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Helping to Prevent Summer Reading Loss

by Julie M. Wood, Ed.D.

Julie M. Wood, Ed.D.

Julie Wood is a literacy expert and an educational consultant. She is also an advisor for PBS KIDS Island. Read more »

Sorry, Julie M. Wood, Ed.D. is no longer taking questions.

Once upon a time, in a world before the Internet, smart phones and other wireless devices, there were books. And you'd go to the library all summer long and check out seven or eight at a time. You'd head for a shady spot under a tree, or a hammock if you were really lucky, and devour all sorts of books,from The Borrowers, to Mary Poppins, to Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing.

For me, it was entering into the world of Island of the Blue Dolphins, oblivious to the day of the week or chores that needed to be done. And whatever else I was doing over the summer, I'd be sure to find time to read. Ever since I learned to read, books were my touchstone -- from age 5 throughout the rest of my life.

Now, of course, children have a wealth of books to choose from, many of which are even more entertaining and reminiscent of a larger world than those we had back then. From DK Eyewitness books to Harry Potter, children have a mind-boggling assortment of fiction and nonfiction choices.

As parents, one of our major roles is to make sure that children set aside time every day to read - to read for pleasure, for information, for the vicarious thrill of living in an imaginary world. Why is this so important?

  • Children need to engage with books every day so they can maintain, and ideally strengthen, all the literacy skills they learned during the previous school year. Assistant Principal Twana Santana-Embry compares reading to exercising, telling her students that any time they read they are "strengthening their reading muscles."
  • The stakes for children who do not read over summer vacation are high. Substantial research on this topic shows it's usually the students who can least afford to lose ground as readers who are most likely to suffer from summer reading loss and fall far behind their peers.
  • The few months of loss in reading skills compounds over the years; by the time children reach middle school, those who haven't read during the summers may have lost as much as two years worth of achievement.

The good news is that if children read just six books over summer vacation, they will likely avoid summer reading loss. Here are a few ideas for reaching--and going beyond--this six book goal:

  • Take books with you and your child everywhere you go; to the doctor's office, on picnics, on road trips, etc.
  • Let your child choose the books she wants to read (as long as they're age-appropriate and are written at the just right level of difficulty).
  • Support his reading experience by talking about the books and helping him understand and interpret what he reads.
  • Read aloud to your child, even if he can read on his own. It helps build vocabulary and listening comprehension skills.
  • As you're reading aloud, be sure to interact with your child by asking what she thinks might happen next, what a certain character is likely to do, whether the story is real or make-believe, and so forth. Above all, have fun!
  • If you are more comfortable reading to your child in a language other than English, by all means do so. What your child learns in his or her native language will help create a bridge to learning English.
  • Encourage your child to participate in a summer reading program. Many libraries host them. Some bookstores do, too. You might also consider the PBS KIDS & Parents Reading Challenges which runs throughout the summer months.
  • In addition to reading books, children can practice their reading skills by engaging in many different online reading experiences. Literacy-building sites such as PBS KIDS Island for children ages 3-5, and the Great Word Quest for ages 6-8 (both of which are free) are great examples.

I truly believe that encouraging your child to continue flexing his or her reading muscles over summer vacation is the single most important thing you can do to help develop literacy learning. What do you think? How do you promote summer reading?

Sorry, Julie M. Wood, Ed.D. is no longer taking questions. Feel free to comment on the article and let us know what you think about the topic.


Sarah writes...

Great information! We love to read at my house. I'm interested to read the Q&A!

The link to PBS KIDS Island isn't working, and you can't get to it by using the drop down box either.

Hi Sarah. I fixed the link to PBS KIDS Island. Thanks!


Victoria Cummings writes...

Excellent article! The tips are doable by most everyone.
As a former educator, I can certainly speak to how important it is to keep exercising the mind muscle. (I love that phase.)

I recently wrote a series of blog posts on reading. One that comes to mind as I read the great advice you offered here is on helping parents to choose level appropriate books for their children. It is called the 5-finger rule and many educators and media specialist enlist this when needed to help children choose books.

Click on the link to read about it if you are interested.
Thanks again for such useable, simple advice.

