As schools close in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, educators and parents alike are thinking about how the ways that kids spend the coming months will affect their school readiness in the fall—especially in the development of crucial reading skills. Children living in disadvantaged communities are particularly vulnerable to falling behind, and although a scan of 82 school districts serving some 9 million children by the Center on Reinventing Public Education finds schools making strides in remote learning, there is still a long way to go.
Harvard education professor James Kim has some guidance to offer amid all this uncertainty. Kim is the key person behind READS for Summer Learning, a read-at-home literacy program designed to help students sharpen their reading skills when school is out of session. Research has shown that the program, which was developed for use by school districts, helped students in high-poverty elementary schools gain nearly 1.5 months of reading skills on average compared with non-participants. As the likelihood grows that classroom doors may be shuttered for months, Kim is providing all READS resources free online and is adapting them for use by parents and caregivers. Recently, he discussed why reading matters so much, what parents can do to encourage more of it, and how educators should be rethinking summer literacy programs.
How important is it that children keep reading and learning during this period?
We’re living in an unprecedented moment in history. For many families, reading is probably a very distal concern. Many are focused on basic necessities. But if you think about why we read, the purpose is not comprehension. We read to escape, to feel less stress in our life, to be entertained, to learn how to make chocolate-chip cookies. Reading can help with some of the deep emotions that we’re feeling right now, like stress, anxiety and isolation. I was a history major in college, and one of the great things about reading history is that it builds, as David McCullough says, empathy and compassion. You feel great compassion for other human beings who lived through events like the Civil War. You realize you’re not alone in all of this, that other people have gone through similar circumstances and survived. Reading teaches you that. It helps you feel connected to the broader human community both today and in the past.
The other reason for children to keep reading is that many of them, if not all, are going to have a five-month summer break. We’re fairly confident from the research on summer learning loss that this is really going to affect vulnerable children the most, those from low-income families and families in which English is not the primary home language. It’s quite likely that the achievement gap in literacy may expand.
What are you hearing from educators? How are they trying to keep children reading while schools are closed?
Because school closings happened so quickly, some districts took short-term stop-gap measures, like encouraging kids to review and re-read books they had already read in class. Now that we know the outbreak is going to affect schools long-term, there’s an effort to start teaching new literature and content through remote learning tools. The real challenge is the equity issue. If a school used paper books in the classroom, how are kids going to access them at home? Some schools have had creative responses, like using Libby and Overdrive, which are apps that let families check out e-books from their public library.
We know that students from low-income households lose ground over the summer compared to their wealthier peers. What are the potential repercussions for children, especially those in disadvantaged communities, who face the real possibility that their school may not reopen until September?
The summer learning loss literature definitely shows that learning slows down in reading and math for all kids over the summer relative to the school year. I would argue that the repercussions of schools closing for five-and-a-half months will be felt by all children, but it’s going to probably exacerbate the inequalities between wealthy and poor families. We’re already seeing this in terms of food insecurity, housing insecurity. That will probably manifest itself also in literacy learning opportunities and outcomes. Families who have money will buy books for their kids, while families who are more dependent on public services and have less money will not. That is why public schools must be preparing high-quality, evidence-based resources that are free and easy for everyone to access.
Should out-of-school-time providers and schools be retooling their summer programs, in light of kids potentially having missed two to three months of instruction?
I think it’s inevitable. As schools consider retooling programs, they have to start thinking of home as the context of where a lot of literacy learning is going to happen over the summer. They have to be asking if their program can reach all kids, vulnerable kids in particular, and if it’s evidence-based. I’m confident that READS for Summer Learning is, because we ran 10 RCTs [randomized controlled trials] on it.
The READS program has been a mix of classroom lessons in the spring and at-home reading over the summer, but we’re retooling it to make it completely home-based. Essentially, we’re turning it into a free, easy-to-access program for parents to use. We’re making YouTube videos of practice lessons for grades 2 through 4 that explain the READS reading routine. Our website lists all the books we used for READS with links to Overdrive so parents can borrow e-versions from their public library for free. We’re trying to include simple tips for parents to help them determine their child’s reading level. One is to have the child read 100 words of a book and raise a finger for each word that’s hard to decode. If a child has five or more fingers up, the book might be too hard. Parents can also access all the comprehension activities we created for every book in the READS program. If parents have a smart phone, which most do, they can access all of this for free. Schools and nonprofits can do this, too. Since so many schools are running Zoom classrooms and doing remote lessons, the READS lessons could be done by a teacher and include class-time.
Is this a time that parents and caregivers can use to their advantage? How can they encourage their kids to read—and to get the most from their reading?
I have three kids in third, fourth and fifth grade. In my home, I practice what I call the three Rs of reading: Read aloud, read and retells. Pick a book that your child likes and read it out loud to them. When you’re done, ask your child to read out loud a section of the book they really liked. Have them read it again and after, encourage them by saying something like, “Wow! You read more smoothly that time and with more expression.” What you’re sneaking in there is fluency practice. Then do a little retell activity. Ask them if the book reminds them of anything that they’ve done before. These activities are simple, fun, and they’re also evidence-based.
In addition to the 3 Rs, I also encourage my kids to re-read books. The principal determinant of how engaged you are with any text is how much you know about the text. So when kids re-read, they actually know more about it, and they’re more engaged. I also do a lot of compare-and-contrast activities. My daughter loves animals, so we might compare a nonfiction book about polar bears with a fiction book like Polar Bears at Bedtime, a Magic Treehouse book. You can discuss books at mealtime, too. I like to ask my kids, “Tell me something you’re reading, tell me something new you learned.”
Photo: James Kim reads with his children in 2018. Photo by Claire Holt.