To get the most out of summer reading, keep it on the calendar all year

Planning early makes it easier to involve families and sustain engagement throughout the long break.
Claire Hagen Alvarado
Claire Hagen Alvarado
Claire Hagen Alvarado, Ed.L.D., is the director of Literacy First, an organization that partners with school districts to ensure all students learn to read by the end of second grade. She holds a doctorate in education leadership from Harvard University and a Master of Arts degree in language and literacy studies from the University of Texas at Austin. She can be reached at [email protected].

Without instruction or engagement with reading over the summer, students can regress in the progress they’ve made in literacy over the past school year. Those declining trends tend to be greater for some students, particularly those from marginalized backgrounds and can compound year after year.

Fortunately, summer reading programs, including home-based programs, serve as an opportunity to benefit all kids and mitigate that loss of progress. Here are a few things to keep in mind as you think about your summer reading program.

Planning for summer reading year-round

There is a tendency for schools and districts to begin planning their summer reading programs in the spring. It may seem like a good time, with summer right around the corner, but it’s also the time of year when administrators are dealing with budgeting, leaders are busy with curriculum and other purchases, and everyone is focused on testing.

Starting that late in the year also makes it harder to include families in the planning process. I’m on the parent-teacher association at my kids’ school, and we begin working on a full year of calendar planning at the beginning of the school year. Planning for summer reading right off the bat establishes it as something that happens consistently every year, rather than a one-off project for the coming summer.

This shift also allows families and school leaders to think about how students can engage over the summer. What platforms will they have access to? What books will they be able to access? What additional funds or partnerships are needed? What can teachers do during the school year to plant the seed that learning can happen in many contexts, even while reading during summer vacation?

It’s also never too early to start working with students’ families on what kinds of resources they would like to support their students during summer reading. Do they want conversation guides that help them monitor comprehension through chatting with their students? Are there other routines or habits they can use to talk productively with their students about reading?

Starting the conversation early allows families to learn more about strategies that folks without an instructional background can use to engage with their children to hone their literacy skills, and then decide what works best for them.

Components of summer reading programs

A good summer reading program should have some kind of ramp-up period while school is still in session. You want students to know what to expect and how they can get books, and you want their families to know where they can find any resources they might need and how to best support their students.

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Your summer reading preparation package should include books (or an explanation of where they can be accessed), as well as what kinds of comprehension or other support routines you’re offering. That includes tools for helping families engage with their students around reading, but it often will also include some scaffolds students can lean on to think about their reading and dig in a little deeper than they might if they were only reading for pleasure—although pleasure reading is important, too!

A summer reading program should also have some kind of engagement opportunities throughout the summer. This can be pre-scheduled and does not need to be an add-on for teachers over their breaks. Something like a book swap can be a great touchpoint, and often local libraries or bookstores are eager to host them. This provides a huge motivational boost for young readers and their parents to stick with their summer reading routines.

It’s easy to lose steam over the summer. I notice that in July there is often a big shift in my own family with how we all engage with summer reading challenges, so even those of us deeply committed to summer reading can feel the lag in those dog days. Simple touchpoints such as a postcard from the principal, a note from a treasured teacher, or a book chat opportunity can inspire and sustain readers throughout the summer.

Keeping students engaged

Schools often provide books to send home with students at the end of the school year. Finishing five to 10 books can mitigate summer reading loss, especially if other supports are in place. It’s not enough for many students, however.

Digital libraries can provide access to enough books so that no student will run out over the summer. Programs such as Capstone’s PebbleGo are also helpful because of the built-in scaffolding and supports that allow students to gobble down all sorts of books—even those that are a little more challenging than they might be able to tackle on their own. Features such as pronunciation guides, vocabulary tools, comprehension support, and the ability to switch between English and Spanish can supercharge summer reading for students.

Reading contests can be tempting for schools as a way to encourage summer reading, but I question how effective they are. Beyond simply trying to slow the summer slide, one thing I like to see from summer reading programs is students developing a habit of reading in their daily lives.

In a competition, students are focused on reading a certain number of books or words, and they’ll read to meet that. In a program where their family members are checking in with them and demonstrating that they find reading important and interesting, students are more likely to read when they feel like it. A daily habit of dedicating a little time to reading and relaxing is more likely to lead to regular lifelong practice than a few months of frantic reading for an extrinsic reward.

As they explore books during the summer, early readers who are still developing foundational skills will benefit from instructional support. However, once students can decode and understand what they are reading, an engaging text on a topic they’re interested in will keep them going. If their families are helping to make sure they understand what they’re reading and their teachers are checking in to cheer them on, providing good books should inspire students to read throughout the summer—and their lives.

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