Happy Parenting,
Victoria Cummings

Julie? writes...

Hi there, Victoria. Thank you for your kind words.
Yes, the 5-finger rule is a good one--thanks for providing
a link to a site that explains it. Since you are clearly a
very involved educator, what are some of your tips?
And what do you say to parents whose children just
aren't that interested in reading over the summer?

Thanks, and looking forward to hearing more. --Julie

Tyler writes...

I had not idea how easily kids can get behind if they don't read during the summers. Six books definitely seems like a good starting point.

My daughter is only 15 months now, but I really enjoy reading to her. I'm just not sure if I'm reading enough to her. Any ideas on a good goal for reading to younger children (5-6 board books/day)?

Also, is there any research on how limited-to no reading in adulthood impacts cognitive functions? I need to get myself motivated to read more as an adult and could use some hair-raising statistic to get me on the wagon again.

Many thanks for this post! I definitely feel inspired to keep reading to my little one.

Julie? writes...

Hi Tyler,
Great to hear from you as a mom who is dedicated to reading aloud to her
15-month old daughter. I don't know of any guidelines about how many books are
appropriate for very young learners. I would guess, though, that much of what
makes reading aloud so beneficial to toddlers is hearing their parent's voice, being held,
discovering that books are fun, and so forth. According to the Reach Out and Read Organization, parents can do the following to develop their child's early literacy skills (12-18 month olds):
"respond to child's prompting to read; let the child control the book; be comfortable with toddler's short attention span; ask 'where's the. . . ?' and let child point." (For more guidelines see

As for your own reading, sorry to say I don't have a hair-raising statistic to get you back on track! Have you thought of starting a book group and meeting every month to discuss a particular book? I've been meeting with a book group for over a decade. The other members have introduced me to a great many books I couldn't put down! What do you think?

Best regards, Julie

Melissa writes...

My kids love to read for prizes and free books! It's pretty motivating for them. Plus, we go to yard sales and the library for new books every week.


Julie? writes...

Hi Melissa. Thanks for writing. Do your children go to a special program where they read and win prizes and free books, or have you set up a program at home? Please tell us more!
What are the ages of your children? And what books have they especially enjoyed reading this summer? We'd love to hear more. Best wishes, Julie

Natalie writes...

Thank you for the excellent article. I've found that exposing my five-year-old son to new types of reading materials has really sparked his interest this summer. We are avid readers but there's something about doing it in a new way (outside, on my phone's Kindle ap, listening to audio books, books about our summer vacation spot, etc.) that excites everyone.

I'm wondering if you have any advice for new readers in terms of the balance between how much he reads and how much I read to him. He's been reading for about six months (level 1 - 3 easy readers) and starts kindergarten in the fall. Do I push him to practice his new skills more or just let him enjoy the act of reading? Right now he reads approximately 10-15 minutes each day and I read to him approximately 20-40 minutes, depending on how busy we are on any given day. (The only reason I even know the number of minutes is because of the summer reading programs we're tracking minutes for!)

This is such a critical topic -- I hope it is reaching the people who really need to hear it!

Julie? writes...

Hi Natalie,
Glad to find so many kindred spirits out there who are making summer reading an important part of their day. It sounds as though you're really enjoying reading books on your phone. It's great that you're mixing in some nonfiction titles (info. about where you're vacationing) along with fiction.

You seem to be on the right track re: reading together and having your son read books
that he can handle on his own. Have you tried shared reading/partner reading, whereby you
and your son alternate reading pages aloud? I love reading this way with children, partly because it's fun, but also because when you read aloud to a child, you're modeling expression and are often the first to say the name of the characters and introduce new vocabulary (depending on how the plot plays out). Let us know your thoughts! Best wishes, Julie

Mary writes...

Audiobooks keep literacy skills sharp in the summer! Try my list of recommendations here:

Julie? writes...

Hi Mary,
Thank you so much for writing and supplying us with your audiobook
recommendations. I'll definitely check it out.
How did you come up with your list? And what age group are
you targeting.
Thanks, and happy listening, Julie

Christine writes...

I agree about the reading but what if your child now a middle school boy doesn't like to read. I have been left to bribe and reward for the 20 minutes of reading he does. each day He is still on the first book but at least he is reading. Most boys do not like to read why?

