What Teachers and Parents Can Do to Stop the Summer Reading Slide

    Elfrieda (Freddy) Hiebert

    TextProject & University of California, Santa Cruz

    Students from high and low socioeconomic homes have been found to make similar gains on reading during the school year (Alexander, Entwistle, & Olson, 2004). It’s what happens in the summer that contributes to a growing gap in low- and high-income students’ reading. During the summer, low-income children either fall or stagnate during the summer, while higher-income children continue to progress or maintain their reading levels. By fourth-grade, the accumulated differences over several summers are reflected in a significant gap between low- and high-income students.

    We can’t ameliorate all of the challenges that low-income children face but we can keep them on the page over the summer. And, to support that goal, TextProject has created a program of free texts called SummerReads™. The SummerReads program draws on what is known about effective home-summer reading programs. Here are the features of effective home-summer reading programs, with specifics on how they appear in SummerReads:

    Students need access to texts: Students need to have texts at hand. The number of texts does not need to be great. Even reading 4 or 5 books over the summer helps to decrease the summer slide (Kim & White, 2008). Unfortunately, the very students who are most at-risk are the ones who often don’t have enough books. SummerReads changes this situation by providing 7 free texts per level.

    Texts need to be comprehensible for struggling readers: Researchers have found that, when children got free books from a spring reading fair, two-thirds of them chose books that were too difficult for them. These children failed to score any higher on a standardized comprehension test in the fall than their peers who didn’t get the free books (Kim & Guryan, 2010).

    Comprehensible means that students need to be able to read texts with enough accuracy so that they comprehend the content. What makes a comprehensible text for struggling, middle-grade students? There are 5,580 words that account for about 80% of the words in the texts read by adults and 90% of the words in texts read by students through the middle-grades. The majority of struggling readers are not automatic in recognizing these core words. They can read but their reading is slow and tedious which harms their comprehension and interest.

    SummerReads gives students additional opportunities with the core vocabulary. Across the three levels of SummerReads, there is a small but steady increase in the percentage of challenging words. The rest of the words are from the core vocabulary.

    Texts need to be engaging: Many American students are simply not reading enough to get good at reading. Information interests students and invites them to acquire more knowledge—the currency of the 21st century. Summer is a time of sports and picnics and holidays. Topics of SummerReads deal with information about summer activities, such as the origins of first swim fins or controversies around flip flops—or even what they are called in different parts of the country and world.

    Expectations need to be clear and students need to have structures for tasks: Conversations in classrooms as to what is expected with summer reading form the foundation of successful home summer reading programs. Students who are going into third through fifth grades are entirely able to establish goals and teachers are highly encouraged to have students set realistic goals of when and where they will read over the summer.

    Teachers need to have these conversations with their students but materials can help convey these expectations and SummerReads does that in the following ways:

    • Each book starts with guidelines on how to use the book.
    • There is a place where students can keep records of their reading of chapters within books.
    • There are comprehension questions at the end of each book.
    • If students have access to computers (e.g., the library), there is a recording of each text at www.textproject.org/summerreads. This recording allows students to monitor and check their reading.

    Expectations need to be monitored: This is one component that we couldn’t build into our free program. Schools need to take this one on: follow-up when the new school year starts. Such follow-up can include an assembly where the accomplishments of students in their summer reading are recognized.

    Whatever texts you use this summer, be certain that your students, especially those who are basic or below in their reading, have access to texts that are comprehensible and engaging and have structures to keep them on track. Here’s to and enjoyable and productive summer of reading!


    Alexander, K.L., Entwisle, D.R., & Olson, L.S. (2004). Schools, achievement, and inequality: A seasonal perspective. In G.D. Borman & M. Boulay (Eds.), Summer learning: Research, policies, and programs. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

    Kim, J.S., & White, T.G. (2008). Scaffolding voluntary summer reading for children in grades 3 to 5: An experimental study. Scientific Studies of Reading, 12, 1–23.

    Kim, J.S., & Guryan, J. (2010). The Efficacy of a Voluntary Summer Book Reading Intervention for Low-Income Latino Children from Language Minority Families. Journal of Educational Psychology, 102, 21-31.