School librarians across the country participate in an annual ritual to mark the end of the academic year. They diligently distribute summer reading lists and encourage students to participate in their public library’s summer reading programs.This ritual is not without scholarly support. A 2010 Dominican University study, Public Library Summer Reading Programs Close the Reading Gap, assures school librarians that participation in high-quality public library summer reading programs helps students maintain or even expand their reading abilities over the bright days of summer. Yet, with poverty at an all-time high in the US, librarians need to be mindful of the study’s other finding—that students living in poverty do not share these great reading experiences.
As a teacher-librarian in a school serving an economically diverse student population, I find Richard Allington and Anne McGill-Franzen’s recent research a compelling approach to transforming the summer reading ritual. Summer Reading: Closing the Rich/Poor Reading Achievement Gap (2013) shares the results of a multiyear intervention aimed at stemming the effects of summer slide. No academic gains achieved during the school year can overcome the effect of three months without reading. Allington and his team offered a diverse selection of trade literature, helped students pick books that interested them, and provided independent reading time. The greatest challenge to our traditional ritual is that this approach goes beyond a resources list by supplying actual books for the kids to take home and keep. In Allington and McGill-Franzen’s study, building students’ summer reading home collections resulted in improved reading achievement.
This year, at Prairie Creek Intermediate School in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, we are building on this research. We worked with our elementary educators to identify 4th graders “in the gap.” As the first group of students bounded up the stairs to browse the school-sponsored book fair, we immediately saw this was a fresh start. As kids selected their books, they informally conferred with principals, literacy coaches, and library staff about three key points:
- Their book choices, through which we learned about their personal interests, families, and life experiences;
- Whether they could independently read their selections, determined with a 90% comprehension benchmark as kids read aloud from a few of their choices;
- Seizing the opportunity to discuss the library as a collection for the long-term reader if a book proved too difficult for the student who selected it;
- Sending students off for the summer with a bag of 10 books and our encouragement to continue the conversation through social media (paradoxically, many of these kids have internet connectivity), journaling, phone calls, and home visits.
The average bystander watching the book-shopping spree would not have known that this group is the focus of our greatest professional concern. Selections tended towards SpongeBob SquarePants, WWE wrestling (3D version), and photo biographies of the pop band One Direction.
Yet, we must embrace them as the readers they are today if they are to become thriving, literate individuals in the years to come. Long-term success will require school systems and public libraries to collaborate around direct service to these readers most in need of our expertise.
This fall, we’ll surely hear about a trove of reading experiences. We also hope to see an early effect on standardized achievement among these struggling readers. Helping them build high-interest home libraries should become integral to school librarians’ end-of-year summer reading list ritual.
ERNIE COX is teacher-librarian at Prairie Creek Intermediate School in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.