Monday, November 8, 2010

The Dominican Study - valuable, but not enough

In the November issue of School Library Journal, Carole Fiore and Susan Roman summarize the findings of the Dominican University's Graduate School of Library and Information Studies 3-year study on library summer reading programs. Called Proof Positive: A New Study Shows That Summer Reading Programs Boost Student Achievement and Combat Learning Loss, the article states, "...we can confirm what many librarians have log suspected: students who take part in their local library's summer reading program significantly improve their reading skills."

There are several wonderful aspects to this study. First of all, it followed students from 11 schools in 8 states, giving it a more universal flavor than many similar studies. Second, it tested the students (all going into the 4th grade) with the Scholastic Reading Inventory assessment tool both at the beginning and end of summer to determine if in fact the students' reading skills rose, declined, or stayed the same.

Here are three of the findings of the study, quoted from the executive summary:
  • Students who participated in the public library summer reading program scored higher on reading achievement tests at the beginning of the next school year than those students who did not participate and they gained in other ways as well.
  • While students who reported that they did not participate in the public library summer reading program also improved reading scores, they did not reach the reading level of the students who did participate.
  • Students who participated in the public library summer reading program had better reading skills at the end of third grade and scored higher on the standards test than the students who did not participate.
This sounded great to me when I first read it, because it seemed to prove what I wholeheartedly believe - that children who read not only don't suffer reading loss but actually make gains, and that library reading programs can play an important part in encouraging children to read over the summer.

But then I read this in Fiore and Roman's SLJ article:

"Parents of summer reading program participants used the library more often, had more books at home, and offered more literary activities at home (such as reading with their children, visiting the library frequently, and providing Internet access) than parents whose kids didn't sit in on summer reading programs."

Library summer reading programs are fabulous, but of course they didn't necessarily cause parents to read more to their children and so on. In fact, it's findings like this one (and also the one above about summer reading club participants scoring higher on tests than their non-reading club peers at the beginning of the summer as well as at the end) that diminish the overall usefulness of this study.

As the authors of the article note in a section at the end called "Study Limitations," the participants of the study were self-selected. That is, there was no control group. Or to put it in the words of the study itself:

The design of this study was causal comparative, which is that student participants were not
randomly assigned or randomized between attending/not attending public library summer
reading programs but instead independently decided to participate or not participate. The
treatment condition of program attendance was not manipulated by the evaluation team. The
treatment condition of the study was the exposure of student participants to the public library summer reading programs at the partner public libraries, as selected by participants’ families.

I would argue that kids who take part in the summer reading program are already predisposed for the most part to be readers. Their parents encourage them to join the club and to stick with it, and while I am certain that reading programs might well spur them on to greater feats of reading and that they are obtaining fabulous books to read that they wouldn't necessarily have access to if they weren't in the reading program, it's possible that these "library kids" would read even if they didn't join the summer program. Their parents believe in the importance of libraries and have made books, reading, and libraries part of their lives. It's a no-brainer that those kids score higher on tests both before and after summer reading club. This study does not prove that summer reading programs cause a rise in reading scores; rather, it proves that library users tend to have higher reading scores in general, and that could well be because they belong to families that value reading and so have books in the home, bring their kids to the library, read to their kids, and so on.

Which of course points to the important role that libraries play for these families. And there is no doubt that libraries, by providing a literature-rich environment for all families, rich or poor, can and do play a role in leveling the playing field.

What I would like to see, however, is a study that follows children who are NOT library users and have never joined a library summer reading program. One half of the kids would continue on as they always have and not join the program, while the other half would join and participate for the first time. One assumes that the test scores for both groups would be much the same at the beginning of the summer. The question is - would one summer of library reading program make a difference in reading scores at the end of summer?

Libraries' role in raising reading scores is much greater than just encouraging reading during the summer. To have the greatest effect, we need to reach families when their children are very young, or not even born, and convince them of the importance of making books, reading, and the library a part of their children's lives from birth on. If parents read to their babies, toddlers, and preschoolers regularly, those kids will take to reading like ducks to water and will come to the library over the summer, not because they need to be encourage to read but because they need fuel for their book addictions.

The Dominican study is important, but it doesn't go far enough in the role the library summer reading program can have for NON-library users. I agree with all of Fiore and Roman's "calls to action" in the article, and most particularly with the statement that librarians need to team up with teachers to "...identify nonreaders and under-performing students, reach out to them, and draw them into the library," to reach out to families and caregivers, and to spend special attention on creating programs that attract boys.

In addition, there are no doubt summer reading programs that are more effective at encouraging reading than others. The study purposefully didn't address this, but it would be a fascinating basis for a study. What works? What doesn't? Immersed as I am in designing our 2011 program, I'd love a little research on this.

One thing is certain. The more you read, the better you get at it, and you're more likely to read if you can find a book you enjoy. So there you have it - a worthy role (one of so many) for librarians to play all summer and throughout the year!


  1. It is at least partly because of research like this (and the experience of many librarians) that the California Summer Reading Program evaluation project has developed one outcome that is related to outreach -- targeting underserved children, young adults, or families. Libraries provide safe, comfortable places in the summer time for the "regulars," for the folks who already have the reading and library habit. That's a good thing, but we can do more. We need learn how to make it just as safe and comfortable for all of those kids who see reading as irrelevant, boring, or nerdy.

  2. Yeah, most of my really enthusiastic summer readers are the same kids I see all year, whose parents encourage them to read, etc. The kids who hang out on the computers...well...One thing I've started doing is giving every child who registers a free book - and making sure that every child who sets foot in my library gets registered. At least the non-readers own a book and I've gotten a few more kids interested in reading. Getting enough books is hard though.