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One Equally Effective but Lower-Cost Option to Summer School

by Richard L. Allington and Anne McGill-Franzen
March 21, 2013
We recently received the Albert J. Harris Award from the International Reading Association. The award is given for the published paper that most significantly advances the profession’s understanding of reading/learning disabilities. Our paper, “Addressing summer reading setback among economically disadvantaged elementary students,” was published in Reading Psychology in 2010. We review our study here, and in doing so assert that summer reading holds implications for mitigating the rich/poor reading achievement gap.

The rich/poor achievement gap is huge: The reading level of twelfth grade students from low-income families stands a full four years behind the levels of middle class students. Four years! The gap can be clearly observed in the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reading achievement at fourth, eighth, and twelfth grades. Children from low-income families begin school already behind their more economically advantaged peers, but the gap just continues to widen with every additional year of schooling.

Various federal programs have provided schools with funding for programs that have tried to eliminate the rich/poor reading achievement gap. That is, in fact, the legislative intent of all of Title I programs in high-poverty schools. The most recent federal initiative under this Act was Reading First—an initiative that failed to have any effect on closing the rich/poor reading gap. Perhaps because of this failure, Congress has eliminated funding for the Reading First program.

In actuality, the federal funding made available to high-poverty schools is spent on so many different initiatives that asking whether the funds produce the intended outcomes seems largely forgotten today. But the truth is that the size of the rich/poor reading gap has remained the same since the 1980s. Whatever schools are using Title I dollars for—school-wide reform, commercial interventions, paraprofessional aides—that usage is not closing the rich/poor reading gap.

There is, though, one area that is central in creating the rich/poor reading achievement gap that almost no federal dollars address. Summer reading setback creates much of the rich/poor achievement gap. That is, children from low-income families reliably lose reading skills every summer while middle-class children actually gain a bit between June and September! The most recent research on this issue has been done by Karl Alexander and Doris Entwisle at Johns Hopkins University. By following a cohort of children who were tested twice each year from first through ninth grade they offer three major conclusions:

  • Reading growth did not differ between the two groups (rich and poor children) during the school year.
  • By ninth grade, however, the reading achievement gap was about three years wide (ninth vs. sixth grade).
  • Most of the reading achievement gap at ninth grade was due to the differential effects of summer vacation on children from families with different levels of wealth.
A meta-analysis conducted by Harris Cooper and his colleagues further demonstrate that children from low-income families lost reading achievement during the summer while middle-class children increased their reading achievement. Overall, combining the summer reading loss of poor children and reading growth of middle-class children meant that the rich/poor reading achievement gap grew about three months wider every year. By sixth grade, poor children were two years behind—even though their learning during the school year had matched the achievement of middle-class children.

Some argue this suggests that schools serving children from low-income families should be open year round. Perhaps, but summer vacation is a longstanding tradition. Even were the funding available to support year-round schooling for all poor children (and not just the lowest-achieving poor children), one might expect that some (perhaps many or most) poor children would not attend school during the summers. Given the current state of the American economy it also seems unlikely that schools serving poor children will have the funds available to support year-round schooling.

Summer Books Study

Our study was stimulated by two factors: 1) Evidence that poor children have restricted access to books in their homes, schools, and communities and 2) because of that limited access poor children are less likely to read voluntarily out of school (during the summer months). Thus, we organized book fairs in each of 17 high-poverty schools during the spring. At the book fairs poor children could select up to 15 books for summer reading. Each book fair offered approximately 500 different books selected by us based on the children’s reading levels and interests.

We randomly selected almost 1,000 children enrolled in first or second grade to participate in the summer book fairs and also selected another group of students to serve as the control group (they did not attend the book fairs and did not receive books for summer reading). Our study, then, was premised on the research showing the power of individual choice of the book on the likelihood the child would read the book. It was also premised on the assumption that providing access to a number of self-selected books would lead to children actually reading the books during the summer and that summer voluntary reading would in turn impact summer reading setback.

Our study did not provide any instructional support. We simply distributed books to children from low-income families. Nonetheless, when we examined the outcomes after three consecutive summers we found that the children who had received summer books scored significantly higher on state reading achievement tests than the control children. The size of the effect on reading achievement equals that reported for attending summer school and exceeds the effect of adopting a national school-wide reform model! This at a cost of between $50 and $75 per child per year, a cost far below that of providing summer school or adopting school-wide reform model.

Since we completed the study we have heard from a number of folks who have adapted and extended our summer books program. In each case, though, improving the access of low-income children to books for summer reading has been the target. The long-term goal, of course, is narrowing the rich/poor reading achievement gap. The good news from these schools is that just improving access improves reading proficiency.

We are not surprised that improving access to books that kids want to read results in improved reading achievement. Development of every human proficiency requires practice, lots of practice. Children with no access to books are similar to hockey players with no access to ice. Without access to ice it is impossible to develop hockey players. Without access to books it is impossible to develop reading proficiency.

Just improving poor children’s access to books they can read and want to read may seem too simple an idea for improving reading achievement. But the evidence is clear. When children from low-income families are given the opportunity to select books for summer reading they will read those books during the summer months. Reading during the summer stems summer reading loss and effectively closes the rich/poor reading achievement gap that has lingered far too long.

Further Reading

Alexander, K. L., Entwisle, D. R., & Olson, L. S. (2007). Lasting consequences of the summer learning gap. American Sociological Review, 72(2), 167-180.

Allington, R. L., & McGill-Franzen, A. (2013). Summer reading: Closing the rich/poor reading achievement gap. New York: Teachers College Press.

Allington, R. L., McGill-Franzen, A. M., Camilli, G., Williams, L., Graff, J., Zeig, J., Zmach, C. & Nowak, R. (2010). Addressing summer reading setback among economically disadvantaged elementary students. Reading Psychology, 31(5), 411-427.

Cooper, H., Nye, B., Charlton, K., Lindsay, J., & Greathouse, S. (1996). The effects of summer vacation on achievement test scores: A narrative and meta-analytic review. Review of Educational Research, 66(3), 227-268.

Guthrie, J. T., & Humenick, N. M. (2004). Motivating students to read: Evidence for classroom practices that increase motivation and achievement. In P. McCardle & V. Chhabra (Eds.), The voice of evidence in reading research. (pp. 329-354). Baltimore: Paul Brookes Publishing.

Neuman, S. B., & Celano, D. C. (2012). Giving our children a fighting chance: Poverty, illitracy, and the development of information capital. New York: Teachers College Press.

White, T. G., & Kim, J. S. (2008). Teacher and parent scaffolding of voluntary summer reading. Reading Teacher, 62(2), 116-125.

Come see Richard L. Allington and Anne McGill-Franzen at IRA 2013, where they’ll be presenting “Summers and the Rich/Poor Reading Achievement Gap.” Richard will also be appearing as part of the Teaching Edge series with “What the Research Says About Teaching So That All Children Are Reading on Grade Level.” You can see what other sessions with which he and Anne are involved by searching the iPlanner.

Richard L. Allington is a professor of literacy studies at the University of Tennessee and past president of the National Reading Conference and the International Reading Association. His books include NO QUICK FIX: THE RTI EDITION.

Anne McGill-Franzen is professor and director of the Reading Center at the University of Tennessee. Both authors are recipients of the International Reading Association Albert J. Harris Award for research on reading and learning disabilities.


© 2013 Richard L. Allington & Anne McGill-Franzen. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise.


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