The following letter to the editor by NYSUT Vice President Maria Neira appeared in the Ithaca Journal Saturday, June 16, 2007.
Warm weather and longer days are signs that the end of the school year is near.
The last day of school, however, should not mean the last day of reading until September for students, particularly those children who live in poverty or who are having difficulty meeting the state's learning standards in English and math.
Children who read regularly over the summer make learning gains. Unfortunately, research also shows that children who do not read when the school year ends experience losses in reading comprehension and word recognition. This “summer slippage” is part of what creates the achievement gap.
The achievement gap, as we know, is caused by many factors. Achievement for at-risk students is jeopardized by sweeping social issues. Among them are poverty, inadequate health care, substandard housing, insufficient early childhood education and schools that have traditionally been denied the resources they need.
Faced with these obstacles, it's vitally important that children, especially those living in poverty, continue to read and learn over the summer. One study, by Johns Hopkins University's Center for Summer Learning, suggests that children in lower income families can lose nearly three months of grade-level equivalency over the summer. Meanwhile, middle-income students, on average, actually experience slight gains in reading performance.
Fortunately, there are some simple, helpful strategies that can help all children - regardless of their background - continue their academic growth over the long summer break. While July and August are certainly opportunities for picnicking, swimming and other recreational activities, it's very important that children continue to read regularly. Every community has a local library. Regular visits to the library should be part of every family's summer plans.
By encouraging their children to read - and by reading to and with their children - parents can help children close the achievement gap and do better in school by avoiding the “summer slump.”
Any time that parents spend reading with their children is helpful to the learning process. Parents should also encourage discussion about plot, characters and themes. Talking to children about their favorite characters, or about the parts of a book they liked best, is a way to help develop reading comprehension skills.
As a teacher, I've learned that the kind of books young children read is not nearly as important as just having children continue to read. Of course, the books children pick out should be appropriate to their age, grade level and reading ability. But, whether the book is a mystery, biography, novel, adventure story or a slice of history - or even a newspaper or teen magazine - what counts most is that children enjoy it and improve their reading skills over the summer.
In addition, learning can continue with trips to local museums, educational nature walks, leisurely and healthy bike rides and visits to see plays in local parks. Many of these “summer stock” plays are free and are a great way for families to come together on a picnic blanket and enjoy entertaining live theater.
In the days ahead, teachers want parents to encourage their children to build a love for reading and for learning. And, remember: success in reading comes one page at a time. Have a great summer!
For more information about your local library, call the New York State Division of Library Development at (518) 474-7890.
Maria Neira, a former bilingual elementary school teacher, is vice president of the 585,000-member New York State United Teachers. She lives in Loudonville, N.Y.