OK, let’s play a little fantasy game. Let’s say that the Education Fairy (whom I picture as a mixture of all the best qualities of Hillary Swank’s portrayal of Erin Gruwell in Freedom Writers and Embeth Davidtz’s “Miss Honey” from Matilda–hey, I said it was a fantasy, right?) visits you and grants you one wish to fix a single problem in education. What would you fix?

Now, before you answer, consider this possibility: there’s a single problem that starts before kids even enter kindergarten, that has been proven to selectively disadvantage those students who start school already behind, that causes the learning gap between the “haves” and the “have nots” to widen year after year, and that’s highly correlated with higher high school drop-out rates and lower rates of college attendance. Does this sound like a good candidate for your single wish? I thought so!

The extensively researched problem described above is the “summer slide,” and it just may be the single biggest factor contributing to the stubborn “achievement gap” so many educators spend so much time talking about. Unfortunately, very few school districts are actually doing anything of substance to targert the problem.

“How can that be?” you ask. “If we know that such a major problem exists, why isn’t everybody getting on board to fix it?” As with most messy, real-world problems, there are a number of reasons. For one thing, many educators simply don’t know enough about the causes of the summer slide to come up with good solutions. In addition, doing something about the problem can be costly, and in this age of tight education budgets, that can’t be lightly brushed off. And finally, there’s the inertia of tradition to take into account. Despite the massive scope and impact of the problem, it’s still sometimes hard to get people to think beyond “the way we’ve always done things.”

What is the Summer Slide?

The “summer slide” is the term used to describe the dip in learning that happens to lower socio-economic students (as compared to their higher socio-economic status peers) during the three months of summer break. Many research studies have looked into this phenomenon, one of the best being the one conducted by Karl Alexander, Doris Entwisle, and Linda Steffel Olson (2007), who used data from the longitudinal Baltimore Beginning School Study, a study which tracked students from first grade through the age of 22, to look at achievement scores of various student demographic groups over time.

Starting with student scores at the beginning of high school, the researchers worked their way backward through the data, decomposing the achievement scores into their developmental precusors, eventually working all the way back to first grade. What they found was that (1) low-income children made as much progress (gauged by reading scores) during the academic year as their higher-income peers, but (2) their gains relative to their peers slipped away during the summer months. As a result, at the beginning of each subsequent school year, the low-income students found themselves a little farther behind their peers than the year before.

This is clearly a “good news/bad news” situation. On the positive side, the fact that low-income students showed progress during the school year on a par with their higher-income peers is a testiment to their teachers. Clearly, these students’ teachers were doing a lot of things right to help students who found themselves behind to start with to at least keep pace. On the negative side, obviously whatever these schools were doing (if anything at all) during the summer months to try to narrow the achievement gap was having little or no effect.

The important thing to understand here is that it’s a background knowledge problem we’re talking about. Yes, the gap here is measured by reading scores, but many educators aren’t aware that poor background knowledge is one of the main reasons (perhaps the most important reason) for poor reading scores. A student may have adequate reading skills, but if she’s missing key background knowledge about the subject matter of a text, she’s still not going to comprehend it well–and if that text is on a reading test, her scores are going to be impacted as a result.

So what, exactly, is going on during the summer months that is causing low-income students to fall farther behind thier peers in background knowledge? Think about what middle-class and upper-class students are doing during the summer. Very often, their families are taking them on vacations (building life knowledge of different places, cultures, and people) and/or taking them on cultural trips (visiting science, art, and/or history museums, for example).

And even when more affluent students aren’t having their life experience built through direct experience, they’re more likely to read when not engaged in more active pursuits. This is because, as research has shown, the number of books available in the average middle and upper class home dwarfs the number of books in the average low-income home. Consequently, middle and upper-class students do more to build their reading skills and vocabulary knowledge over the summer months, as well. As a result of all of these factors, middle and upper-class students walk back through the school doors in August having added significantly to their world knowledge, reading skills, and vocabulary, while most low-income students have stagnated, and the gap between the two groups widens.

