Equity & Diversity

Study: Summer Reading Loss Reversed When Students Get Books to Keep

By Kathryn Baron — May 14, 2015 3 min read
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Reading is Fundamental set a goal for its new literacy program that was both challenging and modestly specific. On average, 80 percent of low-income children lose ground in reading proficiency over the summer. What Reading is Fundamental, or RIF, wanted to do was cut that percentage in half.

It exceeded expectations. Not only did it slow summer reading loss, but it also turned it around for many students.

Results of a two-year study of RIF’s Read for Success pilot, released this week, found that of the 33,000 2nd through 4th grade students participating in the program, just 39 percent slipped. As the graph below from the report shows, another 4 percent held steady. And, to the surprise of researchers, 57 percent significantly improved their reading skills between the end of one school year and the start of the next.

“It stunned us,” lead researcher and RIF vice president Judy Cheatham told Education Week. “There’s no program I know of where children have made gains over a year.”

What’s more, students who scored in the bottom 10th percentile on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS)—a nationally norm-referenced assessment—showed the greatest improvements. Nearly three-quarters of 2nd graders, 81 percent of 3rd graders, and 72 percent of 4th graders met or exceeded their target scores.

RIF launched Read for Success with a $9.3 million Innovative Approaches to Literacy grant from the U.S. Department of Education. It’s a multipronged approach that builds on the organization’s mission to instill a joy of reading in children, especially disadvantaged children, by giving away books. Since 1966, when the Washington-based nonprofit was founded, it has distributed more than 412 million free, new books to more than 40 million kids.

The grant paid for RIF to give out another 760,000 highly acclaimed, award-winning books of all reading levels to all 1st through 5th grade classrooms in the 173 schools across 16 states that participated in the program.

The books were also selected for their emphasis on other school subjects, particularly science, technology, engineering, the arts, and math, which are collectively known as STEAM, and they were paired with activity books tied to at least one of those themes. The intent was to build on Common Core State Standards while boosting students’ vocabulary and reading ability.

“Even the book Memoirs of a Hamster [has] a math activity,” said Cheatham.

The grant also provided teachers with literacy resources, professional development, and ideas for involving parents. Additionally, each school received $1,000 to develop enrichment activities.

By federal mandate, the schools are in communities where at least 25 percent of the population lives below the poverty level. Cheatham visited schools in the middle of cotton fields, schools in counties that don’t have libraries or the libraries are too far to get to and schools that were so underfunded they hadn’t bought new books in years.

“We had people who cried because they thought they were going to have to give the books back. In one place it was the principal,” Cheatham recalled. “I think middle-class America takes for granted that anybody could get a book, but that’s simply not true.”

Of the 16 million children living in poverty in the United States, RIF estimates that two-thirds of them don’t have books in their homes. Cheatham’s father was one of them.

In addition to providing books to the schools, Read for Success let every child choose eight books to keep at the end of each school year. Although the program didn’t require schools to offer summer programs, a number of districts held summer reading camps or reading celebrations.

“It was great to see firsthand how excited the students were when they picked out books based on their own interests that they could have to take home,” said Franchon Muhammad, director of curriculum and instruction at Bessemer City Schools in Alabama, in a written statement. “The excitement made the program a real game-changer for our children, which translated into marked results in reading achievement when they returned to the classroom in the fall.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the Time and Learning blog.