How to build a summer reading program that engages students and families

As the summer months approach, our thoughts are focused on keeping students engaged in reading when school is out. Research shows that reading at least 20 minutes a day, every day, all year long, can make a world of difference for students, regardless of their ages or grade levels.

We know that daily reading practice also helps students avoid the dreaded summer slide, which can rob them of gains they made the previous school year—and that puts disadvantaged students even further behind when they return to school in the fall.

How to engage students in reading is a challenge that educators face daily within the school setting. It becomes an even bigger challenge during those times when students are out of school: over weekends, during school holidays, for unexpected school closures, and especially during the long summer break.

Cultivating a culture of summer reading

To help turn the summer slide into summer growth, our team works with districts and schools to develop and implement best practices that increase the time students spend reading when their regular school year has ended. We call this approach “cultivating a culture of summer reading.”

Our overall goal is to ensure that students are reading just-right books wherever they may be—in formal summer school programs, within their communities, at home, or on the go—and that they are having fun reading. This is summertime, after all!

Formal summer school programs

Schools that are in session during the summer months can mirror many of the best practices they employ all year long. Here are some basic steps that educators can take:

  • Work with students to set reading goals. Our team encourages 20 minutes of independent reading daily to build stamina.
  • Ensure students know how to track their own progress, which helps them to take ownership over their reading. If students are using a digital reading platform like myON, their reading activity will be seamlessly captured and visible within their accounts. Online or hard copy reading logs are another option.
  • Reinforce reading routines with students to help them begin to develop strong reading habits. Setting a designated time for reading each day like D.E.A.R. (“Drop Everything and Read”) is one way to accomplish this.
  • Embed themed literacy projects that incorporate reading and writing activities within the summer school curricula, enabling students to practice reading skills while engaging with subject-matter content.
  • Establish summer book clubs to motivate students to read and help build other communication skills as they share their reading experiences with peers and teachers.
  • Create summer reading challenges that allow students to achieve their own personal best, rewarding them with certificates of achievement or other awards.
  • Set up contests that motivate students to compete for specific goals—individually or by group, class, or grade level. Multiply the fun by selecting weekly winners, then entering those winners into an end-of-program drawing for prizes and other forms of recognition.
  • Celebrate reading successes at end-of-summer events, which can include themed activities complete with refreshments, games, and awards. Events can be held at the school or a nearby location, and feature guest appearances by local celebrities.

In the community

Working within the community to support summer reading may involve partnering with public libraries and local organizations that offer summer programming, as well as businesses and organizations that can provide other types of support. Here are some proven strategies for including them all:

  • Begin by setting goals for summer reading with community partners, and enlist their support to help launch and communicate information about your summer reading initiative through a variety of channels—signs and posters, local media, social media, and word-of-mouth.
  • Collaborate with community partners to help identify opportunities and locations where students and their families can access reading resources over the summer months. This includes information on local public libraries and mobile book buses that visit sites within the community, as well as other locations that offer children their own free books.
  • Provide information on Wi-Fi access points to support student reading of digital resources, some of which may be within buildings owned or operated by partner organizations.
  • Work with partners to recruit and train volunteers to support summer reading activities within the community. Consider planning challenges and events that can be co-sponsored by one or more community partner organizations. Factor end-of-summer reading celebrations into your planning, too.
  • Distribute summer reading information to students and families at the end of the school year, before the summer break begins, and reinforce a strong reading message all summer long in collaboration with community partners.

At home or on the go

Whether students are enrolled in formal summer programs or reading independently, it is important to engage families and promote reading at home. These basic strategies work when families are on the go as well:

  • Rely on that critical school-to-home connection to help families understand how important it is for students to read at least 20 minutes a day, every day. Explain that providing a reading space and setting aside time in their student’s schedule every day to read—independently or together with family members—is essential.
  • Provide families with information about their student’s reading level so they can help them find just-right books.
  • Offer students and families connections to print and digital reading resources, along with opportunities to read together, including those provided within the community. Also, share the latest edition of What Kids Are Reading, a free report that lists popular books and digital reads at every grade level.
  • Remind families to ask their children questions before and after reading. Help them understand how they can extend a reading experience by finding and reading other books on a popular topic or theme.
  • Encourage families to celebrate reading with their children. They might plan a special family experience, such as a trip to the zoo, a museum, or the aquarium, once students have met their reading goals—or celebrate at home with a pizza or movie night.

Funding your summer reading initiative

Finding and securing funding is a topic that can make heads spin—but there are key strategies that can help you sort it out and make the best choices to support your summer program needs.

Three potential sources of funding—your district or school budget, grants from foundations, and contributions from corporations—have the potential to fund your summer learning program, either as the sole source or in combination with one of the other two.

The first place to look for dollars to fund summer learning is in district or individual school budgets:

  • Federal formula funds that are allocated according to a specific population of students are generally referred to as Title funds, and they can be used to support summer reading programs.
  • Competitive grants that have already been awarded, like Striving Readers Comprehensive Literacy or Innovative Approaches to Literacy, may include funding for summer literacy. The five-year Comprehensive Literacy State Development grants, which were awarded to 13 states in 2019, are in the process of being sub-granted to districts now. If your state was awarded and your district is applying, it would be a good idea to include summer literacy as part of your subgrant application.
  • Sometimes a district may receive an increase in federal funding which they consider a windfall—unexpected money—which could fund summer learning.
  • Unspent funds within the budget (local, state, or federal) that are not going to be expended before the end of the fiscal year could be available for summer learning. For example, if a district has more than 15 percent in unspent federal funds, the amount above 15 percent must be spent before the end of the current school year.

Next, look at sources of private money, which are typically foundations and corporations.

When looking for foundation funding, follow these simple guidelines:

  • Start close to home, since local foundations are more likely to offer support than those that are more distant.
  • Do some research to find out which foundations have given to other schools, or to other organizations serving children.
  • Confirm your eligibility by checking foundation websites for their priorities, eligibility requirements, and application process. Capture key ideas or specific language you’ll want to incorporate into your grant proposal.

Finally, when it comes to corporate funding, remember that the same basic approach applies:

  • Look first for corporations with a presence within your community.
  • Think broadly: Which organizations are the largest employers in your area, beyond the school district or local hospitals? Are any companies headquartered nearby or are there corporations with manufacturing plants or distribution centers in the vicinity? Are there companies in which clusters of students’ parents are employed, including large retailers? Which companies does the district do business with—banks, utility companies, office supplies, food vendors?
  • Check out corporate websites for a section related to funding opportunities, which may be labeled corporate responsibility, community involvement, request a donation, or something similar, and look for information on how to submit an application.

Whether you are applying for corporate or foundation funding, keep your request focused on the students and the need, which is to prevent summer learning loss. Explain why this is a problem. Describe in the most compelling way possible the target population who will benefit from the grant, and what their specific needs are (improved achievement, increased test scores, meeting grade-level proficiencies).

Remember that the summer learning products you plan to purchase, staff you plan to employ, and other resources you will need in order to implement the summer program are the approach or method by which you will meet the need—not the need itself.

Wrapping it all up

Summer reading loss is real and the solution is clear—making sure we get students hooked on summer reading! By setting attainable goals, providing access to engaging, just-right print and digital reading materials, involving families, collaborating with community partners, and celebrating reading successes, students will come out ahead of the curve—and ready for the new school year.

Looking for more tips on planning and funding a summer learning program? Check out our new on-demand webinar to see what’s working in other districts.

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