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Why Summers Matter in the Rich/Poor Achievement Gap

by Richard Allington & Anne McGill-Franzen - August 24, 2009

Summer reading loss accounts for at least 80 percent of the reading achievement gap by 9th grade. Yet almost no federal or state programs or school district initiatives target summers as key to closing the achievement gap. In this paper we report on studies illustrating that much can be done, and be done inexpensively, to address summer reading loss.

As we all know, the gap in reading achievement between economically disadvantaged students and other students in American schools is substantial and to our dismay, stubbornly persistent. According to the NAEP data for high school seniors, that gap is roughly four years in reading achievement, with poor twelfth graders scoring almost identically to more advantaged eighth graders! And the gap has not diminished across the grades since the advent of the No Child Left Behind legislation.

The fundamental cause of this achievement gap has been known at least since the 1980s when Hayes and Grether published their analysis of the achievement gap in the New York City schools. More recently, Alexander, Entwisle and Olson (2007) tracked reading achievement from the beginning of school to ninth grade in Baltimore and reported precisely, again, what Hayes and Grether (1983) reported almost 30 years ago – that almost all of the reading achievement gap occurs during the summer when most children are not attending school. Additionally, Cooper, Charlton, and Valentine (2000) provided a meta-analysis demonstrating the very same outcome more than a decade ago. At the same time Borman and Dowling (2006), as well as Paris and his colleagues (2004), and McGill-Franzen and her colleagues (2008) have all demonstrated that when summer school programs are available for poor children their attendance will close this achievement gap. In a similar vein, Allington and McGill-Franzen and their colleagues (2008) along with Kim and his colleagues have both demonstrated that simply supplying poor children with books they can and want to read can close the rich/poor reading achievement gap just as effectively as summer school attendance does.

It is high time we attend to whether children read outside of school, particularly during summers, in addition to whether the quality of reading instruction in school is comparable across communities. Heyns, way back in 1978, 30-plus years ago, noted that poor children rarely read during the summer months in contrast to more advantaged children, and she suggested that it was this lack of reading practice the lies at the bottom of the reading achievement gap.

For us, then, the question is: When will policy address the summer reading setback, a phenomenon that may contribute to as much as 85% of the reading achievement gap?

Recent posts on the ASCD Smartbrief Alerts indicate that summer school programs have been severely impacted by the current economic crisis, that is, summer programs have been trimmed or eliminated in many districts that had previously offered them. Given the current economic constraints schools are facing, cutting summer school programs provides some financial relief to struggling school districts. But what about the struggling readers in the school districts? And what about the press to close the reading achievement gap?

One relatively inexpensive option that school districts should be exploring is ensuring poor students have easy access to books they can and want to read. In our large-scale experimental study, done with the cooperation of 17 high-poverty schools, primary grade students attended spring book fairs to select books they wanted to read. For the book fair we provided a wide selection (over 500 titles) of multilevel books on a variety of topics—books that matched the science or social studies curricula, books that represented diverse ethnic, language, and cultural experiences, popular series books, and books about TV, movie, sports and other media personalities. On the final day of school each child received at least a dozen books he or she had selected at the time of the book fair. These books were free—they belonged to the children. Our final costs to purchase these books averaged about $45 per child for each of the three years we ran the book fairs.

Our free books effort produced reading growth in the book fair participants (when compared to a control group that received no books from us) that equaled the effect size Cooper and colleagues (2000) reported in their meta-analysis for attending summer school! And the effect size for the very poorest children was twice as large as going to summer school!

Older children also benefit from easy access to books. Kim (2006) demonstrated that reading just 5 or 6 books over the summer eliminated summer reading setback among middle grade poor students.

The major reason poor children don’t read books over the summer is that they simply do not have any. A lack of access to books that they can and want to read precludes any reading activity. When we gave kids such books, and no other support over the summer, their reading achievement improved significantly compared to the control kids who received no books from our project.

