Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Summer Reading

Being a bookseller, in the kids' section especially, can feel really important. When a teacher comes in and says that a book you recommended actually got a kid who was never into reading to sit down, read the whole book, and ask for a new one, it feels pretty validating. Or when someone's learning English, and they come in feeling shy and not knowing exactly how to ask for what they need, but they leave with a bunch of books they're actually interested in and can read by themselves, it feels good. Then some days you just spend a few hours shelving and straightening and showing people where the biography section is and cleaning up the Lego table and then wow, it's time to go home. Those days we need a little extra high-five from the world.

Right now, we're in that in-between time: most summer reading piles have been purchased, and kids across the city are draped across tree branches, pool decks, and duck-poopy lakeshores reading The Phantom Tollbooth or A Tree Grows in Brooklyn for the first time (well, that's how I imagine it). Teachers, who make up a big part of the Kids Department regulars, are not quite ready to do all the back-to-school prep. So while there are birthday parties and road trips and visiting relatives all summer long, it won't be for another week or two that the real crush starts. Which makes it all the more fun that it was last week that I stumbled upon an article about what is probably my favorite scientific study ever.

The New York Times reports, on their Well blog (their blog on health), that letting kids pick a bunch of free books, whichever ones they want, before summer starts, massively improves their reading test scores. Even better, this study was done with kids from lower-income families, who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. These kids have way bigger backslides in test scores and school readiness every summer than kids whose families have more money, and that contributes to the achievement gap between lower- and higher-income students.

Okay, so maybe it seems obvious to you that giving kids a ton of books improves their reading scores, but this study makes me smile for a few key reasons: number one, the kids were allowed to pick whatever books they wanted. One of the most popular was a biography of Britney Spears. Now, I know how much we as adults want to find a way to make kids read really good books, the stuff we love and loved and what we think is Most Literary. But think back- didn't you just love the crap your parents didn't want you to read? Book lovers become that way because books have something to offer them personally, not because of homework books. When a teacher or parent presents us with a reluctant reader challenge (how can I get her/him love to read?) the first thing we do is figure out what the kid already likes. Have they ever read a book they did like, and if so, what was it? Any subjects they're particularly interested in? And I've seen that work over and over. Diary of A Wimpy Kid. Sports biographies. Beginning reader series about fairies. Graphic novels. So it's good to see that play out well in this study.

The other thing I love about this study is that they tracked kids over the course of three years, instead of just one summer or school year. And their test score improvement at the end was the equivalent of having gone to three years of summer school. Reading whatever books you want all summer long makes you as smart as actually going to summer school? Thanks, science. I needed that.

Anna, in kids


  1. Great news Anna!

  2. By Jove! I knew it!

  3. That's awesome! When I was a kid summer reading was all about who could read the books with the most pages. Not really a sophisticated strategy, looking back. I took the lead with "Gone with the Wind" only to be beaten by some one reading "The count of Monte Cristo", after which I read "The Stand" and then was beaten by some kid who read "War and Peace." In 6th grade. Who does that?

    Great post!

  4. My mother raised me with the idea that any reading is good reading, even if it's comic books or "trashy" romance novels. I've tried my best to instill this in my own daughter and she loves reading. She loves it so much it's becoming more and more difficult to find books. LOL Books she enjoys a lot she has no qualms reading again. Her test CRCT test scores last year were off the charts in reading. She reads at about a 10th grade level and she just started the 7th grade. So I believe it. Great post!

  5. Anonymous9:03 PM

    Kelsey- I think losing to a 6th grader who reads War & Peace is an honorable loss.
    Amanda- We know the feeling of "What books are left?" When a regular customer comes in who always takes my suggestions, after awhile I start to get nervous... once you've read all my favorites, what else can I give you? I often find it's time to go to the classics section, and pick up all the old stuff that maybe she hasn't gotten to yet. But congrats on raising a book lover- one of the better gifts you could've passed on, no?

  6. Wow! I knew that kids owning their own books was important but I thought it was more for early literacy so that the kids could get the repetition from owning their books. How come library books don't count? What if you could check the book out all summer? (ie 2 renewals at 3 weeks plus checkout for 3 weeks).

    I will be sure to donate my children's books so that they end up in the hands of needy kids! We have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to children's books.


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