Summer means libraries across the region are gearing up for the summer reading club season, and one of the biggest challenges they face all year, getting kids to continue reading over summer vacation. Talk to nearly any educator, and they’ll tell you. Kids who don’t read over the summer are at risk.

School soon will be out for the summer, and that means thousands of kids will take their annual break from reading, writing and arithmetic for things such as swimming, hanging on monkey bars and playing video games.


It also means libraries are gearing up for the summer reading club season, and one of the biggest challenges they face all year, getting kids to continue reading over summer vacation.


Talk to nearly any educator, and they’ll tell you. Kids who don’t read over the summer are at risk.


Kids whose reading skills have suffered what educators call “summer setback” can experience problems in other areas, as well.


“It’s very real,” said Amber Miller, a third-grade teacher at Welsh Elementary School in Rockford, Ill. “You can tell when they come back in the fall who has made progress and who hasn’t. Some even fall back a level. If they haven’t kept up on their skills or lost the skills they learned the previous year, you have to get in and reteach those skills as quickly as possible.”


Many programs are set up like clubs where kids set goals and track their progress with the help of a parent or guardian. The clubs award prizes and offer programs and activities that children can attend during the week. Some end the summer with pizza parties or field trips for kids who complete the program.


“Most summer reading programs are free to anyone with a library card, which in this economy can mean a lot to parents,” Rockford Public Library Community Relations Officer Emily Hartzog said. “We have a lot of great sponsors who help us with the prizes.”


Making books exciting


This summer will mark Hannah Whitmore’s first year in a summer reading program. She’s 3.


Parents Sarah and Steven Whitmore of Rockford said they decided to sign her up this summer so she can stay interested in books.


“We’ve been coming to story time, and she enjoys that,” Sarah Whitmore said as Hannah worked on a sticker project at a nearby table in the Rockford Public Library’s East side branch.


“We think it will be a good way to get her excited about books and ready for school,” Steven Whitmore said.


“We figure if we can keep her interested and excited about reading, then she’ll enjoy it and it won’t seem like a chore or something she has to do,” Sarah added.


It worked for Josie Higdon of Rockford. Josie, 9, has been a summer reading club participant for the past five years. She’s read her way through the themes of athletes, space and pirates.


“I like getting the prizes,” Josie said.


Like the Whitmores, Josie’s mom, Sebrina Higdon, said she likes how the program uses fun to disguise the learning.


“They make it so the kids don’t really know that they’re working on their reading,” Higdon said. “To them it’s about learning new and exciting things and being able to go to the party at Magic Waters [water park] at the end of the summer.”


Parents must buy in


Findings from the 1978 study “Summer Learning and the Effects of Schooling” are more than 30 years old, but Hartzog said they still ring as true as ever today.


She references the study in the district’s materials for parents regarding the summer reading program.


“The study found that participation in a library summer reading club was a major factor in getting children to read over the summer and was more predictive of vocabulary gains than attending summer school,” Hartzog said. “The decline of reading skills over the summer can accumulate to a 2-year reading level gap by the time students hit middle school.


“Our goal is make the program fun, engaging and appealing to all ages and make sure that children maintain those reading and critical and analytical skills that they were working on all year,” Hartzog said. “We want to alleviate the pressure on teachers when these kids return to school.”


Nothing is possible, however, without parental buy in, Hartzog said. “It’s one of the things we put right on our summer reading log. ‘Your encouragement of reading to your child is more important than any prize we could every give them.’ That’s huge,” she said. “It goes across race and even previous achievement. Children who read more books over the summer do better on reading tests in the fall.” 


Sandy Aden at the North Suburban Library District in Rockford agrees with Hartzog’s assessment of summer reading programs.


“Think about it. They’re just learning to do this. I took piano lessons as a child. I haven’t played in a while. I can guarantee you that I could still play something, but it wouldn’t be nearly as good as when I was practicing. It’s the same thing,” Aden said. “Children are honing their reading skills. It’s a critical time.”


Summer efforts show


On the front lines, area educators say they can usually tell within in the first couple of days of school whether a child has participated in some type of reading or educational program over the summer months. The ones who have not tend to struggle more. It’s more difficult for them to get back into the routine of school, and they often need extra help from their teacher or a reading specialist to get back up to speed.


“We’re constantly assessing nowadays. It guides our teaching,” said Sue McMahon, reading coach at Froberg Elementary School in Rockford. “When we see that summer setback has affected a child, we put a plan in place right away. We’ll design some kind of support for that child to get them back to where they need to be.” 


Summer setback is harmful to a child’s educational progress in multiple ways.


“At the beginning of the year, you want to be able to jump right into the new curriculum, said David Molck, principal at Jackson Elementary School in Rockford and a teacher of 19 years. “We you have to spend a lot of time in the beginning getting them back up to speed from what they lost over the summer, you fall behind where you should be that year.”


The lure of prizes and parties for reaching reading goals needs to be monitored, however, Miller warned. This is where parental involvement plays a big role.


“The one thing parents need to do is be involved enough to know if their kid is really reading what they say their reading and reading at an appropriate level,” she said. “The prizes become a big deal, and parents need to make sure that their kids are using the program the way it was meant to be used.”


Corina Curry is a staff writer at the Rockford Register Star. She can be reached at ccurry@rrstar.com or 815-987-1371.