation to read and reading achievement. Students in our study attended a spring Book Fair, where they were offered hundreds of titles, including multicultural and school-related books. Children received their 12 free titles on the last day of school. Pop-culture books – those featuring musicians, athletes, and television and movie characters – proved to be universal favorites.

The third difference was in grade levels. Our study focused on first- and second-grade students vs. the third- through sixth-grade students used in previous studies. Eight hundred fifty-two children received books, and 478 students comprised the control group.

We found that summer reading is at least as effective as summer school, and when comparing the costs and outcomes of our summer reading plan against those of traditional summer school, we found our intervention was significantly less expensive. Spending roughly $40 to $50 a year on free books for each child began to close the achievement gap that occurs in the summer, reversing the summer slide.

How to avoid turning off the faucet on learning

Education is often characterized as a faucet. When school is in session, the faucet is on. Similarly, when school is not in session, the faucet is turned off. Here are a few tips that will help you keep the faucet on throughout the year:

  • Reconsider your school’s summer reading list, and include popular new titles.
  • Host an end-of-the-year Book Fair at your school to provide access to affordable books – or free books if possible – where students can choose what they want to read.
  • Keep school libraries open over the summer, and develop a plan that will encourage students to visit your library over summer break.
  • Offer books that build upon children’s prior knowledge.
  • Stock a variety of pop-culture titles.
  • Provide an array of books in all genres, including nonfiction. Student favorites include local animals and habitats.
  • Introduce available online resources for students to track their reading minutes and discover new book titles from peers.

Dr. Richard L. Allington, an instructional researcher and teacher educator, is a professor of education at the University of Tennessee and former elementary school teacher. His latest title is What Really Matters in Response to Intervention, published in 2012. His colleague, Dr. Anne McGill-Franzen, is a professor and director at the UT Reading Center and former classroom teacher. She is the author of Kindergarten Literacy, published in 2005. Together they edited the Handbook of Reading Disability Research, published in 2010. Read more about the latest research on the link between Book Fairs and literacy among low-income students at http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/08/02/summer-must-read-for-kids-any-book/.
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