How else might schools support summer reading, other than distributing free books to students? We have witnessed a variety of options developed by school staff where funding for free book distribution was not available. Some schools have purchased a supply of paperback books and have distributed those books to children much the same way we did. But rather than allowing children to keep the books, district officials asked that the children return the books to the school in the fall. In other cases, the schools organized book exchanges two or three times during the summer. In these schools, typically, if a child returned, say, five books in July, he could then check out five new books. The same opportunity was offered in August. Other schools have simply opened the school library on Saturdays during the summer months so that popular trade books did not simply sit, unused all summer. In some cases the schools provided a bus run for kids to get to the school to check out summer reading materials. Finally, some schools resurrected an option that was available long ago but has largely disappeared—the bookmobile. Using some of the small school buses that were sitting unused all summer, these schools removed a few rows of seats and filled the buses with bins and crates of children’s books. The bookmobiles were then driven to neighborhoods where poor children lived and the books set out for display and for checking out.

The rich/poor reading achievement gap is real and has not gone away even with federal dollars spent on efforts intending to close the gap. Current opinion seems to be that high-poverty schools are inadequate or simply unable to mitigate the effects of high-poverty homes and communities and it is these factors that explain the reading achievement gap. Perhaps there is some truth to this thinking, but the striking evidence about summers and opportunities to read outside of school suggests that summer reading setback is one reason federal programs have not been effective. Virtually no federal initiatives or dollars are focused on what kids are or are not reading during the summer months. A good first step in addressing root causes of the reading achievement gap, in our view, would be for schools, with or without federal dollars, to work hard to ensure that every child, both rich and poor, has easy access all summer long to books they can and want to read.


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

Allington, R. L., McGill-Franzen, A. M., Camilli, G., Williams, L., Graff, J., Zeig, J., et al. (2007). Ameliorating summer reading setback among economically disadvantaged elementary students. Paper presented at the American Educational Research Association, Chicago.

Borman, G. D., & Dowling, N. M. (2006). Longitudinal achievement effects of multiyear summer school: Evidence from the Teach Baltimore randomized field trial. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 28(1), 25-48.

Cooper, H., Charleton, K., Valentine, J. C., & Muhlenbruck, L. (2000). Making the most of summer school: A meta-analytic and narrative review (Vol. 65, No.1). Ann Arbor, MI: Society for Research in Child Development.

Hayes, D. P., & Grether, J. (1983). The school year and vacations: When do students learn? Cornell Journal of Social Relations, 17(1), 56-71.

Heyns, B. (1978). Summer learning and the effects of schooling. New York: Academic Press.

Kim, J. (2004). Summer reading and the ethnic achievement gap. Journal of Education of Students at Risk, 9(2), 169-189.

Kim, J. S. (2006). Effects of a voluntary summer reading intervention on reading achievement: Results from a randomized field trial. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 28(4), 335-355.

Kim, J. S., & White, T. G. (2008). Scaffolding voluntary summer reading for children in grades 3 to 5: An experimental study. Scientific Studies of Reading, 12(1), 1-23.

McGill-Franzen, A., & Allington, R. L. (2008). Got books? Educational Leadership, 65(7), 20-23.

McGill-Franzen, A., & Love-Zeig, J. (2008). Drawing to learn: Visual support for developing reading, writing, and concepts for children at risk. In J. Flood, S. B. Heath & D. Lapp (Eds.), Handbook of research on teaching literacy through the communicative and visual arts (Vol. II, pp. 399-411). New York: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Paris, S. G., Pearson, P. D., Cervetti, G., Carpenter, R., Paris, A. H., DeGroot, J., et al. (2004). Assessing the effectiveness of summer reading programs. In G. D. Borman & M. Boulay (Ed.), Summer learning: Research, policies, and programs (pp. 121-161). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: August 24, 2009
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15757, Date Accessed: 7/25/2021 11:31:44 AM

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