This is where summer reading programs come in. A well-designed summer reading program targeting lower-income students has more potential for keeping the achievement gap from widening than any other intervention. This is because reading provides three very important benefits:

  • It provides vicarious life experience: While the middle and upper-class students are building their world knowledge through direct experience, few lower-income families have the wherewithal to take their kids on vacations and cultural trips. But we can travel anywhere and experience just about anything through the pages of a book. Brain imaging studies have shown that the same parts of the brain are engaged by reading about an experience as are engaged by actually living it (though not quite as strongly). So, while first-hand experience is best for learning, reading about something is a very close second.
  • It builds reading skills: I’m sure that everyone reading this has, by now, heard about the “10,000 hour rule” of skill development. As the theory goes, it takes roughly 10,000 hours of practice to become highly proficient at a complex skill. Well, reading is a set of skills that one gets better at with practice. Much research has shown that the amount of hours one spends doing wide reading is the most important factor for becoming a highly-proficient reader.
  • It builds vocabulary: Vocabulary is another major factor in how well students score on measures of reading proficiency. Obviously, the more unfamiliar words a student encounters while reading a text passage on a reading test, the harder it’s going to be for that student to comprehend its meaning, so poor vocabulary is a major contributor to lower reading scores. Wide reading exposes kids to new vocabulary that they’re unlikely to encounter in their day-to-day lives, but are much more likely to encounter when reading a text passage on a reading exam.

As you can see, nothing is better suited to attack the widening reading/achievement gap between lower-income students and their more affluent peers than reading. So, the question becomes, “How do we go about getting lower-income students doing more reading over the summer in order to prevent the summer slide?”

Traditional Summer School Approach

Since we know that summer school programs have been around for a long time, and since we also know that they have done little or nothing to halt the summer slide, it might be instructive to first take a look at what most schools are doing now and why these approaches haven’t worked.

A recent study (Reed et al., 2016) conducted in Iowa serves as a case in point. In 2012, the Iowa legislature passed a law to create the Iowa Reading Research Center, whose mission was (and is) to implement and oversee summer reading programs in every Iowa school district by 2018. Recently, the Research Center conducted a study to determine the effectiveness of these summer reading programs thus far. The results have been mediocre, at best.

The approach used by Iowa school districts might best be described as “more of the same.” That is, these summer school programs basically just extended the school year. Students went to classes (including reading classes) and teachers taught the classes, as if it were the regular school year.

This approach seems logical, since the “summer slide” research showed that lower-income students kept pace with their higher-income peers during the regular school year, only to fall behind in the summer. Maybe, the thinking goes, if we keep “doing school” over the summer for the lower-income kids, they will be able to continue to keep pace until August gets here.

Unfortunately, the results have been disappointing. While the programs did show some evidence of preventing learning loss, no significant improvement was shown in students’ reading ability. This was despite providing at least 70 hours of reading instruction, delivered in small classes (15 students or fewer).

Authors of the study pointed to numerous problems. For one thing, it was difficult finding certified, experienced teachers to teach the classes. This was because so many of the regular reading teachers were also taking time off in the summer for vacations. Many classes ended up being taught by newly-graduated teachers, retired teachers who had been out of the classroom for some time, or long-term substitutes.

In addition, attendance was poor across the board, with only 49% of students invited to attend the optional summer reading programs choosing to attend. Of the students who did choose to participate at the beginning of summer school, another 21% had stopped attending by the end of the session.

Finally, the tradtional approach is costly. The study estimated that the average cost per district was somewhere between $9.25 and $13.82 million dollars. That’s a lot of money to spend on an intervention that shows little or no effect.

But why didn’t this “more of the same” approach show more of a positive effect? To get a more precise answer, we’d have to do more digging, but my guess is that (1) students weren’t exactly excited to be in these summer school classes in the first place, that (2) the kinds of texts they were asked to read were less than engaging, and that (3) most of the students enrolled did the very minimum amount of reading necessary to get by–in other words, that some of the same problems that exist in regular reading classes during the school year continued to manifest themselves in the summer classes.

