Not Just the What, but the How…

As schools and districts around the country begin planning their summer reading programs, it’s important to remember that the effectiveness of a well-intentioned program depends largely on the strength of implementation. A solid initiative, built around well-established research principles, can still fall apart if the implementation is flawed. The devil is in the details, and implementation is a key component of ensuring that more students read more over the intervening summer months.

Those details often account for whether a summer reading program fails or succeeds – even one built on a bedrock of solid research. This recent IES Regional Education Laboratory study, for example, was built around the idea of allowing students to self-select texts of interest and around targeting students at their individual Lexile reading level. Given the amount of research on the importance of targeting and self-selection, the authors should be commended for their efforts to build a summer reading program vastly different from the majority of programs that simply allow students to pick from a small menu of non-targeted texts, or worse, assign every student the exact same text.

The guiding question of this specific effort was to discern if a summer reading program can be taken to scale without the burden of parent and teacher involvement. Based on what the authors have shown us with this particular implementation, the answer would appear to be a qualified ‘no’. Or, at least, not when administered in this way.  This specific study found that, while there was a small positive effect, it was not statistically significant.

As the authors acknowledge, this effort suffered from a number of limitations. For starters, students received their books en masse. Rather than being given a few books at a time, students were presented with large stacks all at once, making it possible that students felt overwhelmed and without direction on which step to take next. Secondly, students received their books long after summer had already begun – in July. Receiving a large collection of books relatively late in the summer sacrifices valuable time.  In fact, for many students, the program was a 30-day program – not a summer reading program.  Efforts to determine the effects of targeted and self-selected reading on summer reading loss might fare better if those books are provided near or at the end of the school year. Notably, this particular study lacked a way to determine if the books were actually read. The best medicine may be effective, but without ingestion, it’s unlikely to have any effect. Similarly, a well-targeted collection of books may very well stave off the debilitating effects of summer learning loss, but if the students simply neglect the books, it’s unlikely those texts will have any effect at all. Lastly, it’s worth pointing out that the assessment to determine the effectiveness of the program was administered well into the start of the school year. As the authors point out, any positive effects of this particular program may have well been obscured by additional instruction that may have occurred since the school start date.

 Here are the study’s authors commenting on possible reasons why five other similar studies did find statistically significant effects on student’s reading comprehension levels:

One possible inference to draw from this study, and the more recent work of Kim and colleagues (Kim and Guryan 2010; Kim and White 2008), is that some of the components that Kim and his colleagues added—in particular, personalized teacher encouragement of each student to read the books during the summer and brief, small group lessons on strategies for reading—may be essential components to success.

 As schools wrestle with the most effective summer reading programs, the ones most likely to reduce the impact of summer learning loss, it would pay to be mindful of implementation. And to remember that involving the community and parents is an important part of refining even the most thoughtful summer reading programs.

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