Published on: Monday, June 1, 2015 Takoma Park Newsletter

Summer reading success depends on choice

By Karen MacPherson

Researchers have a one-word solution for parents concerned about keeping their children reading during the summer — “choice.” A recent study done by the University of Rochester Medical Center showed that kids who were allowed to choose their own summer reading had better reading scores when they returned to school in the fall than those who were given assigned summer reading.

This finding, unveiled last month at the Pediatric Academic Societies meeting, is especially important because it is a way to counteract the “summer slide” experienced by many kids. Previous studies have shown that “summer slide” accounts for nearly three-quarters of the reading achievement gap between low-income children and those who are more financially well-off.

The power of letting kids choose their own reading isn’t a surprise to librarians. We have long touted the idea of choice as a way to keep kids interested in books and reading over the summer because we see how well it works.

In fact, choice is the foundation of our library’s Summer Quest summer reading program. Kids start our program by choosing a Summer Quest character. As part of Summer Quest, kids roll a die at a couple of points to choose their next reading challenge, and they also must choose between two different paths as they move through the story. Most important of all is the fact that kids themselves choose which books to read as they fulfill the 10 different Summer Quest reading challenges.

Our Summer Quest program, now nearing its second decade, is unique in Maryland. We are the only library in the state to create our own summer reading program, thanks to the generosity of our Friends of the Library. Each year Dave Burbank, a library assistant and our artist-in-residence, writes a Summer Quest story — with the reading challenges embedded in it — and also draws a gameboard. This year’s Summer Quest theme is “The River of Time,” and the story will take young readers on a thrilling ride through past, present and future as they complete the 10 reading challenges embedded into the tale.

“Choice is the foundation of our library’s Summer Quest summer reading program.”

Here’s how our Summer Quest program works: Kids first pick a character from the array of bookmark-sized characters drawn by Burbank — or they can choose to draw their own. Each character comes in two sizes; we keep the larger character, and kids take home the smaller one. Kids are asked to name their characters, and they can add color and details to their character if they want.

As they register for the program, kids are given a packet that includes the Summer Quest story plus a cardstock gameboard. As kids complete each of the 10 reading challenges, they can move their small Summer Quest character along their own gameboard, and we move their large Summer Quest character along a giant gameboard in the children’s room.

All ages are welcome to participate — we’ve had adult participants who’ve used the Summer Quest reading challenges to guide their reading of adult books for the summer.

There’s just one main rule in Summer Quest: books read for Summer Quest must be checked out from our library. Each of the reading challenges is designed to give kids maximum choice. One of my favorite challenges each year is: “Read a book that shows you how to make or do something, and then make or do it.” Some kids learn about origami, others build bird houses, still others master a new recipe. It’s all up to them.

Kids also choose how they want to tackle the Summer Quest program itself. Some want to be among the first to finish, so they read as fast as they can. Others take a more leisurely approach and decide they want to read only long books.

This year, our official Summer Quest Kick-off is Monday, June 8 at 7 p.m. Burbank will make a brief presentation focused on this year’s theme, and then kids can pick their characters and register for Summer Quest. If you can’t make it to the June 8 program, however, don’t worry – kids can sign up any time during the summer.

We conclude Summer Quest in early September with a party to celebrate another great summer of reading. We’ll talk about the books we loved, and those we loathed, and we’ll discuss possible themes for next year’s Summer Quest. Of course, there will be cupcakes and lemonade, and everyone will leave with a free book or two.

Please plan to join us this summer for Summer Quest!

This article appeared in the June 2015 edition of the Takoma Park Newsletter. The Takoma Park Newsletter is available for download here.