Having elementary school pupils read four or five books during the summer can prevent the reading-achievement losses that normally occur over those months, a study suggests.
Published last month in the Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk, the findings are based on surveys and test data on 1,600 students in 18 elementary schools in an unnamed suburban district in the Middle Atlantic region.
Regardless of race, socioeconomic level, or previous achievement, researcher Jimmy S. Kim found, children who read more books fared better on reading-comprehension tests in the fall than their peers who had read one or no books over the summer.
Though the differences between the heaviest readers—those who had read at least four or five books—and those who had barely read at all were small, he said, they were about the same size as the average summer reading loss documented in other studies on the “summer slump.”
“From a policy perspective, this study shows that maybe we need to spend more money to get books into kids’ hands,” said Mr. Kim, who was a research associate for the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, in Cambridge, Mass., when he undertook the study. He is now a K-12 research associate for the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University.
“From a school perspective,” he added, “maybe we need to think about having all kids read and do a simple writing activity based on their books over the summer.”
Studies since the 1970s have pointed to reading as one way to stem summer learning losses and bridge the achievement gaps that widen over that time between many poor and minority students and their better-off, white, and Asian-American counterparts.
Less research exists on how best to encourage students to read over the summer. Some districts have started incentive programs. Others publish required reading lists, and some educators even mail packets of books to students.
The district Mr. Kim studied required rising 6th graders to read at least one book over the summer and write a story or report about it. Several schools within the district asked parents to verify that their children had read a book.
Mr. Kim found both strategies increased the likelihood that students would read more. Only about half the children in every racial and ethnic group, however, said they had met those requirements.
Any strategy to promote summer reading is unlikely to close achievement gaps by itself, said Barbara Heyns, a New York University sociologist who has studied the summer slump. “If you have a diverse group of kids, and only the middle-class kids read, then it’s going to help the middle-class kids even more,” she said.
Both she and Mr. Kim cautioned that the new findings showed only that reading was associated with better achievement, not that it caused the differences in reading scores.