Scaffolded summer reading program of little benefit to some low-income students

iStock_000001477234SmallOver the summer months, low-income elementary students lose ground in reading compared to their higher-income classmates.

But a new study in Reading Research Quarterly  finds that summer reading programs to combat summer reading loss may not benefit all low-income youth.  Researchers say the programs should target students based on the poverty-level of the school they attend rather than the student’s household income.

Elementary school students who participated in a scaffolded summer reading program in which they were mailed books matching their interests and abilities,  received end-of-the year lessons on reading strategies and phone calls from their teachers during the summer, performed better than controls in reading achievement only if they attended high-poverty schools. These are schools with 75-100% of students on free or reduced-price lunch (FRL). Students from moderate-poverty schools (45-74% FRL) did not benefit compared with controls and household income of students was not a factor in who benefitted.

The study, led by Thomas White and James Kim, was conducted in a midsized urban school district in North Carolina and comprised a total of 1,421 grade 3 students from 19 schools, 10 high-poverty and 9 moderate-poverty.

“For high-poverty schools, treatment students performed at about the same level in the spring and fall, and control students lost ground in reading comprehension during the summer months, as might be expected,” the researchers write. “For moderate-poverty schools, treatment students made small summer gains, whereas control students enjoyed a larger and surprising gain in reading comprehension over the summer.”

Possible compensation in control group

Why did control students from moderate-poverty schools make greater gains in reading than students who received the intervention? One possible explanation, researchers write, was that students in the intervention group may have been less engaged with the books they read because they were not as well-suited to their interests and abilities. Another is that parents of students in the control group, having deduced that their children were in the control group, compensated by taking their children to the public library or by encouraging them to go to the library on their own.

In addition to examining differences in outcomes across poverty levels, the study tested different treatment conditions i.e. the end-of-the-year lessons children received in their classrooms.  Students received a multiple-strategy routine used in an earlier study or a content-based prediction routine using lessons that incorporated a story impression activity with narrative text. Students received a K-W-L activity (what I know, K, want to know, W, and have learned, L) with informational text.

Students received a total of 10 books in the mail over the summer, including two lesson books and 8 matched books. Each week for 10 weeks, students in the experimental groups received a book accompanied by a postcard that prompted the students in the use of multiple comprehension strategies or content-based predictions. Some students received an enhanced version of the intervention. Their teachers telephoned them up to 3 times and asked them to recall one of the books they read.

No difference in type of class lessons

The researchers found that there was no difference in treatment effects based on the kind of scaffolded lesson students received at the end of the year, although students in the content-based prediction condition were more likely to mail in postcards with their responses to prompts.

Teacher phone calls over the summer also did not affect outcomes.  Researchers note that it would be inaccurate to conclude from this study that teacher phone calls were not effective because few students received all 3 calls from teachers.  Many teachers reported in their logs that students’ home phones were disconnected and so they could not be reached.  In future studies, the researchers say they plan to send parents text messages or target students who are not returning phone calls.

“At the school level, school percentage of students receiving FRL is a proxy measure for the material and psychological resources available in the community during the summer,” the researchers write.

“Replicating the Effects of a Teacher-Scaffolded Voluntary Summer Reading Program: The Role of Poverty,” by Thomas White et al., Reading Research Quarterly, 2013, Volume 49 (1), pp. 5-30.

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