Helping Sisyphus: Stopping the “Summer Slide” in Reading

Why just getting them books might not be enough…

Posted Jun 01, 2016

pixabay/public domain
Source: pixabay/public domain

In spite of decades of ever-increasing national attention and funding, many children in the United States still fail to learn to read fluently and with adequate comprehension.  In fact, the recently released 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores estimate that nearly a quarter of all eighth graders (24%) can not read even at the most basic level, and this percentage has actually risen slightly since 2013. 

Surprisingly, these struggling readers often make decent progress during the school year, but then actually lose a significant amount of the skill they have developed over the long summer months.  According to well-known researchers Anne McGill-Franzen and Richard Allington, this "summer slide" accounts for up to 80% of the growing gap between good and poor readers.  It can also be really frustrating for teachers, making them feel like Sisyphus, that poor guy in Greek mythology doomed to endlessly roll a rock uphill, only to watch it roll back down to the bottom, and start all over again.

So if we’re serious about helping every child gain the reading skills that are the gateway to success in today’s information society, we can’t afford to ignore what happens to kids outside of the school year, during the summer. 

In a recent blog post, Tim Shanahan, past-president of the International Reading Association, agrees. He notes that “considerable attention has [already] been accorded to trying to get kids to read more during summer,” but that these efforts have shown pretty mixed results.  Sometimes getting books to kids during the summer seems to help, other times it seems to have little effect.  He suggests that part of the summer slide may be due to lack of reading practice, but that part of it may also be due to many kids’ lack of interaction with adults during the summer, especially those stimulating conversations and activities in which kids are introduced to new words, new knowledge, and new ideas (the kind we hope happen, at least some of the time, in classrooms during the school year).  He concludes by saying that encouraging kids to read during the summer “couldn’t hurt,” but it may not help as much as we might expect.

We agree that just handing kids books during the summer may not do all we want it to (though as Shanahan acknowledges, it sometimes does a lot!).  Not only will some kids miss the interaction they get in schools, but others may not be motivated to read much by themselves, and still others struggle so much with reading that they can’t read and understand the kind of books that interest them.  Expecting these children to read independently over the summer may actually be counterproductive.

One of us (Paula) vividly recalls a personal experience of this sort during the summer between first and second grade.  Her mother meant well by checking out some recommended books from the town library and making sure Paula spent 30 minutes a day reading them.  But Paula was not an independent reader yet, being still at the Jane hit the hat with a bat stage.  All she remembers from that summer is sitting alone in her room, trying to read Curious George, which was too difficult for her and not interesting either because she felt it was a “boy’s book,” and being “frustrated to tears”! 

But summer reading doesn’t have to be “either-or”--either independent reading or more formal teaching by adults--it can be “both-and.” Why not build opportunities for adult interaction and conversation right into your summer reading plans for kids?  Reading research supports at least three good ways to do this:

1. Read along with kids.  We all know that reading to young children is important.  But somehow, once they begin to read on their own, we forget the important role that adults, especially family members, can still play in children’s reading development.  Not only do children comprehend what they read better when they have a chance to talk about it, but research has shown that even teenagers are more motivated to read books shared with them by relatives or other favorite adults; boys are especially motivated by the chance to share reading with their fathers or other adult males.   

So this summer, why not share the reading with your children?  Find a book you can each read and talk about together. Start by letting them choose a book they want to share with you. You might be pleasantly surprised by the quality of writing and depth of ideas in some of the children’s books and young adult fiction that’s popular right now, and your son or daughter will be enormously complimented and encouraged that you want to spend time reading and talking about a book that’s important to them.  And who knows, after one or two of these, maybe they will be willing to read an old favorite of yours from your childhood!

wikimedia commons/BigBrotherMouse/CC BY-SA 4.0
Source: wikimedia commons/BigBrotherMouse/CC BY-SA 4.0

2.  Start a summer book club.  This is something a librarian or teacher might want to try, but it is simple enough that a parent can do it as well.  Just get together a small group of kids who are friends or share a common interest, find a book they want to read, and set up a few times they can come together and talk about what they are reading.  For more on how to do this, check out this advice from PBSparents.

