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Summer Reading Program: Purposeful Fun

by on June 16, 2014

Gearing up for summer means preparing for the influx of children who are finished with school and ready for the lazy days of summer. It is important to remember that the summer reading program is a service that public libraries do best; one that places us directly into the educational realm. Public library summer reading programs are the link between grade levels and prevention of the summer slide. The summer reading program is the ultimate blend of multi-generational programming, marketing, advocacy, and collection promotion.

Multiple Audiences

Don’t forget to build multiple entry points into your program to appeal to the wide variety of readers who will participate— families, preschoolers, children, teens, even non-library users.. Programs that provide incentive for time or days spent reading encourage non-readers and struggling readers to stay reading all summer. A flexible program can include extra levels and reading choices for strong readers.

The Role of Themes

For some, having a new theme each year may seem like busy-work, but changing them each year can play an integral role in the program’s success. Different themes appeal to different audiences, creating new opportunities to reach out to new users. A musical theme will appeal to a different group of children than a scientific theme, for example.

New themes also provide new collection marketing opportunities each year. A space theme allows librarians to highlight books on astronomy, while a pet theme highlights animal-related sections. This also creates innovative readers advisory opportunities every summer.

Themes also offer a fresh look to the program, additional marketing opportunities, and chances for collaboration with new partners. A music program allows you to tap the musicians in your community. An animal theme opens the door to a partnership with the local veterinarian or animal shelter.


For longtime summer reading program organizers, it is easy to fall into the routine of seeking out as many prizes as you can find. Keep in mind that there are pros and cons to providing prizes. In particular, studies have shown that non-literacy prizes may not be a good fit with summer reading.

To spice up your program, dig into the idea of “gamification” – using the idea of “library as place” as incentive. Use game-related concepts to make library visits fun. Enhance preschoolers’ early learning by adding play spaces. Create intrinsic motivation for children to use the library by offering a passive program or interactive display. This will help encourage both library usage and love of reading.

Preventing the Summer Slide

Summer reading programs are essential in closing the achievement gap and preventing reading level loss. Studies show that participation in a summer reading program raises student reading levels, particularly for at-risk youth. Children living in poverty are more likely to lose reading skills over the summer than children whose families are more affluent. The California Summer Reading Program, provides great background materials and publicity that highlight these studies.

Summer learning loss is cumulative. By the end of 6th grade, children who lose reading skills over the summer are two years behind their classmates. Children from families with low income are particularly at risk. The nonprofit organization National Summer Learning Association produced this powerful video demonstration of summer learning loss impact.

SRP develops good habits – like using the library to improve reading skills, and love and enthusiasm for reading, especially in multiple formats.  According to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, reading just five books over the summer prevents reading loss. Students who participate in SRP score higher in reading achievement tests at the beginning of the next school year than those who do not participate. Teachers have reported that the most dramatic difference between students who participated was in their enthusiasm for reading. The more children read, the better their fluency, vocabulary and comprehension.

Library Awareness

The next time you are out soliciting incentives for your program, remember to share information about the importance of this program with your donors. Get the message out to your community partners and stakeholders that the summer reading program in your community is more than just a way to encourage library use, it is brilliantly structured fun that keeps kids learning all summer. Class visits are a great opportunity to promote both the program and the library and raise the level of library awareness in your community. Remember to include enough information in your presentations to inform any adults, like teachers and parents, in the room as well as the children.

For more information and resources on gamification, incentives, and purposeful summer reading check out these resources:

Kohn, Alfie. Punished by Rewards: the trouble with gold stars, incentive plans, A’s, praise and other bribes. New York, N.Y.: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1993.

Nicholson, Scott. Everyone Plays at the Library. Creating great gaming experiences for all ages. Medford, N.J.: Information Today, Inc., 2010.

Springen, Karen. “How to Create a Knockout Summer Literacy Program.” School Library Journal. March, 17 2014.