3 Keys to a Successful Summer Reading Program

Two literacy leaders share how their rural, economically challenged districts tackled the summer slide and improved their students’ Lexile scores.

By Dr. Jo-ne Bourassa and Staci Chastain

In Georgia, two-thirds of our students are not reading proficiently by the time they reach third grade. That sounds like a crisis—and it is—but it tracks with national averages. A large factor contributing to the crisis, both in Georgia and across the country, is the summer slide, or learning loss that occurs during the long summer break.

The summer slide doesn’t affect all students equally. In fact, middle-class students and their wealthier peers often experience no summer slide at all and may even make progress during the break, while students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds lose months or more of hard-won academic progress.

To level the playing field for all students, a statewide initiative has brought together families, schools, nonprofits, and businesses to Get Georgia Reading. As part of that effort—a comprehensive approach including improved language nutrition, access, positive learning climates, and teacher preparation—our districts, Laurens County Schools and Brooks County Schools, participated in the summer reading initiative.

Despite our relatively small, rural, and economically disadvantaged student populations, our students read enough this past summer to finish in the top 10 counties in the state. Any number of factors can help or hinder a summer reading initiative, but the ones that turned ours into smashing successes were a digital library, teacher and parent buy-in, and support from community organizations.

A Platform to Provide Access for All

As part of Get Georgia Reading, every student in the state was given access to a digital library, myON® by Renaissance®, which offered 24/7 access to more than 6,000 enhanced digital books. Using a digital platform improves access by allowing students to find books targeted to their Lexile measures, resize text, and read along with audio for books above their level. Digital books even provide privacy for students reading a book that may be a couple years below their grade level.

Inspiring Teacher and Parent Buy-In

In both of our districts, the ground was ripe for teacher buy-in because the state had granted access to myON to all students at no cost for the last few summers. Many of our teachers in Laurens County Schools had used myON to read with their own children in those previous summers. They already knew what an enormous opportunity it was for their students to have their homes, many of which have few books in them, turned into literature-rich environments as school let out for the summer.

Heading into the summer, many of those teachers were projecting the text from myON onto the screens in their classrooms. This meant students were familiar with it and knew how to find books to read, turn the audio on and off, and resize the text.

In Brooks County Schools, when we saw that our students would have access to myON over the summer, we jumped to make everyone aware of the opportunity their students had. We quickly sent a flyer out with every student’s report card to make sure parents across the district knew their children had access to a full library during the break.

We also have a summer learning program funded through a 21st Century Community Learning Center grant. We trained all of the teachers working in those classrooms to use myON so they could get their students up to speed. We saw that they were using it during the day at school, of course, but the platform also allowed us to see that they were logging in and reading outside of class, at home, or in the library.

Uniting the Community

Community support is huge, particularly in rural and economically disadvantaged areas, where access to the internet can be a challenge. Of course, the biggest community partners in a reading initiative are the regional libraries. They hold summer reading programs every year, but they are also a place where students can access the internet to read online or download myON books to read at home.

We also had support from organizations like Head Start and our local food bank, the Laurens Baptist Association, which gave out free books with food boxes. Any organization putting time and resources into getting children to read is a boon, but when you get libraries, churches, nonprofits, and the state all pulling in the same direction, it becomes a community effort and it just permeates the air.

Impressive Results

It’s hard to argue with the results our districts achieved this summer. In Brooks County, our students spent 25,898 minutes reading (completing 3,085 books) and another 1,519 minutes reading news articles. Laurens County students read for 62,522 minutes (completing 6,212 books) and spent 651 minutes on news articles.

We’re incredibly proud that we went toe-to-toe with districts several times our size to make the list of top 10 readers in the state. We’re also proud of what the students all across Georgia accomplished this summer, logging an incredible 1,269,049 minutes reading books!

The summer reading initiative is part of the larger Get Georgia Reading initiative, and both of our districts are focused on improving literacy through other initiatives as well. And we can see the results: All these efforts have contributed to a 3–5% increase in students’ Lexile measures.

That growth translates to improved learning in other content areas, such as science or social studies, because our students have increased vocabularies and are more practiced at engaging with texts that are more challenging or include words they’re not familiar with.

As with anything, the more you practice reading the better you get, and our kids sure did practice over the summer!

Staci Chastain is the K-8 curriculum director for Brooks County Schools. She can be reached at schastain@brooks.k12.ga.us.

Dr. Jo-ne Bourassa is an enrichment coach and Title I coordinator at West Laurens Middle School. She can be reached at JoneBourassa@lcboe.net.

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