How Elena Learned to Love Reading
Students who live in poverty
lose three months of reading
achievement each summer.
Let’s change that.
One evening last summer, I meandered to the mailbox thinking about how much I missed my middle school students.
I had recently retired from 32 years of
teaching. As I sorted the mail, a letter
from Elena fell out.
At the beginning of summer I made a goal
to read at least three books. I just completed my ninth book and have already
started the tenth.;.;.;. Many people tell
me the main character in your favorite
books is who you want to act like, so
you change your personality to be more
like that character. I believe them. For
example, because Katniss in The Hunger
Games was brave, I started acting as brave
as I could. Books have helped change
the way I act toward people and look
at problems. I guess in my own way I
can say you have taught me to walk two
moons. 1 Thank you for teaching me to
write and read.
I taught Elena language arts from 4th
to 7th grade. I’d received dozens of text
messages from her that summer, each
sharing some discovery she’d made in
her reading or her plan for what she
wanted to write. By reading throughout
the summer, Elena—who comes from
a family with no steady income and
who attends school in one of Colorado’s
poorest districts2—was beating the
Research shows that, on average, students who come from poverty achieve
less academically and drop out of school
at a higher rate than their wealthier
peers (Krashen, 2011). According to an
interview with Anne McGill-Franzen
(2010) in Reading Today, a meta-analysis
of 39 studies found that poor students
lose an average of three or more months
of reading achievement every summer,
whereas economically advantaged students gain a couple of months.
Students from poor homes usually
spend their summers with fewer
education or enrichment opportu-
nities—and fewer available books. This
effect has been termed the summer
slide—which, of course, doesn’t mean
a wild ride that ends in a refreshing
splash. This slide can result in a poor
student being as much as four years
behind a wealthier one in terms of lit-
eracy skills by the time both students
graduate from high school.
Getting to Engagement
How can we motivate students who live
in poverty to read and write from June
to September? The broader question is,
How can we make them excited about
reading all year? Richard Allington
(2007) says that to keep students
reading in summer, we must place
books in their hands that “they can and
want to read”—but it isn’t just a lack of
books that leads to the summer slide.
It’s a lack of motivation.
When I was hired at Elena’s school,
only 4 of its 50 middle school students