Reading & Literacy

Want Kids to Read in the Summer? School Librarians Can Help

By Elizabeth Heubeck — July 21, 2023 5 min read
Photo of a caucasian, elementary or middle school aged boy browsing and reading a book in the library.
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Ask teachers what kind of learning kids should be doing in the summer, and the response almost always includes “reading for pleasure.” Usually it’s the first activity teachers suggest kids do. Sometimes it’s the only one.

But the “what” to do is often an easier answer than the “how”—how to get kids to read for pleasure, that is.

Research confirms what common sense suggests: Having regular access to books appears to increase the likelihood that children will choose to read for pleasure, a factor that’s been tied to improved reading achievement, which tends to correlate to overall academic gains. Libraries, both those in schools and in the community, play a big role, say stalwart advocates of reading as a primary pastime: school librarians.

“Summer reading should be fun. It should bring that joy of reading back into students’ hearts, where they can take it up or abandon as they would like,” said longtime school librarian Courtney Pentland, president of the American Association of School Librarians, a division of the American Library Association.

Pentland, an advocate and expert on both school and public libraries, shares key factors that impact the likelihood that students will pursue summer pleasure reading.

Access to school libraries during summer break

Families might assume that when school is closed for summer, so, too, are its libraries. Pentland pointed out that this isn’t necessarily the case.

“It just kind of depends,” she said. “There could be no access, or limited access. It’s very rare that school libraries are open all day, every day.”

Whether school libraries stay open in the summer depends mostly on funding, Pentland explained, who once worked in a school district that kept its libraries open in the summer with support from a grant-funded program. When the funding ended, families no longer had access to the school libraries during summer.

It’s worth noting, Pentland said, because for countless families, getting to school libraries is much easier than getting to a public library. This is particularly for students from impoverished households, many of whom do not have access to public libraries within their communities and, when they do, are likely to encounter reduced operating hours and limited funding for book collections, according to educational researchers.

“Many families don’t have the mobility, or the parents are working multiple jobs, and aren’t able to get to the library when it’s open,” she said. “It does really all come down to funding.”

Families’ awareness of available library resources

Summertime library resources are only useful to families if they’re aware of them. Communicating this information to families is an integral role of all librarians, explains Pentland.

“This is one of the things we look at—how to communicate with our stakeholders about available resources,” she said, adding that school librarians share this information in multiple ways, including social media, parent newsletters, and announcements at school.

Librarians share not only when libraries are open, but what resources they offer. Today, that extends beyond print books. “There’s a bunch of different platforms for eBooks and audiobooks,” Pentland said.

This is an attractive option for families who otherwise shy away from return fees, which don’t apply to eBooks because they are automatically returned at their due date. Further, some districts that issue devices to students during the school year allow them to keep them in the summer.

Library-generated apps also are available for borrowing digital materials: Hoopla and Libby are popular apps that require only a card from a public library to use. Many school libraries make digital books available to students via the app Sora, Pentland said.

Partnerships between school and local public libraries

When a community’s school and public libraries engage in a strong partnership, they can more readily share resources that benefit families—from events to availability of reading resources and beyond.

Limitlesslibraries.org is an example of one such partnership. An initiative of the Nashville Public Library and Metro Nashville Public Schools, limitlesslibraries.org provides extensive online resources to area families that promote things like fun literacy programs for kids, grade-specific book recommendations, and more. It encourages ease of accessibility to library books by allowing students to do things like pick up books from their school libraries that they request from a participating public library.

“Conversations and relationships built between public and school libraries are at the heart of our supportive literacy for all students,” Pentland said.

Availability of certified school librarians

These partnerships are more likely to form and strengthen if schools employ certified school librarians.

And that’s not a guarantee. “Not all schools have certified librarians on staff,” said Pentland. “It’s not a requirement in every district or state.”

A recent report found that, between the 2016-17 and 2018-19 school years, districts lost more than 1,000 librarians. Such losses grew during the pandemic. By the 2020-21 school year, more than 10 percent of the country’s public K-12 students attended school districts that don’t employ librarians.

Are the declining numbers of school librarians due to funding decreases or shifting educational priorities? An exploratory project at Antioch University Seattle is probing that question. The researchers have been collecting data on personnel trends in 50 schools since September 2020, said Debra E. Kachel, the project director. The research so far has found that school librarians’ numbers are dropping at the same time that numbers of administrators and instructional coaches/coordinators are rising. Kachel, for one, thinks those trends signal schools’ shifting priorities.

When budgets tighten, evidence shows that the position of certified librarian is sometimes eyed for elimination, a decision Pentland cautions against. Eliminating certified school librarians, she said, “does have long-reaching effects.”

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