Are Summer Reading Programs Effective? Issues in program evaluation.

Bam, Pow, Read! Manchester City Library, CC BY-SA 2.0

The goal of Summer reading programs (SRPs) is to encourage reading over the summer holidays.  It is thought that SRPs offered by public libraries may help prevent “summer reading setback” which refers to a decline in reading skills over the holidays, or “summer slide”, a tendency to lose some of the gains in academic achievement over the school holidays.

It is assumed that reading loss occurs over the long holiday break when children do not read.  Emily Bent (2015) explains that this reading loss accumulates, and children fall further behind in reading and learning over time.  Summer reading loss occurs most frequently in children from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

Julia Proctor, writing for the Age, reports that debate exists as to whether “summer slide” exists in Australia.  A spokesman for the Victorian Department of Education and Early Childhood Development said that it was not a concern in Victoria, but Rhonda Craven, from the ACU, stated that summer slide does exist in Australia.  Tom Nicholson, Professor of Literacy Education at Massey University in Auckland, New Zealand, reported that some students’ reading levels dropped by as much as 6 months over the summer break.  When students were given books to read over the summer, Professor Nicholson found that lower SES students maintained or improved their reading skills, and advised parents to get students to read over the summer.

It seems that SRPs delivered by public libraries could help to address the issue of summer reading loss.  Matthews (2013) cited a study in which teachers reported that 31% of participants in a SRP maintained or improved reading skills, compared to 5% of non-participants.  Matthews’ own survey of parents’ perceptions following their child’s participation in a SRP indicated a number of positive outcomes including increased reading comprehension, vocabulary, time spent reading, and enjoyment of reading.

de Groot (2009) says that SRPs aim to help children develop into lifelong readers, but identified the following issues with public library SRPs in Canada:

  • children viewed reading as a solitary, individual pursuit
  • library staff lack time, experience and training to plan and implement SRPs in small- to medium-sized public libraries
  • diverse populations and expectations
  • other challenges such as fluctuating attendance and costs.

SLQ has a Summer Reading Club (SRC) that is delivered Australia-wide, online and in participating public libraries, in partnership with ALIA and APLA.  SLQ’s 2015 Summer reading club report states that:

“Research continues to demonstrate that access to books, involvement in fun recreational reading programs and extending connections to literature through arts and multi-media activities has proven to combat the Summer Slide. As such, libraries are best situated to help children and families support continued development of multi-literacy skills in children throughout the summer.”

It appears that summer reading programs in public libraries are ideally placed to encourage reading during the school holidays in a positive, enjoyable way.  SLQ’s SRC provides support and resources for public libraries to participate in their annual themed SRC program, and I think this centralised support helps to alleviate the issues identified by de Groot in effective planning and implementation of SRPs.

The SLQ SRC report further states that:

“The outcomes of the 2015 SRC continue to demonstrate that the program is an effective means by which to engage children and young people with literature, literacy and their local library during the Australian summer holidays.”

Some research indicates that SRPs are effective in preventing summer reading loss, however, it was noted that outcomes related to actual changes in reading skills after participation in a SRP are rarely measured to determine SRP effectiveness. The SLQ SRC reported outcomes (above) do not state that children’s reading levels improved following participation in the SRC; it focuses more on the program being a good way to engage children with literature over the holidays.  Program evaluations that linked improvements in reading to SRP attendance would provide more evidence for the statement that SRPs do, in fact, prevent summer reading loss.