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English Language Learners

Summer Reading: English Language Learners at the Library

Libraries today have changed in a number of ways to meet the demands of our modern society, but their underlying purpose for children is still to help them discover the joy of reading. As summer peaks, many local libraries advertise special summer reading programs and activities to keep children enthusiastic about reading.

On this page:

When I step into this library, I cannot understand
why I ever step out of it.”

Marie de Sevigne, French Noble 1626-1696

Reading across all grades

As a child my mother would take me to the library nearly every week. The children’s area was brightly decorated with lots of posters of popular children’s books and slogans encouraging reading. What drew my attention, however, was the large, leather beanbag chair in the shape of a catcher’s mitt that sat in the corner and held approximately 12 children. It was a wonderful place to gather books and lounge while discovering the joy of reading.

I was thrilled the day I asked the librarian, “How many books am I allowed to take out?” and she replied, “There is no limit.” That day I went home with the whole shelf of Encyclopedia Brown books. Although I wasn’t very good at solving the mysteries, I sure enjoyed reading them!

Libraries today have changed in a number of ways to meet the demands of our modern society, but one of their most important underlying purposes is still to help children discover the joy of reading. Throughout the summer, many local libraries advertise special summer reading programs and activities to keep children enthusiastic about reading. Here is some general information about summer reading programs, as well as ways those programs can support English language learners.

Importance of summer reading

Research supports the importance of summer reading and learning as a means to support academic progress and narrow the achievement gap. The National Center for Summer Learning at Johns Hopkins University cites a study by Dr. Harris Cooper finding that while all kids lose some math skills over the summer, “(l)ow-income students also lose more than two months in reading achievement, despite the fact that their middle-class peers make slight gains (Cooper, 1996).”

Why the socioeconomic difference? Dr. Cooper’s team speculated that middle- and upper-class families are more likely to have access to a variety of sources of summer enrichment, both on a personal and community level (better school summer programs, acceleration programs, etc.), whereas low-income families are more likely to have limited to access to high-quality programs and experiences (Interview with Dr. Cooper, 2009).

Nevertheless, access isn’t enough, argues another researcher. Dr. James Kim conducted a study in which kids were given books without any kind of guidance or interaction around reading; the team found that by the end of the summer, their reading skills were no better than kids who did nothing during the summer. As they continued their research, Dr. Kim’s team found that when students had increased access to books combined with an opportunity to interact with adults while reading — summarizing a story, re-reading a difficult passage, talking about characters — students showed a significant improvement in reading skills such as comprehension over the summer (Interview with Dr. Kim, 2009).

In thinking about how these findings relate to ELLs, it’s important to remember that ELLs who may not have access to high-quality summer learning opportunities at their schools (especially as many summer school programs are cut in difficult economic times) can benefit from participating in free summer reading programs at the library, particularly those that involve mentors, group discussions, or related activities.

In addition, becoming familiar with all that the library has to offer over the summer will provide ELLs with important academic skills they can use during the school year, as well as giving them chance to discover the joys of reading and the important services our public libraries provide.

Library summer reading programs

Many libraries kick off a summer reading program that involves children registering as part of the program and receiving a “reading log” and perhaps some other small gifts, such as bookmarks and pencils. Children are encouraged to read as much as possible and enter the names of the books in their log to be turned in at the end of summer for a prize. In my experience this hasn’t been a strict competition, but rather a chance to offer praise and recognition for a child’s dedication to reading over the summer.

I believe my own children lost their reading logs and the kind librarian let them “fill in” the books they remembered reading that summer in order to get a certificate and prize. Take a moment to search for your library’s website and explore the resources available to help your students discover the joys of summer reading. Your state may also have statewide summer reading program that local libraries are part of, such as these programs in Texas and New York.

Summer reading and ELLs

Libraries offer all kinds of resources and opportunities to ELLs and their families, but many families may not know about the kinds of services and programs that libraries offer. In order to increase participation in summer reading programs, it may be helpful to take a field trip to the library during or near the end of the school year or invite a librarian to visit the classroom so that the librarian can introduce the summer reading program to students. The librarian can explain what the summer reading program involves, how to sign up, and other library activities that students will have access to during the summer. When summer arrives, student will feel more comfortable asking for information and signing up for the program if they have some background knowledge!

In addition to library programs, many ELL summer school programs offer some helpful resources, such as ELL/bilingual summer reading lists tied with the upcoming fall curriculum. While the lists may not fit other districts’ curriculum guidelines, they offer some great recommendations of books. 

Parents and families

Just as ELLs may not know what the library has in store, their families may not as well. One option is to take a family field trip to the library as part of Parent Night so that parents and children can explore the library and ask questions together, sign up for library cards, take tours of different sections (such as the computer room or Spanish-language books area), and watch a demonstration of a book checkout. While this is a great activity at the beginning of the school year, it can also be a wonderful activity before the summer or during summer school as a reminder of ways that the family can continue encouraging learning in the home when school is out.

Teen readers

Although there is a lot of focus on summer reading for elementary-aged children, there are often programs and resources for teens as well. This can be an important connection for teens. The summer before 7th grade, I moved to a totally new neighborhood and didn’t have a chance to make any friends since I arrived after school let out. My next door neighbor was a girl my same age, and my mother kept encouraging me to “get together” with her. I was too old to just “play” so I invited her to the library.

At first our walks to the library were awkward without much to talk about, but as we kept returning to check out more books we discovered each others interests and talked about the stories we liked. The library provided a free, safe, accessible place for us to hang out, and it helped that it was air-conditioned! Many libraries have “teen centers” or areas where they have located the kinds of books, magazines and other materials that teens will enjoy. For teachers who work with teen-age students it is a good idea to introduce or re-introduce them to these excellent library resources because many may feel they have “grown out of” the library.

Summer enrichment

While reading is often the core activity at the heart of the library’s summer programs, local public libraries may also offer a number of other programs, classes, and opportunities that students and their parents can take of advantage of. These range from computer and ESL classes to volunteer opportunities and bilingual storytime. Many of these options are detailed in More Than Books at the Library, and may prove to be a “hook” for families that are new to the library.

When I work with teachers on ELL reading instruction and appropriate materials, I always end by telling them, “All of these methods and materials are useful, but more importantly, if you can help a child discover the joy of reading — then you have truly succeeded because that child will continue to read and develop their skills over a lifetime.” As schools let out for the summer all over the nation, I hope that students, teachers, and families alike find the time to slow down for a bit, find a good book, and read. Happy reading!

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