You might think it’s obvious that kids don’t learn much during their summer holidays. Sleeping late, watching daytime TV and generally goofing off aren’t activities designed to boost academic performance.
That’s all fine – everyone needs a chance to recharge their batteries for the year ahead – but for some children, their summer hiatus doesn’t just mean their learning is suspended: they actually go backwards.
Struggling young readers have been proven to lose the gains they have made so painstakingly during the year and therefore face a demoralising return to school when the holidays are over.
Aiming to counter this ‘summer slide’, Massey University literacy expert Professor Tom Nicholson and his fellow researchers ran a summer programme involving 600 Year 3 children from 10 Auckland primary schools.
Building on a trial at Flat Bush School the previous year, the $300,000 project, backed by a private donor, delivered 11,000 books to children’s homes during January. All the children were tested before and after the programme and, while it’s early days, Nicholson is delighted with the promising initial results. “We’ve struck gold in terms of intervention,” he says. “This is a new breakthrough.”
While reading programmes on which he has worked previously have had positive results, this was on a much greater scale. “We’re just reaching so many kids with this approach.” And importantly, it seems that low achievers have benefited most. Sheer practice in reading during the holidays seems to pay off “and it’s paying off for the ones who we wanted”.
The logistics were challenging, with work starting back in October to prepare for the summer ahead. “It’s like building a house,” says Nicholson. “There’s a lot goes into the foundation.” First, seven low-decile and three decile 10 schools were found to take part in the project. Each of the 600 children involved, except for a control group of children who got math books instead, was given the chance to choose the 25 books they wanted. The big number of books for each child was possible because of a whopping discount from legendary New Zealand publisher, Wendy Pye, who supports the research. Then, during January, book-droppers organised by each of the schools visited hundreds of homes four times each to ensure the children had a new book to read every two days. Usually the visitor involved was a member of the school community; in one case, it was a principal who welcomed the chance to meet parents and see children in their home environments.
Books were dropped on the first three visits. On the last, feedback and reading logs were collected. One group in the study was also given quizzes, with the aim of getting children to think about vocabulary. Generally, parents were positive about the programme, says Nicholson. “My feeling, just talking to the parents, is they were really keen to do it. They liked the idea of something they could do and help with.” That goodwill tended to be there, whatever the families’ economic circumstances. “We’re dealing with the very tough end of the market here, in the poorest part of Auckland,” says Nicholson. “I got the impression that the parents who we saw anyway really wanted the best for [their children]. They just didn’t know what to do and this was giving them some specifics about how they could help.”
The children in worse-off areas also tend to have plenty of free time in the holidays, with little chance of trips away and other activities. Nicholson: “After a week of holidays I think most of these children are kind of bored. That’s what the teachers say. That they are just kind of sitting on the back step, not sure what to do.”
Although it seemed the programme asked a lot of the children, it had many positives attached. “They were books that they specially chose; somebody was interested in them over the holidays, asking them how they were going and all that kind of thing.”
Nicholson, a veteran of four decades in education research, is an Australian by birth, although after 35 years in New Zealand you have to listen carefully to detect any hint of an Aussie accent. Teaching New Zealand students, he says, “You’ve got to talk like them, otherwise they don’t understand you”.
After growing up in Sydney’s western suburbs Nicholson taught high school for five years, often baffled by the lack of reading skills of many of his students, before landing his first research job in South Australia, which led to the completion of a doctorate at the University of Minnesota in the United States. Marrying a New Zealander, as well as wanting to engage in innovative teaching, brought him to this country and academic jobs at the University of Waikato and University of Auckland before he became a professor of literacy education at Massey’s School of Education in Albany in 2006. His work in his specialist field three years ago won him election to the International Reading Association’s Reading Hall of Fame and in 2010 the Minister of Education invited him to join an Independent Advisory Group.
He has worked on a range of different kinds of intervention aimed at struggling readers, but says the previous approaches had more drawbacks, such as taking children away from their classroom work.
While the latest project was operationally demanding, giving struggling readers books to read over summer is actually a simple idea. “If you are reading 25 books, getting a lot of practice, things after a while start to come together,” says Nicholson. “You start to recognise words more easily, the whole process of reading just becomes that much easier for you, and you start to see things you didn’t see before.”
A decade ago, Aucklander Matthew Abel saw a story in a local newspaper about a holiday reading initiative at a Grey Lynn school, not far from where he lived. He was sufficiently impressed by the programme – led by Tom Nicholson – that he got in touch with an offer of assistance, starting a relationship that continues today with his support for the summer-slide programme. “There wasn’t much money involved,” he recalls of his first donations. “I thought, ‘Well, it’s a good way to make a small contribution and to see how it goes’.”
Abel, a consultant, mainly on financial matters in developing countries, donates money through a charitable trust and likes to maintain an involvement in projects he supports.
“You can give money away, which is fine, but it’s probably better to have some involvement and try to see whether it makes a difference.” With the summer-slide project, that included visiting each of the 10 schools involved when children were choosing books supplied through his generosity. “I was kind of keen to just observe but then I ended up assisting a bit when they had the children choosing books.”
Abel’s backing for Nicholson’s programme is partly motivated by the obvious importance of reading in children’s lives. “There are many things that help a young person or prepare them for life,” he says. “But I suppose being able to read and having numeracy is a basic sort of foundation.”
