Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Stopping the summer slide

Alex Ragone

This week is the start of summer vacation for a lot of students in the Puget Sound area. It's a time to relax, go to camps and have fun. 

But for children who come from families that don't have a lot of money these next few months are when they often fall behind in their reading skills.

SpongeBob, Princess Barbie, biographies of Justin Bieber, Captain Underpants. These are the titles kids like.

A new program being tested out in nine schools in the Highline and Seattle school districts aims to stop what is often called the "summer slide". It's called Book Up Summer and here's how it works; students from low income homes get to pick out 12 books. At the end of the school year they take the books home, for keeps.

The program is being run by the literacy non-profit Page Ahead. Susan Dibble, the organization's executive director, says based on research, letting students do the choosing is what gives the program its muscle. 

"Their reading levels and their abilities, they got twice as much out of what they read if they chose it themselves. I mean, that's pretty powerful!"

The kindergarten classes at Hawthorne Elementary near Columbia City in Seattle are some of the 2,000 students participating this year. After their graduation ceremony they receive the books that they selected a few weeks earlier. It feels a little bit like Christmas in the classroom.

Six year old E.J. James carefully goes through his stash to make sure everything is there. 

"I picked Star Wars books, Lego books and snake books and stuff."

SpongeBob, Princess Barbie, biographies of Justin Bieber, Captain Underpants. These are the titles kids like. Page Ahead got the idea for doing this after reading a study by Richard Allington, an education professor at the University of Tennessee.

Years ago, Allington was investigating why children from low income homes don't read as much as their well off peers.

"And that rang a bell for us, 'of course they don't read as much, they don't own any damn books. They go to schools that have a few books but don't let anyone take them home.' "

Allington spent four years following more than 1,000 1st, 2nd and  3rd graders in Florida from low income homes. The children who were allowed to chose about 12 books and take them home kept up their enthusiasm for reading, making them want to do more on their own.

Credit Page Ahead
Page Ahead
Students at Hawthorne Elementary reading their Book Up Summer books.

"Fourth graders who read 3 or 4 hours a day score at the 98th percentile. Fourth graders who read half an hour a day or less are the 4th graders who score at the tenth percentile. It's the lack of practice that I would argue is the reason that American kids don't read better."

Allington found that by sending low income students home from summer vacation with books they liked, for three years in a row, helped them successfully hit that magic moment around age 8 when a child makes the jump from learning to read to reading to learn new information such as history, math and science. 

Back in classroom at Hawthorne Elementary 6 year old E.J. James shares his summer plans.

"Watching TV and going to the movies."

Then he looks at his new stack of books.

"I'm going to read them. I don't know how to read yet but I know how to read some words though."

The goal is that James will come back to school in September as a 1st grader remembering the words he knows now and maybe a few new ones. 

Page Ahead won't know the full impact of the program until a few more years when it can compare year to year reading test scores. 

For parents who do have the time to go to the library this summer with your kids, or the money to buy some new books, try and let your children do the choosing. A lot of Justin Bieber biographies and SpongeBob stories today could build the reading stamina it will take to eventually get through Moby Dick. 

Jennifer Wing is a former KNKX reporter and producer who worked on the show Sound Effect and Transmission podcast.