It is no secret that our school systems face serious discrepancies in student achievement. But it is not just what goes on during the school year that contributes to this. In fact Dr. Judy Blankenship Cheatham, Vice President of Literary Services at Reading is Fundamental, reports that most of this achievement gap actually takes place in the summer months when a significant proportion of kids are “opportunity poor”. During the Summer Learning Story Ideas Webinar, Dr. Cheatham joined forces with Jessica Lahey, writer for The Atlantic and New York Times and Sarah Pitcock, CEO of National Summer Learning Association (NSLA), to explore summer learning opportunities and ways to combat what has been coined as “summer slide” for students. The webinar provided information and resources on the importance of summer learning, especially now that half of students qualify for free and reduced lunches. This level of poverty is a driving factor behind the lack of access to diverse, interesting, and informational texts during the summer months. The consequence is that students are regressing in literacy skills during the summer, losing up to three months worth of progress. According to Dr. Judy Cheatham the cumulative effect of this summer slide is that students without access to summer reading materials are on average two and a half to three years behind their peers by fifth grade, and four years behind by twelfth grade.
How do we work to address this issue at a time where many students are living in isolated, rural areas or do not have the monetary means to access resourceful books? Fortunately, according to Dr. Cheatham, it does not take extensive lessons and lecturing to overcome this problem. One of her studies found that just an hour of reading with a volunteer twice a week is enough to at least maintain literacy level, and oftentimes even progress. Sarah Pitcock also provided information on several growing summer learning programs. Specifically, school libraries and public housing authorities have recently taken initiative for summer learning, offering low-cost or free programs for kids. Public school libraries across the country are implementing volunteer based programs where, for just $7 a summer, students can access their school libraries twice a week. While public libraries are often a good resource, those in low income places are the first to close for the summer and even if they are open, can be miles away from the students who need it most. Alternatively, keeping school libraries open can help provide more options. Additionally, and even more surprising, is the summer learning initiatives taking place by public housing authorities. An excellent example of this is in Tacoma, WA where they have implemented cost-free learning programs for local students during the summer.
While the aforementioned programs mark progress, two-thirds of children in the United States still aren’t involved in any kind of summer learning. A major contributor to this, outside of cost, is the inability to get informative texts to students at their reading level that also interest them. Malbert Smith, NSLA board member and President of MetaMetrics® , explains in his paper Stop Summer Academic Loss that “The best predictor of summer reading is whether books are in the home. Unfortunately, many students go home to text-free or text-poor zones.” But it is not enough to merely provide children with books, as Dr. James Kim, Harvard University professor, found through more than a decade of research. His study shows that children’s reading abilities can actually grow over the summer when they read high-interest books in their Lexile® range. But, he remarks that we need to make sure students are “finding books at their reading level that really interest them. Young people have to want to read a book and they have to be able to read it.”
Dr. Kim’s findings inspired a tool that helps combat summer slide nationwide – The Lexile “Find a Book”. “Find a Book” actualizes Dr. Kim’s research in a fun, easy-to-use interface for educators, parents and children. With “Find a Book,” you can build targeted reading lists for students based on their Lexile measure. This enables students to find books that are at their reading level, but also lets them choose their own books based off of individual interests. Being able to choose their own books significantly increases the rate at which students finish them and can ultimately work to overcome summer academic loss.
MetaMetrics® also provides other free resources for educators, parents, and students to access year round and has their own initiative: Chief’s Summer Learning Challenge that works with state DOEs to promote reading and math over the summer.