Like Tom Nicholson, Louise Turner didn’t have much of a holiday between 2011 and 2012. The Associate Principal at South Auckland’s Flat Bush School, who is involved in the summer-slide research as part of work towards her PhD, says with a laugh that “pretty much the whole of summer” was consumed by the demands of the project: “It has been an incredibly full-on six months or so”. That just makes the positive results so far all the more rewarding. “The fact that results are showing positive signs is a double-whammy for me because it is a project [that] would have fallen apart at any stage if the 10 schools involved weren’t committed and determined to make it work. We couldn’t be at those schools and with those people 24 seven. The commitment from them was colossal.”
A teacher for about 25 years, Turner was hands-on at every stage, from the formulation of the initial idea with Nicholson and Abel, through the choosing of books by children at the 10 schools to overseeing home visits and in recent weeks the collection and collation of results.
Excitement was high when the children came in small groups to choose their 25 books, she says. “They were just so motivated and excited by the fact that they could choose the books and that they were going to keep them.”
Turner particularly enjoyed the home visits to children from Flat Bush. “For me in my role at the school it’s actually really nice to be able to get out and get into the homes and talk with the parents, the children and all the brothers and sisters who were there.”
Yes, hardship was evident among families from the seven low-decile schools in the programme, although it was nothing with which she was unfamiliar. “We’re used to kids coming to school without shoes and food and all the rest of it,” she says, although she did notice the difference when she visited children from three decile-10 schools in the study. “It was just such a shocking contrast to see.”
Reports of ‘non-compliance’ were rare, with only isolated cases of families going away unexpectedly or of adults concerned that the children were having to do school activity during the holidays. “We had more than 600 kids – it’s huge – so naturally you’re going to get a few in the mix who perhaps aren’t as enthusiastic.” It was particularly rewarding to see extended families taking an interest in the books programme: “You would see the whole lot of them, all sharing in these books and talking about them. It was really lovely”.
Completed figures to date indicate that children in the study who got the summer books intervention made more progress than the control group, a highly encouraging indicator for Nicholson and the research team, especially given how hard it is to raise literacy levels of low-decile children whose homes have few books and often lack internet access.
The children in the study were all finishing Year 3 and the initial school stage, during which big progress is usually made in reading. “It’s the first three years of school where you’ve got these huge increases in reading ability,” says Nicholson. “Then it starts to plateau at Year 4.”
Often, the transition from being a struggling reader can be swift, he says. “One week they are not reading, the next week they are starting to read. It just all starts to come together.”
While the big improvers in the study made gains, they probably have more improvement ahead of them. “They are still not there yet,” says Nicholson.
Overall, he says the study has “a nice feel” to it. It involves parents in their kids’ education, and falls outside the school year so children aren’t being removed from their regular classes to be part of it. “A lot of the interventions are pull-out programmes and there are a lot of downsides to that. Although you get results, the other kids know that you’re getting taken out and there’s all that sort of stigma of being the remedial reader. This one hasn’t got any of that baggage.”
The ‘summer slide’ has been identified in research overseas, and various attempts made to find ways of dealing with it. In the past few years researchers at Harvard and in Tennessee have worked on programmes designed to combat the problem.
The Harvard project, which mailed books to homes during summer, has yielded positive results for middle-class kids but hasn’t enjoyed the same success with children from lower socio-economic groups.
For the Harvard study, those groups were largely Latino communities in California, while for Massey’s the low-decile schools had a high proportion of children from Pacific Islander families. “What’s good about [Massey’s] result,” says Nicholson, “is that we used the same scientific approach, with control groups and randomisation, and we’ve come good with the lower socio-economic kids.”
The Harvard team has recently won US$15 million, made up of $12 million from the US Government, and $3 million from the private sector, as part of the US Government’s ‘Investing in Innovation’ (i3) programme. Their goal is to extend, validate and upscale the summer books research to 10,000 children. Nicholson and his team can’t realistically expect that kind of backing but are keen to follow up on their project’s success. Nicholson says the result has implications for education policy and that the Ministry of Education and the Government should look at it. “Here’s a way of actually helping poor readers from any background by setting up a reading programme for them during the holiday break.”
Although it’s unknown yet whether funding will be available, he’d like to explore the subject with more research, hoping to roll out the summer programme to 10,000 children in New Zealand, while at the same time researching the effects of doing that.
“But I really think it’s worth looking at the policy side of it because it seems to me that this is one way of closing the gap and it’s a way that’s practical and can reach a lot of children.
“Although we do a lot of different things, this one seems to me to be one that makes a lot of sense.”
Potentially, he and his team could look to produce a package to roll out to schools. “One option is for schools to see what they can do within their own resources,” he says. On a practical level, the libraries in schools are already full of books that sit unread during the holidays. Nicholson: “They might lose some books giving kids books to take home during the school break, but the pay-off would compensate for that, I think.” The approach could also work in combination with something like the Duffy Books in Homes programme.
He emphasises how hard it can be to get improvements from struggling readers in low socio-economic areas – “It’s very hard to move the needle on these ones” – and believes the effects of having people dropping off the books and encouraging the children probably played a part in the project’s successful result.
“I think what’s really exciting about it is we’ve been able to do what the Harvard guys didn’t do and strike gold in terms of the poor readers.
“What they did is they mailed the books to the kids and the kids had to fill out an evaluation. Nobody actually ever visited them. I think maybe that’s why in California it might not have worked. This one did work and trying to figure out why is going to be interesting.
“The very fact that we’ve been able to get a result for these kids means that, yeah, we have tapped a new vein. This is so exciting for us, for what we can achieve. We are leading the rest of the world in terms of doing this stuff.”