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School fights summer learning loss

By Aliya Masood, for the Gazette

CHARLESTON, W.VA. -- Just before school let out in June, a group of second-graders at Mary C. Snow West Side Elementary School waited as their teacher handed each of them a summer reading bag. They leaned forward in their seats and fidgeted in anticipation of their gifts.

The school has developed a program called "A Summer in the Black Lagoon." Each child in kindergarten through fourth grade receives a black bag of books for the summer.

The name comes from a book "The Teacher from the Black Lagoon" by Mike Thaler, said teacher and librarian Debbie Cannada. As she handed out the bags, she told students that after they read the books they could call a phone number and take a quiz. If they passed, they would get a party.

Cannada said she stole the idea from Heather Mottesheard, her friend and the librarian at Stonewall Jackson Middle School.

"Research has proven that if children do a small amount of school-type work every day, they don't lose as much over summer," Cannada said. Researchers call it the "summer slide."

The National Summer Learning Association says that a century of research shows that students can lose academic skill when school is out. One antidote is to engage children in reading during the summer. In 2011, the National Assessment of Educational Progress found that fourth-graders who reported reading for fun scored higher on the NAEP reading test than those who did not read.

Cannada's school uses a modified calendar, so students are out for just six weeks in summer, minimizing their academic loss. To help students further, Cannada hopes to coax them into reading for fun during those weeks.

Stephen Krashen, a former professor of linguistics and education at the University of Southern California and author of "The Power of Reading," emphasizes reading for fun.

"Free voluntary reading ... means reading because you want to: no book reports, no questions at the end of the chapter," Krashen writes.

When Mary C. Snow students returned to school in July, Cannada was pleased with the results. Out of 450 book bags, 100 were collected with completed work, and they are still working on it.

The school held the promised party for the children Friday, complete with rock climbing and a water slide.

Cannada plans to repeat the effort during future school breaks.

"The basic goal for this whole effort is to develop the concept of reading through summer," Cannada said. "We have seen the difference. Reading every day boosts skills and boosts knowledge. We know that well-read people are well-rounded people, and the teachers have to spend less time reviewing in the first month after the summer break."

Read Aloud advocate Jim Trelease, author of "The Read Aloud Handbook," encourages parents to help children develop a reading habit by reading to them.

"The more you read, the better you get at it; the better you get at it, the more you like it; and the more your like it, the more you do it." Masood is a freelance writer in Charleston.


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