Tying Summer Reading into the School Curriculum

So, the question for us is what do we need to do differently? Clearly, since the “more of the same” approach doesn’t appear to be the answer, some “outside of the box” thinking is going to be necessary to halt the summer slide. Let’s take a look at a couple of different approaches that have been tried recently, with impressive results.

One different approach that I read about recently was taken by Leticia Skae, a secondary school English teacher in a Nashville, Tennessee school with a diverse student population (Skae, 2017). Ms. Skae was hired by her school to address the learning gap between their “have” students (those from one of the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods whose parents chose not to send them to private school) and their “have not” students (from the city’s poorer, urban neighborhoods, which makes up the bulk of the school population).

When she took the job, she found out that the teachers at the school had basically given up on the urban students, deciding to only assign summer reading to the AP and honors students (primarily kids from the wealthy neighborhood). Ms. Skae found this approach unacceptable, since it was the lower-income students who needed the summer reading the most.

She decided to attack the problem head on. The first step was to convince the other English teachers that all students needed summer reading. After getting everyone on board, she then created an innovative program tied seamlessly into the regular school curriculum. Here are the basics of the approach:

  1. Getting all the school’s students signed up for the summer reading program, not just the higher-end students.
  2. Creating mini-units for the English teachers to use at the beginning of the following school year that followed up and built on the summer reading.
  3. Devising “homework” assignments that went along with the readings. Students were asked to create visual representations of recurring themes in the books and to cite sources to support their thinking.
  4. Following through on the summer reading at the beginning of the school year. A test on the summer reading was set up to take place a couple of weeks into the next school year. Students who did the reading in the summer progressed with extension activities involving the book as they worked toward the test. Students who were new to the school or who did not read the summer reading were put into groups, to read and discuss the book during class, and were assigned to continue reading the book for homework. So, all students were held responsible for the summer reading, whether they did it in the summer or not.

What were the results of this effort? Ms. Skae reports that, in the first year, 50 percent of her students did the summer reading. As word spread down to the lower grades, however, more and more students realized that summer reading was a true expectation of the school. In year two, 70 percent of Ms. Skae’s students did the summer reading. By the third year, that number had risen to 90 percent.

And increased participation wasn’t the only improvement. The school’s standardized test scores began to rise from the very first year of the program, and continued to rise each year following. Clearly, this approach has been quite successful.

Moving Beyond Reading Lists

Let’s take a look at another innovative approach that also has shown great promise. At Waltham High School in Waltham, Massachusetts, the teachers put their heads together and came up with a unique approach to summer reading. Starting with the goals of creating a summer reading program that was fun, multidisciplinary, and involved the community, they came up with their “One School, One Story” model. Each year, the teachers work together with students to come up with a book for everyone to read, as well as opportunities to engage with the topic beyond the book itself.

Here’s how the process works:

  1. In the fall of the current school year, teachers from across all content areas come together to read books during Thanksgiving break. After Thanksgiving, they meet to narrow down the initial list of 100 books to just 16.
  2. In the spring, more than 60 students participate in a 24-hour read-a-thon in the school library, where they systematic winnow the list of 16 down, bracket-style (ala a well-known basketball tournament that takes place about the same time), until they get the list down to a “final four.” At the end of the 24-hour period, the students vote on the best choice of the four books, and the next summer’s “one story” is chosen.
  3. The school works with community partners to buy a copy of the book for every student, grade 8 and up, as well as faculty members. A local foundation also donates money to the cause, and local businesses contribute goods for various events that the school holds in conjunction with the “one story” reading.
  4. During the summer, and on into the next fall, events are held to facilitate discussion of the book and the issues it talks about. For example, last year’s selection was All American Boys, a young adult novel that delves into police brutality and racial profiling. The school used donated funds to bring in the book’s two co-authors, Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely, to talk to the students about the book. The school’s teachers also worked with the town’s police force to hold a workshop where officers led discussions about community policing practices with some 600 students.

