4th-grade summer reading program keeps at-risk youth from falling behind

iStock_000006625549XSmallThe problem of “summer reading loss” among students of low socioeconomic status has been well-documented in many studies over the past 20 years. For vulnerable students, the gap in reading tends to develop and widen during summer vacation rather than during the school year, says James S. Kim of the University of California, Irvine. In a recent study in Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, Kim says minority students appear even more susceptible than white students to losing ground over the long break.

Many schools encourage students to read over the summer with volunteer reading programs, but Kim says the National Reading Panel concluded in a report published in 2000 that studies on the impact of voluntary reading were “inconsistent and inconclusive.” The report, “Teaching Children to Read,” determined that there was “little experimental support for the use of voluntary reading as an effective instructional policy.”

Modifying voluntary reading

Based on what he felt were the  instructional limitations of the programs reviewed by the National Reading Panel, Kim designed a modified voluntary reading program for 4th-graders that he reports had significant effects on the total reading score for black students, Latino students, less fluent readers and students who reported owning fewer than 50 children’s books.

The intervention had no significant effect on white middle-class students, and so would not be  appropriate as a large-scale program for all students, but may be an effective policy for improving the reading skills of lower performing students over summer, he says.

Typically, voluntary reading programs share three characteristics, Kim writes:

  • students choose their own books;
  • they read silently on their own; and
  • they receive little or no feedback on their reading or selection of books from teachers or parents.

Children are mailed books

The modified voluntary summer reading program had the following important features:

  • Eight books were mailed to children over the summer to ensure that they had access to books.
  • Children were sent books that matched their reading levels based on their reading  preferences.
  • Children were encouraged to read aloud a  favorite passage with a parent or family member.
  • They were reminded to practice comprehension strategies that they learned in school.

Mailing books to children ensures that they have access to books, an overlooked potential cause of summer reading loss, Kim writes. Highly publicized previous research has found that students’ reading achievement is linked to the number of books in their homes. Giving students a choice about what they read is an important feature of voluntary reading, but often students choose books that are easy for them to read, he notes. In this intervention, children were asked about reading preferences but received books in the mail that had a level of difficulty that matched their reading level.

Study methods

For the study, which took place in a large district in the Mid-Atlantic region, students were randomly selected from schools ranked as high-poverty schools and multi-racial schools in the district.

A total of 552 students completed a baseline Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS). After attrition over the summer, the final sample included 486 students, 252 students in the treatment group and 234 students in the control group. The final sample of students took a posttest measure of silent and oral reading with the ITBS as well.

Oral-reading fluency with the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (DIBELS) was assessed by retired teachers in both the spring and fall. Students were administered a spring reading survey, which included a 20-item Elementary Reading Attitude Survey (ERAS) and a 25-item reading preferences survey. Students were asked how much they like reading books from one of 25 categories of children’s books. A fall reading survey measured reading activity during the summer and access to books at home.

Oral reading added

The National Reading Panel has suggested that guided oral reading and comprehensive strategies enhance the effectiveness of reading practice, Kim says. In this intervention, children were encouraged to read aloud a favorite passage with a parent or family member to help create an enjoyable reading experience and add an oral reading component. The study, however, did not find any effects on oral reading fluency for students in the treatment group upon re-testing in the fall.

Postcards were sent to the child with every book. The postcards not only asked if the students read the book, but what if any comprehension strategies they used to understand the book. Adults signed the card to indicate that the child had read aloud to them from the book. The control group received the books and postcards in the fall.

Comprehension strategies

Before the summer break, teachers reviewed comprehension strategies with the students in school. “The intervention attempts to improve reading skills by increasing children’s access to books, matching books to children’s reading levels and preferences, and encouraging children to read orally with a parent/family member and to practice comprehension strategies learned in school,” the researcher says.

Most of the 14 studies reviewed by the National Reading Panel involved students from 5th grade and above. This study was targeted to 4th-graders. Not only do they have the necessary coding skills to participate in a summer reading program, Kim says, but since third grade is often considered a pivotal year, poor readers can benefit from extra reading. 

“Voluntary reading interventions, in which children receive free books and are encouraged to read at home, may represent a scalable policy strategy for promoting reading achievement during summer vacation,” Kim states. 

“Effects of a Voluntary Summer Reading Intervention on Reading Achievement: Results From a Randomized Field Trial” by James S. Kim. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis. Winter 2006 Volume 28 Number 4 pp. 335-355.

Published in ERN March 2007 Volume 20 Number 3

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