Libraries Help Prevent the “Summer Slide”

The 'summer slide' can be a challenge to avoid. The library can help.

You might wonder how public libraries stay busy during the summer months. After all, summer is vacation time and a chance for kids and their families to enjoy the outdoors. However, as many parents and even more K-12 teachers know, summer is also the time of the “slide.”

Ever since a 1996 study came out showing that school-age kids lose significant knowledge in reading and math over summer break, public libraries and their staff have faced a fun and challenging assignment: how to stop the annual learning “slide.”

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Summer Learning and the “Slide”

According to the Colorado Department of Education and related entities across the U.S., year-round access to kids’ books is essential, and public libraries can provide excellent free resources for families. Moreover, librarians help guide children in selecting the best books possible for specific interests and reading levels. However, libraries haven’t always played this role.

Each year before 1996, kids’ skill loss tended to snowball following summer breaks, especially younger ones and those from low-income households. A quarter-century later, a study of children in 3rd to 5th grades continued to back the notion that students lost, on average, about 20 percent of their school-year gains in reading and 27 percent in math during summer break.

So, how do summer library programs help kids avert the summer slide? It may surprise you, but it’s not about requiring children to read book after book throughout the summer. Instead, as research suggests, it is more important to:

  • Get kids into the library.
  • Let them choose what they read.
  • Involve their families.

As more and more families now realize, getting kids to love summer in the library is a win-win for all!

Libraries and Summer Learning

What sorts of activities help child patrons and their families? The simple answer is that the more summertime energy in these spaces builds, the more creativity flows and starts to create synergies. Consider the following examples.

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The Collaborative Summer Library Program (CSLP)

CSLP is a consortium of states working to provide their public libraries with high-quality summer reading programs and events for children, teens, and adults for a manageable cost.

But doing programs on a budget hardly means they’ll be dull and perfunctory.

The 2022 theme, Oceans of Possibilities, has captured the attention of patrons of all ages — from Maryland, near the Chesapeake Bay, to landlocked Kansas. Over the years, these exciting summer initiatives have used themes like Building a Better World, featuring author and illustrator David Macaulay, and the multicultural reading theme of One World, Many Stories.


Like many adults, kids often think of summer reading as a solitary and portable activity that can be done in the library, at home, on vacation, in a local park, or at another location. But how do librarians and schoolteachers keep track of their reading progress to assess it and recommend new directions?

Beanstack is a non-profit and corporate-sponsored web and mobile app used to track independent reading time and help build a reading culture in school and at home. It makes it easier for adults to help kids track reading, keep them motivated to read, and provide feedback about and insights into their schools’ reading habits. Beanstack has been a boon to innovative libraries.

Reading Rockets

This program, which targets young readers, offers some of the best ways public libraries can team up with local schools to reach more children. These include:

  • Building better relationships with principals and schools.
  • Compiling booklists with school counterparts.
  • Joining forces with other area summer reading programs.
  • Increasing interest in summer reading events.
  • Taking advantage of summer school reading programs
  • Scheduling September follow-ups.
  • Distributing free children's books.

While this might involve some extra effort in the short term, it promises to pay dividends over the years as the partnerships cement into place.

Summer Reading Programs

The Riverhead (NY) Free Library and the Novi (MI) Public Library are two among many library systems that offer access to The New York Times’ extensive archives and databases, allowing librarians, parents, etc., the potential to get teens more engaged with the news.

And every summer, The New York Times holds its summer reading contest, which presents teens with the question, “What interested you most in The Times this week?” Read their sophisticated and intriguing entries here!

Summer Library Programs Support Families

Every summer, 22 million U.S. children who receive free or reduced-price school meals, including 11.7 million living in food-insecure households, lose access to the breakfasts and lunches served daily in school. These students also lack other school benefits, like engagement, learning, adult presence, and a temperature-controlled environment — things libraries provide.

Many, but not all. Many public libraries have relatively well-off patrons, and others serve those with desperately low incomes. The former doesn’t need and probably won’t apply for public funds to provide children with free lunches. The latter includes public libraries that are barely scraping by with minimal budgets. It also encompasses some of the country’s neediest children and families.

Still, libraries can gather funds and subsidize lunches for children who qualify for free school lunches. Lunch programs are essential to school success for many; after all, a hungry child probably doesn’t get many benefits from reading and learning. So, if libraries and schools join forces, that sends a message about the resources needed to carry out these programs.

Why Spend Summer at the Public Library?

In 2017, Huffington Post produced an article about five public libraries across the country that combine their summer reading programs with free lunches and other amenities. For example, Kristen from the Saint Louis County Library (SLCL) says library lunches alleviate summer stress for parents since kids have fun, stay calm, and enjoy free meals without fanfare or stigma.

Eva from the Los Angeles Public Library (LAPL) reminds us that branch librarians have also started adding post-lunch activities to entice families to stick around and enjoy the library’s activities. As she remarked, “after they eat, we guide kids to the puppet theater, help them conduct science experiments, and sign them up for summer reading.”

And as one appreciative patron put it, “the program is lucrative to the community, and I have observed several situations defused by a warm meal and a smile on a face!”