Off the Shelf: Librarians strive to instill permanent love of reading

Meredith Wickham
Southwest Public Libraries

Second- and third-graders’ reading fluency was about 30% behind what we expect to see in a typical year, according to a recent study of the effects of the pandemic conducted across 100 school districts nationwide by researchers at Stanford Graduate School of Education.

Even in a typical year, librarians at Southwest Public Libraries know what it takes to combat the loss of reading skills. It’s part of what drives us. It’s even stated as part of one of our mission goals: “fostering in children a permanent love of reading.” For us, that work is most intense during the summer months.

Meredith Wickham

If a student closes a textbook on the last day of school and doesn’t open another book until class is back in session in August, the student could lose up to three months of the previous year’s learning gains over the summer, as any teacher and many years of research can attest. This loss is so well-documented that it has a nickname: the summer slide. Reading is so foundational, with learning in every other subject built upon it, that early losses, especially if they are cumulative summer after summer, can hurt long-term academic performance.  

But the good news is, keeping youths reading during the summer can halt and even reverse the summer slide. At your local public library, we do that by inspiring youths to want to read. And we have decades of practical experience and know what works to keep them wanting to read all season long.

First, we provide access to books. It seems almost too obvious that you have to have access to books to keep reading, but the reality is that not all households have this access as a given. We want all children – and adults – to have access to books to help them thrive in life.

Second, we encourage personal choice and provide a huge selection of books, plus personalized help for anyone, of any age, to find books that interest them. Youths need the opportunity to browse, discover and try new-to-them topics and authors to find books they are actually interested in. Children who are allowed to read the books they choose for pleasure are much more likely to develop a love of reading that lasts. It’s the same with grown-ups, of course. I hate being forced to read something that doesn’t interest me. Don’t you?

Third, we encourage the adults to read, too, via the adult Summer Reading Challenge. Youths who see the adults in their lives reading for pleasure are much more likely to become readers. Students who hear books read aloud develop better reading fluency and improve their vocabulary, too – even if the adult is simply pressing play during a car trip on an audiobook CD they had obtained from the library or an e-audiobook checked out on our Libby app. (Highly recommended for long trips – the miles fly by for the whole family.)

Lastly, at Southwest Public Libraries, we make it fun. Our youth-services teams spend months each year creating a wonderful festival of excitement and delight for our Summer Reading Club. This year, although the programs that typically involve large crowds have been moved online for everyone’s safety, your library still will offer week after week of hands-on creativity through our Take & Make kits, fun reading challenges and missions, cool virtual programs with authors and animals and other activities.

Sign-up starts June 5, and we can’t wait to see you for another summer of reading fun.

Meredith Wickham is the director of Southwest Public Libraries.