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Surprising Science

When Kids Decide What They Read, They Read More

Letting kids take control of their summer reading may help boost test scores and prevent the “summer slide.”

Every summer in grade school, my teachers would dole out mandatory reading complete with a one- or two-page essay about said book. The merciful ones would at least give us a list of books to choose from. Many of my peers would cry that their summers were ruined by such a minor inconvenience as reading. To their dismay, lead researcher Erin Kelly found in a recent study that a summer of no academic stimulation means several months of losing academic ground. But summer reading can help stem this loss, especially when kids get to choose their own books.

She explained in a press release:

“Reading proficiency is a critical skill and an important determinant of health. However, many students, particularly low-income students, struggle.”

Not all schools practice this policy of implementing mandatory summer reading for their students. However, Kelly found that Florida implemented an intervention at high-poverty elementary schools, allowing students to select their summer reading. The initiative dramatically improved reading among the kids. Kelly wanted to replicate this intervention with low-income Rochester City School students.

Kelly explained further, saying:

“This is a tremendous challenge in Rochester. Only 21 percent of Rochester students are proficient on the state English/language arts exam, and the high school graduation rate is an abysmal 43 percent.”

The researchers hosted a pilot study in 2013, letting 18 second-graders choose 13 books free from a school book fair. Another group of 20 second-graders acted as a control group, where they received a few grade-appropriate books mailed to them by a community group. In this study, researchers found the group of 18 improved their reading scores significantly, whereas the control group showed no such improvements.

A year later, in 2014, the project was expanded to include kindergarten through second grade. In this study, there were some ethical concerns based on the findings of the pilot experiment. So, the control-group students did receive grade-appropriate books mailed to them, but were allowed to choose a few of those books. However, students in the other group were allowed to choose all of their books, being able to load their backpacks full of 15 books.

The results from this test, however, showed no significant difference between their test scores. Among all the students in this test, 75 percent of them either maintained or improved their reading scores, compared to an average summer learning loss recorded among other low-income students from prior studies. However, Kelly saw these results as a positive sign, saying in a press release:

“This simple intervention allowing students to choose their own books at [the] end of the school year had a significant positive impact. A multifaceted approach is needed to address poor child-literacy rates, but this intervention can be part of the solution.”

It shows that even if students can’t pick all their books, improvements can be seen. However, for the best results, it seems teachers should let students have some autonomy over their summer reading. From my own personal experiences with summer reading, the first time a teacher let me pick my books from a list, I ended up reading more than the mandatory amount.

Read more about the study at Science Daily.

Photo Credit: Tim Pierce / Flickr


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