One of the important things that Waltham has found out after following this practice for a few years is that their students aren’t afraid of tackling challenging books about challenging subject matter, evidenced by the fact that the book they chose for this year’s “one story” read is Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak, a story in which a rape factors into the plot. Teachers are working with a student group called PAVE (Peers Against Violence), a rape counseling center in Boston, and a group that educates students on domestic violence and safe dating skills as a way to bring the entire community together to hold important conversations centered on the themes of the book.

Conclusion: Combining the Best of Two Good Models

Both the approach to summer reading developed by Nashville English teacher Laticia Skae and the model developed by Waltham High School have may positives to recommend them.

Ms. Skae’s model boasts the following strenghts:

  • All students are required to do the summer reading.
  • Students were given homework assignments to go along with the reading, which helped them process the reading more deeply.
  • The summer reading assignments blended seamlessly with the beginning of the next school year, as the book and its themes formed the first unit of the school year.
  • Students were held responsible for the reading, as a test was given on the book a couple of weeks into the new school year.

I admit that there are some aspects of this approach that I have some issues with. Most importantly, the readings are chosen and assigned by the teacher, which is what takes place in the traditional, “more of the same” summer school approach. It seems to me that an opportunity is missed in this approach for allowing students some say in what they will be reading. Nevertheless, it’s a great improvement over the way things have traditionally been done.

The Waltham High School approach has the following strengths:

  • Students choose the book to be read by everyone the next summer. This creates ownership and intrinsic motivation to do the reading.
  • Teachers from all content areas (not just the English teachers, as in the other model) get together to make the selections for the initial list. Teachers from across the curriculum also create follow-up activities tied to the book to use in their classrooms the next fall, so the effort is more school-wide.
  • The entire community gets involved, not just the students. This approach sends the message that reading is important and that the issues brought up by a thought-provoking book can spark conversations across barriers of age, race, occupation, and socio-economic status.

I believe that a combination of the best aspects of each of these approaches would produce a fantastic summer reading program. Involving teachers from across the curriculum and allowing students to make the final choice of the summer read book (Waltham) would create buy-in from everyone involved. Including the community (Waltham) would bring a sense of unity between the school and the community that is rarely found. Asking students to do processing activities that make them think deeply about the themes in the book (Skae) sends the message that doing the reading is important, as does integrating the summer reading into the initial unit at the beginning of the following school year (Skae). And finally, continuing to follow up in the fall by having author visits (via Skype if not in person), having guest speakers from the community who are related in some way to the issues in the book, etc. (Waltham) extends the learning and gives it a “real-world” quality.

I would love to see more schools move beyond the failed traditional summer school and summer reading models and start implementing programs along the lines described above.

I hope this article has given you some food for thought. And, if you’re doing something innovative with your summer reading program in your school, I’d love to hear about it. To contact me, send me an e-mail at info@teachingthatsticks.com.


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

Reed, D. K., Schmitz, S., Aloe, A. M., & Folsom, J. S. (2016). Report of the 2016 intensive summer reading program (ISRP) study. Iowa City, IA: Iowa Reading Research Center, University of Iowa.

Shaffer, L. (2017, May 10). How “one story” can excite students about reading and connecting with community. Mind/Shift. Retrieved from https://ww2.kqed.org/mindshift/2017/05/10/how-one-story-can-excite-students-about-reading-and-connecting-with-community/

Skae, L. (2017, May 3). Four steps to transform school culture through summer reading. Education Week Teacher. Retrieved from http://www.edweek.org/tm/articles/2017/05/03/four-steps-to-transform-school-culture-through.html

Smith, L. (2011, December/2012, January). Slowing the summer slide. Educational Leadership, 69(4), 60-63.