Like athletes who stop training, children who stop reading for the summer can take a few steps backward in their learning journey.
Elementary school teachers call it the "summer slide" or "summer reading loss." It's been studied extensively. Kids who close their books for the summer lose about two or three months of the literacy development they achieved during the school year, according to researchers at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.
At the same time, those who do read move about one month ahead. It may seem small, but there's a cumulative effect: By the end of elementary school, there was a oneyear gap between the two groups, even though their formal education was the same.
"Absolutely, it's a real thing," said Paul Pantaleo, who helps struggling readers and writers as a learning-assistance teacher at Sir James Douglas Elementary School and also works as a sessional instructor at the University of Victoria. He spent 10 years as a reading-recovery teacher trainer. "If children do not read over the summer, in all likelihood, there will be a loss."
Jana Dick, Victoria West Elementary School's literacy teacher and vice-principal, was less certain about a gap between preand post-summer reading abilities.
"For the most part, I don't see a huge difference," she said.
The Ministry of Education does not track or assess students on the last day of school compared to the first, a spokesperson said.
But it's aware of summer learning loss and has taken steps to support school districts and give them flexibility - for example, by recently offering districts and schools the option of a full-year school calendar.
One thing that is clear is that data show that socio-economic inequality puts some kids at a disadvantage.
Another study from 2004, quoted by the Canadian Council on Learning, echoed its conclusion: While middle-income students showed a slight gain in reading scores over the summer, lower-income students showed a significant loss.
Pantaleo, who has worked in inner-city schools in Victoria for the majority of his 33-year teaching career, has seen the same thing here.
"I've found the majority of the parents want what's best for their children and they'll do whatever they can," he said. "[But] for a lot of them, it's hard to just make ends meet."
With that in mind, he prepares what he calls a "summer survival reading package," a bundle of books kids can take home with them. He also recommends libraries as a resource for parents.
"If books are readily available in the home, it's going to make such a difference," he said.
"And unfortunately, some of the parents don't have the money to buy books. But that's where the library can really help out."
Even if summer means distraction, it's also a time of opportunity.
"Summer is a great time, because in general, children have more time for reading for pleasure," said Tracy Kendrick, co-ordinator of children's and teens' services for the Greater Victoria Public Library.
School achievement aside, the value of reading is priceless, said Pantaleo.
"We need a society that is more literate than ever, despite what some people might be predicting," he said. "You hit a website? You need some form of literacy to navigate your way through it. Think about all the emailing we do, think about all the texting we do."
There is also enormous personal value in literacy, in terms of building self-esteem for kids.
"I cannot describe the feeling you get as a teacher when you have students who struggle come and see you. You work with them, you believe in them, you trust them and you see them improve," he said.
"They start to pick up that love of reading. Sure, some of them pick it up more than others, but that's why I've been at this for 33 years. I just cannot put a price on that."
HOW TO KEEP YOUR KIDS READING THIS SUMMER
We asked parents, educators and librarians for tips on how to encourage budding readers to keep up the habit this summer. Here are some of their suggestions:
The just-right reading level
Imagine yourself at the bookstore. You pick up a book, but find the writing confusing and frustrating. Are you going to take that book home? Probably not. And it's the same for kids.
"One of the big reasons why some children really dislike reading is it's just too hard for them," said Pantaleo. "What I've discovered is you must give them reading material at just the right level."
It's commonly called "just-right reading." Once they're at the right level, kids start to feel good about themselves, build selfesteem and can achieve more, he said.
To determine your child's just-right reading level, Dick recommends the "five-finger rule." As your child reads his way through a page, he should raise a finger each time he struggles.
"If you get to the end of the page and you have your whole hand open, that book would be too hard for you," Dick said.
Once you know your child's level, ask a librarian for appropriate book recommendations. Several publishers, including Nelson Education, also put out books ranked for different-level readers.
Every bit counts
The disappearance of routine is the biggest reason kids may lose reading skills during the summer, aside from socio-economic inequality and inaccessibility of reading material that goes with it, Pantaleo said.
It's not necessarily about quantity of reading, but regularity.
"It's getting out of a routine of daily schooling," said Pantaleo, who suggests parents establish a 10-to 15-minute reading time for kids. "If you go small, it's more likely to happen."
Kendrick echoed his recommendation. "We encourage kids to read for at least 20 minutes a day," she said. "The goal is not to read lots of different books, but to read for a certain amount of time."
Think outside the box
It may be a hard belief to shake, but books aren't the only reading that counts.
"We have this idea that 'the novel' is reading. But there's also a whole lot of literacy involved in other forms of reading, such as being able to read a situation in a video game," said teen services librarian Kirsten Andersen. "Oftentimes you think, 'Why aren't you reading?' But really, [videogame players] are achieving high levels of literacy, visual literacy, other kinds of literacy and problem-solving."
The biggest challenge that educators and parents face is engagement, according to Pantaleo. So whatever it takes to get kids engaged is important - even if it means embracing non-traditional definitions for a "story."
"I think we need to think outside the box," said Pantaleo. "There are lots of computer programs and websites out there that parents can access."
His own family will soon be reading on four devices: an iPad, iPod and computer, as well as old-fashioned books.
"That's what our children will be exposed to as well, which I think is really, really good," he said.
Joe Cardle, principal of Victoria West Elementary School said if kids show an interest in e-readers, go with it. "If that'll give kids an opportunity to be engaged in reading and that's a means of making it work, use it," he said.
Aside from accepting technology, alternative story forms are a great way to encourage reading. Graphic novels are particularly popular with older kids, said Pantaleo.
