WINDHAM, N.H. — At the beginning of summer, Chris Hunt, principal of Golden Brook School, struck an ambitious bargain.
The participants: Hunt, his assistant principals, Billie-Jo Martin and Chris Blair, and about 1,000 kindergarten to fourth-grade students. The setup: Students went home for the summer with a bingo card full of reading goals, things like “eat a snack while you read” or “read a book inside a fort.” The promise: If 80 percent of the students return completed cards in September, they’ll get to watch Hunt, Martin, and Blair be duct-taped to the gymnasium wall during lunch time.
Will Golden Brook’s students succeed? Based on past summers’ performances, Hunt thinks it’s likely. Which prompts another question: How many rolls of duct tape will it take to make Hunt stick?
“One strip each, because I’m so svelte,” he says, laughing and gesturing at his 6-foot 5-inch, 235-pound frame. “Well, honestly, I have no clue. Maybe a couple rolls?”
Each summer across New England, educators, librarians, and parents dream up new ways to motivate their kids to read during the long vacation. Strategies range from the tried-and-true (reading logs) to the thrilling (ice cream sandwiches! an all-school dance party!). Institutions get in on the action, too. Governors and mayors launch state- and city-wide initiatives. Barnes & Noble and Pizza Hut offer such enticing prizes as free books and personal pan pizzas.
This flurry of warm-weather reading challenges might seem like overkill. But educators say the stakes are high: Children who don’t read during the summer risk a significant loss of literacy skills, what researchers call the “summer slide.” Although the research is mixed, some studies suggest that children from low-income families — who often face reduced access to books and less exposure to reading — might suffer the worst loss.
For young children developing reading skills, reading habits forged in off-hours away from school are critical. Nadine Gaab, associate professor of pediatrics at Boston Children’s Hospital, said in a phone interview that most classrooms switch from “learning to read” to “reading to learn” around third grade. If children aren’t mastering basic reading skills by then, it begins to affect everything, from word problems in math class to social studies to students’ social lives, she says.
According to Gaab and James Kim, director of the READS Lab at Harvard University, the best summer programs shore up students’ intrinsic desire to read. He recommends that summer programs focus on their ABCs: A for access to a wide variety of books, B for books that match the child’s reading level, and C for comprehension activities that integrate summer reading with the school’s lesson plans, among other things.
Most importantly, the onus of raising little bookworms shouldn’t fall solely on the shoulders of a teacher, librarian, or parents. “We shouldn’t think of summer reading as a problem that any individual institution is trying to tackle by itself,” Kim said in a phone interview. “We should think of it as a community problem.”
For youth librarians, summer is the busiest time of the year, as they lead the charge for warm-weather reading encouragement. At Boston Public branch libraries, kids can read their way to a raffle for Red Sox tickets. At Somerville Public Library West Branch, readers can earn “brag tags” each week — little plastic tags with sayings like “I’d rather be at Hogwarts” — to hang on their backpacks. The program at the public library in Bolton involves raffle tickets and weekly prize drawings. Some programs adopt the language of video games — “leveling up” and so forth — to motivate youngsters to plow through series like “Elephant & Piggie” or “Ivy + Bean.” This year, many libraries around New England are organizing space-themed summer reading activities, in honor of the 50th anniversary of the moon landing.
And then there are the extreme cases. Last year at Golden Brook School, Hunt got repeatedly dunked in a dunk tank — wearing a suit — by the top readers in each grade. The year before that, he dressed up as a pirate and scrambled through an obstacle course.
Not all educators are sold on the benefits of summer reading challenges. Farouqua Abuzeit, youth services manager at Boston Public Library, said, “I’m not a huge fan of the gimmicky things like that. Reading is its own reward. . . . My goal is for kids to connect with literacy in a way that’s meaningful for them and that they will enjoy.”
Gaab, the professor at Boston Children’s Hospital, is likewise skeptical of challenges, especially when they verge on competition. Two of her children, 9-year-old Viella and 7-year-old Leo, participated in a “Read and Bead” challenge through Belmont Public Library, where students can earn different kinds of beads for minutes of reading. Gaab had to call it off when she realized that the two siblings had started to compete against one another, fudging numbers and staring blankly at pages to rack up minutes.
But Hunt and others say school-wide challenges help instill a sense of school community, rather than competition. At John Trumbull Primary School , principal Laura Meka says the school witnessed its summer reading numbers dwindle four years ago. In 2015, just 95 out of 564 kindergarten to second-grade students turned in a summer reading log in the fall. The following year, reading specialist Shannon McDonnell devised a plan: If students turned in their reading logs, a beloved physical education teacher, Scott McQueeney, would get duct-taped to the school wall. Every 10 books read by the students equaled one 3-foot-long piece of duct tape.
The response was huge: 254 students turned in their logs, and McQueeney went up on the wall for two long, sweaty hours. (“We didn’t anticipate how hot he was going to be!” Meka said over the phone, laughing.) The next fall, teachers celebrated another reading goal met by dyeing their hair a rainbow of colors. Last year, 372 students sent in their reading logs to witness Meka, McDonnell, and other administrators kiss a pig.
“That was the worst one,” Meka says. She’s terrified of pigs. “All summer I had to get into this mind-set. Like, you will kiss this pig,” she says. “Nobody else really kissed the pig. But I felt her snout on my lips!”
This fall, Meka and her assistant principal, Jen Galik, promised their students that they’ll get slimed, Nickelodeon style, if enough students return their reading logs. They haven’t firmed up the details quite yet, but the event will likely involve ladders, and lots of goo.
Meka lives in the town where she works, and she says that she’ll often walk through the grocery store, where students from John Trumbull will stop her and ask her if she’s going to get slimed.
Privately, she knows she will — she and her co-workers have never set a strict limit on how many reading logs equals “enough.” But she won’t tell the kids that, at least not yet. Instead, she offers some encouragement: “Keep reading!”