Between summer camp, family vacations, and partaking in some well-deserved rest and relaxation, reading is often not at the top of students’ list of summer priorities.

But it should be. 

Though reading achievements have improved in nearly every grade level since Spring 2021, they still aren’t quite reaching pre-pandemic levels. And, as a July 2022 Northwest Evaluation Association report found, the largest achievement declines are still among Black and Hispanic students, who were disproportionately impacted by the pandemic across the board.

The “Summer Slide” has always been real, and as young Black students from low-income backgrounds continue recovering from the many ways the pandemic has impacted their education, they’re fighting an uphill battle.

“Students from low-income backgrounds are even more at risk, as they are less likely to have access to consistent and effective summer programming and support,” says Katie Potter, senior literacy manager at Lee & Low Books. “During the pandemic, summer programs needed to pivot and support all aspects of a child’s learning, like social and emotional learning and physical and mental wellbeing, that were missed due to virtual schooling.”

Students from low-income backgrounds are even more at risk, as they are less likely to have access to consistent and effective summer programming and support.

Katie Potter, LEE & LOW BOOKS senior literacy manager

But summer reading is critical to ensuring both academic and lifelong success. 

“Whether it’s playing basketball or reading,” says Kathy Lester, a school librarian in Plymouth, Michigan, and president of the American Association of School Librarians, “to really get good at something, you have to practice.”

As a classroom teacher, Ahjah Gage saw the decline in literacy levels firsthand. Now, as co-founder and associate director of The BLAC Project, she works to promote literacy as a means to uplift Black and Brown people.

“Unfortunately, it disproportionately affected the Black and Brown children even more,” Gage says. “We continue to serve so that we can continue to better our community, because we see that there’s a lacking in that, especially in the last three years.”

What Do the Numbers Say?

Hidden in Plain Sight, a Learning Heroes survey, found that 71% of teachers are worried about students’ reading skills, compared to 39% of all parents and only 36% of Black parents. 

This could be explained by the pressure teachers feel from standardized testing and reading retention laws, Lester says.

“Teachers might feel a lot of that pressure and see where their kids actually are,” Lester says. “Maybe parents don’t see that same urgency.”

But there’s more to it than that. Prior to the pandemic, literacy levels in marginalized communities were already low, says Levy-Christopher, “starting with parents and trickling down to the children.”

“A lot of it is an education issue with the parents and family,” she says, “and then other issues, like books are expensive to buy.”

Black parents were above average when it came to supporting their children in writing and reading skill development over the summer, with 49% of Black parents citing this as a plan of action compared to 42% of all other parents.

A previous survey conducted in 2021, Out-of-School Time Programs, found falling behind academically and losing interest or motivation to learn is among parents’ top concerns for their children, with Black parents more significantly worried about the latter. 

According to the survey, Black parents primarily view reading as a skill to be learned at school (37%), not at home (13%) or in out-of-school programs (16%). However, when enrolled in out-of-school programs to help with reading, Black parents report their children doing significantly better, with 49% reporting above grade-level reading through out-of-school programs compared to 35% who don’t participate.

Children don’t learn the same way, Gage points out, so having a diverse set of summer and after-school programs can help kids reach levels that traditional schools don’t.

“The Black experience, when it comes to educational institutions, is vastly different from the wider experience, and I think that’s something that parents also need to take into consideration,” says Rochelle Levy-Christopher, founder and CEO of The BLAC Project. She adds that, whether it’s reading, science, or math, “everything needs to be reinforced at home. There’s so much time spent for kids outside of school … that parents shouldn’t rely solely on school for any type of education.”

Early elementary grades are where we’re seeing the lowest number of students at grade-level reading, according to a Curriculum Associates report. The largest differences between pre-pandemic levels and current levels are in grades 1-3, with the most significant change in second grade (6%). This matters because students who aren’t “highly proficient” in reading by the end of third grade are more likely to drop out of school. 

And, according to Education Week, Black and Hispanic first-grade students have fallen further behind than their white peers in terms of reading levels. The share of Black first graders meeting grade-level standards fell from 51% to 37%; Hispanic students fell from 54% to 42%; and white students from 65% to 58%.

But Learning Heroes found that, in May 2022, 49% of parents thought their children were above their grade-level reading standards.

Reading early and often matters, Potter says.

“In order to combat the summer slide and learning loss that has occurred during the pandemic,” Potter says, “setting consistent and achievable reading behaviors and habits at home provides children with opportunities to be successful in the classroom.”

What Can Parents or Guardians Do? 

If you’re stuck on ways to get your children to read,, fortunately our experts have some advice:

  • Talk to the school librarian. During the school year, librarians get to know students and what interests them, so they can likely offer specific book recommendations.
  • Be open-minded to variety. “Let kids have that choice,” Lester says, whether it’s reading a graphic novel or audiobook, or sitting at the kitchen table or curled up on the couch. “Especially during the summer, it should be more around enjoyment.”
  • Pair the book with an activity. Whether you read a short article about gardening or a book about cooking, connect that with a real-world activity. Head out to the garden or roll up your sleeves in the kitchen to make the words more relatable. 
  • Foster their interests. Whether it’s a book about princesses, politics, or quantum physics, let kids read about what interests them. “It’s still reading,” Levy-Christopher says. “Meet them where they are. From that core interest, then you can expand from there.”
  • Make it interactive. Do a Q&A after a chunk of the book. Or have them read instructions for something you’re putting together. These will help build comprehension and overall literacy skills. “I don’t want people to pigeonhole themselves,” Levy-Christopher says. “Think outside the box.”
  • Create a rewards system. Everyone is motivated by check marks and treats. Whether it’s a daily chapter quota or monthly book total, reward the progress!
  • Tap into local resources. Enroll your kids in a summer book club or check the library for summer reading programs to get access to books and make reading more social.
  • Empower your young reader. Lee & Low created several reading lists full of books about Black children, like Books About Joy and the Diverse Summer Reading List. They also suggest Black biographies showcasing lesser-known historical figures, like Garrett Morgan and Vivien Thomas. “Ask children to think about why these ‘unsung heroes’ aren’t frequently taught and what they can do to learn about other prominent Black people that are not included in a traditional curriculum,” Potter says.

Maya Pottiger is a data journalist for Word in Black. She was previously a data journalist for the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism at the University of Maryland, where she earned both her BA and Master of Journalism. Her work has been featured...