"They're out there, children love them."
He also recommends "alternate picture books," like Jon Scieszka's The Stinky Cheese Man.
"They're non-traditional," he said. "I've never come across a child who doesn't enjoy that kind of reading. It's quirky; it's motivating."
Kids in the library's summer reading club can count audio books on their reading record. The library also offers "stories-togo" boxes - Rubbermaid totes include 10 picture books, two CDs and puppets.
If your child isn't stoked on reading, try being flexible on subject matter.
"The key to being a life-long reader and learner is to love it," Kendrick said.
Not sure where to start? Try the funny stuff.
"I think something that's been perennially popular and maybe hasn't received much of a media profile is books that have a lot of humour in them," she said. "Diary of a Wimpy Kid is so popular. Kids who like that book would probably also like Captain Underpants - Dear Dumb Diary - The Bones series."
If fiction doesn't float their boat, try nonfiction. They may not be into vampires, but will voraciously consume a science book about dinosaurs. Unacquainted with your offspring's interests? Pay attention to their other media-consumption habits.
"Connect visual experiences to books," recommends the Canadian Council on Learning. "If a child takes an avid interest in a television program, extend their knowledge by obtaining books on the same or similar topics."
Parents can also take a page out of Vic West vice-principal Dick's book and frame literacy activities as a game.
"Part of my end-of-the-year routine with the kids is I send home 'summer bingo,' " she
said. Instead of numbers, the bingo squares are filled with literacy-friendly activities, like "read a recipe" and "act out a story."
Things such as recipes help kids recognize words, find them in their own communities and understand how they're useful to everyday society.
Be a role model
If you want your kids to value reading, show enthusiasm for it.
"Just read at home and model for the kids," said Cardle. "Kids will tap into that and identify that it's important."
The Canadian Council on Learning recommends ensuring kids see adults reading at home every day. It doesn't matter if it's books, magazines or online articles.
"It's really, really simple," said Pantaleo. "Children improve their reading by simply reading. You learn to read by reading."
The special workbooks and exercises touted by some publishers?
"That's not going to help," he said. "What's going to help is reading."
Summer reading club
Colin Buhr, 11, has a favourite reading spot at the Saanich Centennial library branch, adjacent to Pearkes Arena.
"I usually go to the teen section," he said. "There's three little couch chairs. I just sit in there and read and read and read."
Colin and his siblings, 13-year-old Emily and nine-year-old Madeline, are avid readers who have participated in the B.C. Library Association's free summer reading club.
Kids in the program, ages 12 and under, keep track of their reading in a booklet. They collect stickers for daily reading, as well as bookmarks, temporary tattoos and other prizes for weekly progress.
"If they read every day for seven weeks, they'll be able to collect a book of their choosing," Kendrick said.
Colin said he's looking forward to doing it again, when the reading-record booklets become available June 28. "I kind of like how it gives you a sense of accomplishment," he said.
Teachers reported that 31 per cent of participants in summer-reading programs maintained or improved their skills, compared to five per cent of non-participants, according to a 2010 article in Public Libraries.
The Buhr kids' mother, Laura, said the "summer slide" was part of her motivation for signing them up.
"It just kept them reading," she said. "They didn't have to re-learn once they got back in school again, which is annoying."
She said the librarians, in particular, are good resources for finding books and series that kids might like.
Since the reading club began in the 1990s, there have been a few changes. Now, progress is measured in time spent reading, rather than numbers of books.
"We made that switch a few years ago
because we found that some kids are reading below their ability, because they wanted to burn through their reading record," Kendrick said.
More than 5,300 kids participated last year, and the number of kids who sign up each year grows by about 400, she said. "It's a very popular club and the interest is growing, partly because of word-of-mouth."
Some members can't even read yet.
"They can still join the club," Kendrick said. "They can be read to by a family member or a friend."
Many actually learn to read with the help of the program.
"All the time, we have parents coming in and saying, 'My children learned how to read just because of this program!' It's so exciting. I've been working in children's services for 16 years and it's still totally thrilling to me when parents come in and say that."
Get 'em to the library
Before the two-person Travelling Puppet Show performs some of the best-loved children's tales, they make sure the original story books are in the room. Just ahead of performing Robert Munsch's I'm So Embarrassed at the library's Nellie McClung branch last year, puppeteer Randi Edmundson noticed they were getting some attention.
"We were behind the stage and this mother had her two sons there and was reading the book to them," she said.
When the puppets started performing, the kids yelled in reaction.
"One of them said something like, 'Oh we just read this!' " she said. "Kids are just the best audience, because they are so engaged. It's so real to them."
In addition to Victoria library branches, Edmundson, 22, and Jonathan Mason, 21, will present shows on Saltspring Island, in Alert Bay and Powell River this summer. They perform for three age groups, from three to 12. The connection to reading may not be obvious at first, but it's one of the library's many strategies for community-building.
"It draws kids into the library and they browse and check out more books," Kendrick said. "A lot of the presenters will also emphasize how fun reading is."
Just getting children comfortable in the library is a good step toward reading. The Canadian Council on Learning recommends visiting a library or bookstore at least once every two months.
Kendrick said the Travelling Puppet Show is one of 140 programs for kids at the Greater Victoria Public Library. Others include family storytime, art programs, magic shows and science and nature programs. Online registration for special summer programs opens June 15 at gvpl.ca.
Andersen also pointed to a suite of programs for teens: the Teen Writing Contest had 52 entries last year, up from 42 the year before. There are also movie-making workshops, online trivia contests and more. email@example.com