Giving students choice in reading helps stem the ‘summer slide’

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By Dr. Erin Kelly
TheConversation.com

Jack is a six-year-old in first grade at School 36 in Rochester, New York, a city with some of the worst childhood poverty statistics in the nation. Jack has big dreams for his future. Unfortunately, because he is a black boy in Rochester, the odds are stacked against him. The chances that he will finish high school on time are under 10 percent.

One of the factors holding back inner city kids like Jack is “summer slide.”

In contrast with their middle-class peers who may benefit from various summer enrichment activities, economically disadvantaged students tend to lose a lot of educational ground over the summer. Often they start the next school year one to three months behind.

As a pediatrician, I am concerned about the number of social and environmental factors that harm children. Over time, these learning losses accumulate, leaving children further behind each year.

A book fair for students

Preventing this summer slide is crucial. And there are proven, cost-effective preventive tools, that, if applied early on to the underlying causes of school failure and unemployment, could make a difference.

I recently participated in a program at the Hoekelman Center at the University of Rochester, which gets young doctors out of the hospital, so they can partner with community-based organizations on projects that seek to improve community health. One such project is “Stop the Summer Slide.”

We began our work with two second grade classes. For one class, we ran a book fair where each student picked 13 books to take home at the end of the school year. Students were tested right before summer vacation, and then again when they returned to school.

Students chose from a broad range of books, both fiction and nonfiction, and from a variety of reading levels. Some chose classics, but some students also chose books that would not be normally handed out by educators. For instance, among the favorites were classics like Charlotte’s Web, and also newer works, such as the adaptation of Disney’s Frozen and a biography of Britney Spears.

The other class of students received in the mail books that had been preselected by educators.

How choice works

We found that students who chose their books improved their reading scores over the summer, while the students who received educator-selected books did not show any improvement.

Based on these encouraging results, we expanded the intervention at the same elementary school the following year, running book fairs for four classes. Each student received 15 books of his or her choosing.

The comparison group, however, was modified. Students in these classes received a mix of student-selected and educator-selected books. Both groups received all their books at the end of the school year.

With this modification, we were unable to find a significant difference in scores between the two groups of students. Remarkably, however, we did find over 75 percent of students in both groups maintaining or improving their reading proficiency.

This showed us that providing students even partial choice appears to have the potential to turn around summer slide and prepare children to start the new school year with positive momentum.

For the past two years, we have had the opportunity to feel like Santa Claus in June, delivering bags of presents to elementary school students. The children smile from ear to ear as they open up their bags and explore the contents, asking “Can I really keep them and write my name on them?”

They eagerly show each other what they got, finding joy in being the only one with a book about snakes, but also in having the same princess story as all their friends.

Making a difference

Illiteracy is a health issue, not just because it makes it hard to follow a prescription, but also because it alters entire life courses by cutting off options, thus subjecting people to chronic stress as well as all the other ill effects of poverty.

Achieving reading proficiency in kindergarten through second grade is necessary for future academic success. In the first years of school, students learn to read. By third grade, they are reading to learn. If they have not achieved basic literacy by then, they will not be able to progress in all the other subjects. Low-income students who cannot read by third grade are 13 times less likely to finish high school.

It may seem more reasonable to schools to let educators pick books for kids. But if giving children a choice in their reading selections is more effective at stopping summer slide, then I would advocate for it. The Rochester City School District is already implementing partial student choice this summer in its district-wide book distribution.

Indeed, it would be wonderful if all children curled up with the classics. But if they never get past the covers of the books we pick for them, then what’s the point?

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