Just as with adult book clubs, a shared snack and something to drink can help the conversation along – even something as simple as cookies and juice.  If kids live too far apart to come together in person, they can even “meet” online at sites like Goodreads or through free web-conferencing tools like Google Hangouts (easy enough for even grown-ups to master!).

3. For a struggling reader, try a Reading Apprenticeship.  As discussed above, some kids don’t read over the summer because they can’t independently read the books they are interested in.  This is an especially common problem for very beginning readers, like Paula was, and for older struggling readers, who may read two or more grade levels behind their age and have become discouraged by repeated failure. 

In apprentice reading, an adult partner takes the burden off the struggling reader by alternating lines or paragraphs, and helping during the child’s turn by identifying difficult words and explain­ing unfamiliar vocabulary or ideas.  In this way, the struggling reader can successfully read the books they choose, the ones everyone else their age is reading, and gain reading skill along the way.  Again, this is something a parent or other family member can certainly do, and it works fine with teachers or adult volunteers as well.  For details on how to do this, and results from eight studies showing significant effects on reading skill and motivation, check out this handout from a recent national presentation on apprentice reading.    

A few words of caution:  Be careful that efforts to increase interaction and discussion around summer reading don’t get in the way of kids’ enjoyment of books, which is one of the great gifts that summer reading, unconnected to school or “standards,” has to offer. Some important things to keep in mind are:

-- Let the kids pick the books! (or magazines, or even comics). This is absolutely essential.  Kids know better than we do what they feel ready to tackle and what they are interested in.  Lots of research shows that kids who aren’t engaged in what they are reading, due to fear of failure or lack of interest, do not reap the benefits they could.  When kids (or adults, for that matter) spend time reading what they enjoy or are passionate about, whether it’s romances or how-to-books, they not only get better at reading, but they learn new vocabulary, new ideas, and new ways of thinking and expressing themselves.  Don’t worry if kids aren’t reading “classics,” or the “best books”; as long as they aren’t reading something harmful or inappropriate, they’ll gain from it, and move up to the “better” stuff later on, as their confidence and taste in reading grows.

If some inexperienced or discouraged readers honestly can’t think of anything they want to read, try taking them to a regular bookstore and letting them buy whatever they want (within reason and your budget).  Give them time to wander and find something just right; the opportunity to have books of your own can be very motivating. 

-- Don’t make it about “getting better at reading” (though they will); make it about enjoying the reading. No one likes to feel judged or put on the spot, and this generation of students is probably the most assessed group of kids in history.  Again, this is especially vital for struggling readers, who already know they aren’t “good at reading.”  This means no pressure, no requiring them to read aloud to you, no “quizzing,” even informally, to see they “really read and understood.”  We can enjoy and benefit from reading books we don’t completely understand the first time (haven’t you), and we can read them again when we want to, getting more out of them every time.  This kind of rereading is one of the known hallmarks of both good books and good readers, so relax.

-- Don’t ask kids to do anything you wouldn’t want to do with a book you read for interest or enjoyment.  If you are like us, when you read something that fascinates you, you can’t wait to share it with someone.  You want to recommend it to everyone, talk about it with other people who’ve read it, and maybe even read “bits” of it out loud to your (long-suffering) family and friends.  What we don’t want to do, and we’re betting neither do you, is answer ten multiple choice comprehension questions or write a book report—that would just spoil the whole experience!  Kids are people, too, and they feel the same way about quizzes and book reports, so just don’t ask them to do them.  If you’re lucky, they may decide all by themselves to tweet about their book @teenreads, or even write a review on Amazon, but if not, don’t worry – reading is enough.

So, we hope you and your kids both enjoy reading this summer; we plan to!