Summer reading pays off in September

Are there any children in your household? How about your extended family, church or neighborhood? Think about the kids in your community, whether they are yours or not, and now think about all the things you want for them as they grow up. I’m willing to bet somewhere high on your list is a good education.

I bring this up because it’s summer. Students are out of school, and for a lot of students that means the brain slips into neutral until September. Hard-earned skills gained during the school year atrophy.

Consider these findings from the National Summer Learning Association:

• For 100 years researchers have documented that students score lower on tests at the end of summer break than at the beginning.

• Most students lose about two months’ worth of progress in math skills during the summer.

• Low-income students lose more than two months in reading achievement.

• More than half of the achievement gap between low- and high-income students is explained by the difference in summer learning opportunities.

Of course, not all students lose ground. Middle- and upper-income students actually gain reading skill during the summer. They are more likely to be enrolled in enriching and stimulating camps or have new experiences with grandparents, friends and relatives. Some families will take vacations and see new landscapes and try new foods, talking and learning about it all the while.

The effect is cumulative. A child who loses academic ground all summer in first grade makes up some, but not all of that ground the next school year. Then he falls back again next summer. Year after year. By high school the gap is enormous, and low-income students face a bleak future; they are less likely to finish high school, let alone go on for more education.

West Virginia has a lot of low-income students.

But what if every person reading this newspaper had the ability to make a difference for the children in their lives?

You know I’m setting you up here. Of course, we do. When we read to children, just for fun, they learn. They learn new words. They learn new ideas. When they listen to us read, they gain reading fluency on their own, and I don’t even understand how.

But you’ve seen them in action. Think of the kid you know who only had to hear a naughty word once, in passing, to spit it out at exactly the wrong moment at the holiday dinner table, or in front of the in-laws. They’re always learning, whether we take care about what they’re exposed to or not.

So, whatever else you do this summer, find the kid nearest you and make time to read together this summer. Even read to kids who are old enough to read themselves.

You are reading this, which means you are a reader. So, chances are you already know what I’m talking about.

But think again to the kids around you, and to their parents. Do they know? Tell them. Help those parents discover this habit and make time for it in their own busy lives.

Take kids or families to the library. Help them get library cards or clear out old library debts.

Let children pick out the books they want to hear. And if they want to hear the same story 50 times, read it until you are hoarse.

They’ll love it. So will you. And you will change the future.

— Dawn Miller, a native of Inwood, graduated from Musselman High School and West Virginia University. She is the former chairwoman of Read Aloud West Virginia and the editorial page editor of The Charleston Gazette, where this commentary first appeared. This piece is used with permission. She may be reached at dawnmiller25301@gmail.com.

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