reading

The author says that research shows that, over the summer, children lose much of the reading-achievement progress they made during the school year, along with other cognitive skills. That phenomenon is known as the “summer slide,” and it’s getting worse.

Summertime, and the livin’ is easy — especially if you’re a kid. No school, no schedule. A few chores, maybe, but mostly you go where the day takes you.

I spent my childhood summer days lost in a book. Usually some futuristic fantasy or an inspiring baseball biography or, if I was feeling ambitious, a nonfiction masterpiece about cars or jet planes or dumb jokes. Next to my baseball glove, that library card was my most prized possession.

I wasn’t reading to become smarter or more successful. It was just what kids did — rainy days by the window, sunny days under a tree, nighttime under the covers with a flashlight. At play in the garden of words.

Today, of course, young folks have their screens, their apps, their online games. To this rising generation, books are learning tools connected with school.

Therein lies a serious problem.

Research shows that, over the summer, children lose much of the reading-achievement progress they made during the school year, along with other cognitive skills. That phenomenon is known as the “summer slide,” and it’s getting worse — especially for kids in low-income “book deserts,” where there might not be a library or a bookstore nearby, or a lot of books in the house. This year has been difficult for all kids, after the disruptions in schooling caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The lost summers can add up. By the time they reached middle school, seasonal nonreaders in one study found themselves an average of two years behind their peers. Other research has found that unequal summer reading may account for the bulk of scholastic disparities among ninth graders from different socioeconomic groups.

Reading experts have known about the “summer slide” for years. Fortunately, librarians have risen to the challenge. Nearly all public libraries in the Berkshires and beyond offer summer programs for kids, with storytellers, reading contests and other free-of-charge delights.

The Berkshire Athenaeum, for instance, is offering a self-guided “StoryWalk” this month to see places featured in local author Ty Allan Jackson’s 2011 children’s classic, “When I Close My Eyes,” illustrated by Jonathan Shears. Sixteen member businesses and organizations of Downtown Pittsfield Inc. are participating.

Parents (and grandparents) can help, too. Experts suggest steering kids to books that correspond to their hobbies and other interests, while letting the readers themselves make the final choice. (Books are great gifts for children; bookstore gift cards are even better.)

Convey the impression that reading is a pleasure, not a chore.

Keep books, magazines and newspapers around the house. And let the kids see you reading them.

Such efforts can make a difference. Researchers at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education found that children who read as few as four or five books over the summer can avoid the seasonal loss of reading skills, regardless of family income. The Harvard study also found that its more prolific readers usually had easy access to books. Some of those bibliophiles showed skill gains over the summer.

The key phrase in that last paragraph is “easy access to books.” This summer, make sure your kid has the advantage — the prized possession — that turned my childhood summers into idylls of quiet pleasure and effortless self-improvement: a library card.

Today, I have five of them — from libraries in the Berkshires, two distant cities and a foreign one — and I use them all (lately, to borrow e-books). Those magic cards have enriched my life, helped me get through grade school, paved my way to college, charmed a certain book-loving girl.

They also led me to a career where, essentially, I get paid to read stuff. How cool is that? I put away the baseball glove years ago. Didn’t see myself in that story.

Donald Morrison is an Eagle columnist and co-chairman of the advisory board. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.