Kids will lose some reading skills if they don't pick up a book this summer

Students out of school for the summer still need to be reading regularly, say teachers, or they'll fall behind their peers.

Philip Marruffo/Sauk Valley Media/AP
Students need to keep up their reading in the summer or risk losing some of their acquired skills. Here, Dillian Wellman, who will be a second-grader next year, peruses a book.

Dillian Wellman could not wait to crack open a book this summer.

Dillian, 6, a first-grader-going-on-second-grader, and his reading buddy, Freckles, a floppy, spotted leopard Beanie Baby, delved into the first one – a skinny, glossy book about dinosaurs – on Monday.

The pair will read – well, Dillian will read and Freckles will listen attentively – a variety of books together, some fiction, some nonfiction; some short, some a little longer. They'll get through maybe 20 books before school starts again in the fall.

Franklin Elementary School teachers Heather Wittenauer and Peg Wills last year launched a guided summer reading program for their first-graders. They, along with reading specialist Melanie Selmi, this year expanded the program to include at-risk, struggling and special ed kindergartners and first-graders.

"It's a recurring problem," Wittenauer said. "Every year, we heard our second-grade teachers tell us they had these students who had lost ground (over the summer).

"We know how hard we work during the school year to get them to a point. We were sad that they lost that over the summer. We had to figure out how we could fix it."

Studies prove that children who do not read over the summer lose some of their skills by the fall. Studies also show that reading loss is cumulative: Children who do not read over the summer could be 18 months to 2 years behind in reading by sixth grade.

The teachers researched best practices in reading and came up with a guided summer reading program that takes the guesswork and initiative off parents' shoulders and puts hand-selected, reading-level-appropriate books into students' hands.

"Reading over the summer is really important," Wills said. "(Books) have to be easily accessible, and they have to be at their level."

The teachers use their students' end-of-the-year reading test scores to choose books and create personalized reading kits. The kits include a couple dozen books, a calendar that guides them through the books, in order by reading level, and worksheets that help them practice other language skills. The books span three reading levels, from the current reading level through the next two levels.

"It's really an individualized program," Wittenauer said. "It's designed for every child's needs."

The teachers received a grant from the Sterling Schools Foundation last year and again this year to buy books for the program and to replace any that are not returned in the fall.

Parents – even those who normally would not encourage reading over the summer with their children – were eager for the program.

"The talking points were convincing enough," Wills said.

"It takes all the guesswork out of it," Wittenauer said. "The books are in order in the bags. And they're at the right levels.

"One parent told us that because it's coming from the teacher, it's different than it coming from mom or dad over the summer."

Jacelyn Wellman is thrilled her son, Dillian, who needs a little extra help with his speech, has a structured summer reading program that will help him not only retain his reading skills, but also work on his speech skills.

"I think it's great," Wellman said. "They lose so much over the summer, especially Dillian... This way, I can keep an eye on his reading and his words."

The teachers last year received positive feedback from parents; they heard that kids took the bags on vacation or that they did extra reading to catch up if they had fallen behind schedule.

But data proved the program had an impact.

An average of 31 percent of students who followed the program over the summer maintained their current reading level or moved up a level between the end of first grade and the start of second grade. But an average of only 15 percent of students who did not read over the summer made the same strides.

Students who followed the program, if they did lose some of their skills, dropped an average of 5 points on reading assessments. Students who did not read over the summer, on the other hand, dropped an average of 17 points.

"That told us we made a difference," Wills said. "We really wanted to do it again."

The reading team, including Selmi, this year replicated the program to include those students who already struggled with reading. Franklin Principal Suzi Hesser in coming years hopes to expand it to all students.

"We'll look at the data in the fall and see how things went for our intervention kids," Hesser said. "And we'll then come up with a plan for expansion."

The program reached about 40 first-graders in Wittenauer's and Wills' classes last year, and will reach more than double that, including the at-risk, struggling and special ed kindergartners and first-graders, this year.

The school promotes summer learning among all of its students by encouraging families to visit the local library and even connecting them to online resources via the school newsletter and website.

"Our goal is for summer learning to continue among all of our students," Hesser said. "Our goal is to minimize that summer loss (across all subjects)."

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