By Richard L. Allington, Ph.D., and Anne McGill-Franzen, Ph.D.
Why is there this family economic trigger that creates summer reading loss, and is there a way to neutralize that trigger and end the summer reading loss that kids in low-income families experience?
The answers to this two-part question are now reasonably clear. Students from lower-income families experience summer reading loss because they don’t read much, if at all, during the summer months. Students from middle-class families, on the other hand, are far more likely to read during this same summer period. Low-income students don’t read during the summer months because they don’t own any books, and they live in neighborhoods where there are few, if any, places to purchase books. Middle-class students have bedroom libraries and live in neighborhoods where children’s books are readily available, even in the grocery stores where their parents shop. Middle-class kids are more likely to live in a neighborhood where one can find a child-friendly public library than is the case with children living in low-income areas. These children live in neighborhoods best described as book deserts.
Historically, low-income students relied primarily on schools as sources for the books they read. Ironically, too many high-poverty schools have small libraries, and there are too many classrooms that have no classroom library for kids to select books to read. Too many high-poverty schools ban library books (and textbooks) from leaving the building (fear of loss of the books, I’m usually told). However, even with fewer books in their schools and more restrictive book-lending policies, these kids do get most of the books they read from the schools they attend. But not during the summer months when school is not in session!
Even when there is a summer school program operating, the school library typically remains closed. So the question we must ask is this: Where are children from low-income families supposed to get books to read during the summer months?
We organized spring book fairs in 17 high-poverty elementary schools (between 400 and 600 book titles were available at each book fair) and randomly selected roughly 1,000 students to self-select the 15 books they would be given on the last day of school, just as summer vacation began. We also selected a similar number of children to serve as control students. These kids did not get any books on the final day of the school year. The children were completing either 1st or 2nd grade when we began the study, which then ran for three consecutive years.