Summer reading gets plug from US officials to keep kids sharp

The ‘Let’s Read. Let’s Move’ campaign is designed to combat the learning loss that can occur during the summer. Two cabinet secretaries touted summer reading at an event in Washington Wednesday.

By , Staff writer

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    Education Secretary Arne Duncan speaks at the 2010 National Action Network Convention in New York, on April 15.

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Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood told a very important audience Wednesday about a very important train.

With 85 children gathered round, he brought to life “The Little Engine That Could.” Secretary of Education Arne Duncan joined with him in asking the excited K through 5th-graders questions about the story – and answering their questions about everything from trains to the Obamas.

The event was the second of six weekly gatherings at the Department of Education headquarters in Washington this summer as part of its “Let’s Read. Let’s Move” campaign. It’s designed to combat the learning loss that can occur over the summer, as well as weight gain, and it’s in conjunction with first lady Michelle Obama’s work against obesity.

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“We encourage all youngsters to take on this challenge and read at least five books over the summer months to keep their skills sharp,” Secretary Duncan said in a press statement.

Such high-level attention to summer reading is welcomed by educators concerned about the way summer tends to sap learning gains. Two-thirds of the reading achievement gap between low-income 9th-graders and their higher-income peers can be attributed to different levels of reading in the summers, according to research cited by the National Summer Learning Association in Baltimore.

Giving away books is a good first step, “and it also helps if a parent or a teacher is working with the child ... asking questions [about the books],” says Jeff Smink, the association’s vice president of policy.

After hearing about the most persistent of train engines on Wednesday afternoon, students from the summer program at Washington’s Arts and Technology Academy Public Charter School rotated through stations where they could draw and write, play hopscotch and other games, and choose a book from among titles donated by Target. Normally held outside on a plaza, the event Wednesday moved indoors so that kids and cabinet members alike could escape the 100-degree heat.

Summer is “a wonderful time for [young people] to really explore books without any pressure – not books that they’re going to have a quiz on or write a paper about,” says David Mazor, the founder of Reader to Reader, a nonprofit in Amherst, Mass., that distributes donated books and sets up reading-mentoring programs.

In low-income areas where the summer mantra is often “I’m bored,” having a good book to transport the reader to another world can make all the difference, Mr. Mazor says. This summer, Navajo high-schoolers in a Reader to Reader mentoring group have requested everything from Stephen King’s “Firestarter” to a book of short stories by Edith Wharton.

In a study that compares students who received free books over the summer with students who didn’t, Richard Allington, an education professor at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, found encouraging results. He tracked low-income first- and second-graders in Florida who chose a dozen free books at their reading level for three summers in a row.

“The effect was equal to the effect of summer school,” Professor Allington says. “Spending roughly $40 to $50 a year on free books for [each kid] began to alleviate the achievement gap that occurs in the summer.”

The study couldn’t show how many of the books the students actually read, but the students who sent in reading logs answering brief questions about the books showed even stronger achievement gains.

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