Julie? writes...

Hi Christine,
I know what you mean, and hear this complaint from many mothers of
middle schoolers, especially boys. There are so many other things they'd rather be doing.

Have you tried making a connection between
what he's really, really interested in and books/magazines/websites? Or, has
he shown any interest in the Harry Potter books/movies? So many boys
have been drawn back into reading through the Harry Potter series.

What do other other parents of middle schoolers think? What has helped your
son or daughter get hooked on reading? -Julie

vanessa writes...

thank you so much. your article has helped my child so much. She is interested in reading and is reading beyond her level.

Julie? writes...

Hi Vanessa,
Great to hear from you! What reading activities have you and your daughter
been involved in this summer? How old is your daughter? What advice do you have for other parents to make reading fun and adventurous? Thanks! --Julie

Hi Vanessa,
Great to hear from you! What reading activities have you and your daughter
been involved in this summer? How old is your daughter? What advice do you have for other parents to make reading fun and adventurous? Thanks! --Julie

Alex writes...

Great article! I believe it's important that the children see their parents reading. You'll find it hard to get your child to read if they don't see you do it. I have a friend who started her kid reading at age 3, with Archie comic books. The little girl couldn't read but she could look at the pictures. After a while, she was asking her mom what the words meant, then trying to pronounce them. Now, the kid's favorite place in the mall is the bookstore.

Julie? writes...

Hey there, Alex!
Thanks for writing.
It's great when children take off this way--if Archie comic books did the trick for your friend's daughter, well you never know what will be the catalyst. I take your point about how important it is for children to see their parents and other adults around them engaged in reading. It really helps drive home the point that reading is a great activity to integrate into family life.

Do other folks have similar stories about when a young child took off as a reader?
Thanks, Julie

Allan writes...

Instead of bribing kids with rewards and prizes and saying ' At least he is reading ' parents could benefit from the info shared both Julie and others . This will certainly help kids become life-long readers and find reading intrinsically rewarding. When the reward is in the form of books , the extrinsic motivation is less of a problem.
When we replace the intrinsic emotional reward of reading with a financial one , there is little chance of a kid developing a love for reading. There is another way but it means ' reaching the kid'

I was wondering whether the Summer Challenge program was consitent with my impression of the article

Julie? writes...

Hi Allan,
You're right. One of the big goals for us as teachers and parents is to help children develop a love of reading and become lifelong readers. And, as you point out, when the reward is intrinsic (to the child), we're most of the way there.

Could you say more about the Summer Challenge program? Is this a national
literacy program?

Thanks! --Julie

Great article mam - I say that kids these days are really not into reading anymore they are really lazy when it comes to reading, they rather go online and surf on the net than reading books. How could I make my children read books? but an alternative would work.

Julie? writes...

Hi NV Henderson Foreclosure.
Great to hear from you.

I hear you on kids' competing interests that sometimes trump book reading--and yet, with a bit of encouragement, we might be able to develop their appreciation of nonfiction and literature (away from the screen).

But while children are surfing, how about directing them to some of the PBS websites I mentioned in my article? The choice would, of course, depend on their age and interests. But the websites can present a great bridge from media to books.

Do you see ways to channel their interest in media into worthwhile reading activities?
~ Julie

klipizle writes...

It is a really great article. In this technological world, it is really hard to take children away from computer and make them read a book. (at least it is hard to make my brother read a book)

Cara writes...

I think it's important to remember and to pass along to kids, no matter the age, that reading does not only take place in a book. Especially with middle school boys and girls, showing them examples of other things they can read may help motivate them to read more. There are articles, magazines, newspapers, and TONS more opportunities to experience written text.

Another great way to motivate kids to read is to search for topics, authors, articles or books that are interesting to them. By allowing kids to have some choice over what they read, they are more invested in the text.

Lastly, I know there is a lot of controversy over whether ebooks will take over regular books. In a time when the majority of what kids do is online, allowing them to read online may not be a negative concession to make. There are tons of great opportunities for kids to explore rich texts in online forms where they will learn just as much as they would reading from the traditional version.

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