How Summer Reading Helps Children Throughout Life

Child lying in the grass, reading

If kids are in school for nine months each year, does a few months’ break from reading in the summer really matter? 

The across-the-board answer from researchers is a resounding “yes.” On average, children lose 20% of their previous year’s gains in reading skills over the summer. By the time a struggling reader enters sixth grade, cumulative summer reading loss can set them a full two years behind their classmates, making it next to impossible to succeed in any subject that requires them to read. Most children who struggle at this point never recover. Instead, they face a future where they will be less likely to financially succeed, more likely to suffer health problems, and may even have more difficulty with relationships.

Reading skills predict earning potential

It may seem intuitive that children who can read better will have more financial success, but the degree to which reading matters –and at how early an age it matters–surprised even many researchers. Children who can’t read proficiently by fourth grade are four times as likely to drop out of high school, and adults without a high school degree earn 42% less than high school graduates. University of Edinburgh research found that childhood reading and math abilities matter more than IQ, academic motivation, length of education, or parents’ socioeconomic status in predicting a child’s likelihood of getting a good job, better housing, and higher income as an adult. And the effect begins early–increasing reading ability by just one grade level at age 7 translates into more than a $7,500 increase in annual income by midlife. 

Inset text: Reading matters more than IQ, academic motivation, length of education, or parent’s socioeconomic status in predicting a child’s likelihood of getting a higher income as an adult.

“What we know now is that reading and math aren’t merely indicators of how smart or motivated you are, or the social or economic situation you grew up in,” explains Dr. Stuart Richie, lead scientist in the study, “They are independent skills that might directly influence your future monetary success.”

Good readers may have better health

Reading skills can also predict physical health across a person’s life. People with fewer financial resources have less access to quality health care, and struggling adult readers are less likely to get important medical information. The psychological effects of shame and discouragement also impact health from a young age–students who do not develop strong reading skills are at greater risk of developing anxiety, depression, behavior problems, and thoughts of suicide. 

Reading builds key social skills

Children learn critical social skills through reading, too. Reading, particularly fiction reading, helps children develop a theory of mind–the ability to think about their own mental states and those of others. The ability to read creates a sense of achievement and promotes self-esteem. In addition, developing a rich vocabulary makes it easier for children to express themselves. All of these are key to having healthy relationships in childhood and beyond. 

Summer reading makes the difference

Summer reading is particularly important because children typically have much more choice in what they read than during the school year. Children overwhelmingly say that getting to choose what they read is the most important factor in whether they enjoy reading. And yet almost half of young readers say they often have difficulty finding books they enjoy. 

That’s why the Library plays such a critical role. Children here are empowered to explore the space and choose their own books. If they struggle to find what they like, librarians provide gentle, expert guidance. At the Library, children are surrounded by role models of all stripes–from parents to librarians to other children–who remind them that reading for pleasure is a fun and normal part of every day.

The Library’s Children’s Summer Reading programs encourage families to bring their children to the Library often, where they can pick up new books and get help with reading if they need it. In the summer of 2021, 7,325 children attended 170 programs featuring everything from miniature horses to puppets to circus acrobats. Preschoolers and elementary-aged children tracked their reading to earn certificates and win prizes; they reported reading almost 21,000 books. Teens also joined in, tracking almost 130,000 pages read.

One of the most popular activities for struggling readers? The Read to a Dog program, which invites children of all abilities to sit beside a trained therapy dog and read to a furry tail-wagging listener that never interrupts or corrects them. Read to a Dog is offered every Wednesday on Library’s front plaza, and children can reserve 10-minute slots for one-on-one time with a friendly canine. 

Your donations to the Library make the Children’s Summer Reading program possible. Thank you for encouraging children to develop one of the most critical skills for their lifelong success and happiness. 

A young child and her mom sit with a therapy doc and her handler, part of the Read to a Dog program on the Library front plaza.