When teachers faithfully implement an evidence-based summer reading program, research shows that children’s summer learning grows — an encouraging finding for educators working to prevent summer learning loss. But that growth in learning is still less than what it could be, and strict adherence to a curriculum doesn’t usually create deep or lasting change in teachers’ instructional practice, either, writes James Kim, a literacy and summer learning expert at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
To enhance learning and teaching, giving more agency and flexibility to teachers can help. New research finds that these summer learning programs are more effective when teachers have leeway to personalize them for students and families.
Preparing Students (and Families) for Summer Reading
These findings come from a recent study evaluating an adaptation of READS for Summer Learning, a curriculum that fosters elementary students’ engagement in books over the summer.
The traditional READS program, for which Kim is the principal investigator, is backed by a decade of research showing positive results. Teachers participating in the curriculum facilitate in-class lessons and family engagement events near the end of the school year, and they then send books, comprehension activities, and gentle reminders and incentives to children’s homes throughout the summer. To ensure the program’s impact, the lessons are pre-scripted, the family engagement events and promotional materials are prescribed, and a computer algorithm matches books to each child.
In the new, adaptive approach to READS, teachers can modify the timing and content of the lessons, change how they reach out to families and what the family engagement events look like, choose different books for each child to receive, and implement different nudges and incentives throughout the summer and fall.
The study, which Kim led, compared the impact of the traditional READS program with the adaptive program. Fourth-grade teachers participated from 27 high-poverty schools throughout North Carolina. Each of these schools were randomly assigned either to follow the traditional program or to take an adaptive approach. Overall, the program reached 1,315 students.
An Adaptive Approach Wins Out
Across the board, the more personalized implementation of READS was more effective. At the adaptive schools:
More families were engaged: 45 percent of families attended family literacy events, versus 35 percent at the traditional schools.
Students read more: They read .37 more of the matched books delivered to them than the students in the traditional schools.
Students read more challenging content: They were more likely to report that their books were “just right,” and less likely to report that they were “too easy,” than students in the traditional schools.
Students completed more activities: A marginally significant, higher number of students filled out their comprehension summer work in the adaptive schools.
Students learned more: Those in the adaptive schools scored significantly higher on literacy exams the following fall than students in the traditional schools.
This impact is significant: “It is large enough to offset the gap in reading comprehension that expands between low-income and middle-income children during the summer months,” write the authors, who include literacy reform researcher Mary Burkhauser.
The Importance of Teacher Agency and Program Personalization
One takeaway from this study is a sigh of relief that summer learning loss can be prevented. READS for Summer Learning is just one of many evidence-based interventions that can keep kids reading, learning, and developing all summer — so that they arrive back at school in the fall ready to dive into new content.
More than that, this research reminds us that the relationships teachers build with students and families are deeply valuable and can continue to have far-reaching effects even after students have left the classroom. Teachers in this study leveraged their knowledge of students and families to shape lessons and activities and to choose books for students to read. Using a researched-backed program is critical to tackling such a complex issue as summer learning loss — but students’ engagement and growth is greater when teachers can adapt the program to their individual needs.
This finding can apply more broadly to education research, too. “Even within structured programs, there is room for teacher adaptation — even relatively moderate changes — to enhance program effects,” write the authors. Researchers and program developers across education have to respect teachers’ expertise and empower them to adapt curricula in ways that will best serve their students.