More than Just Summer Reading: The Shift to “Summer Learning”

Author photo: Christine CaputoAuthor photo: Christy EstrovitzChristine Caputo is the Youth Services Administrator at the Free Library of Philadelphia and a member of the ALSC Board. She is also the Chair of ALSC’s Summer Reading and Learning Task Force. Christy Estrovitz is the Manager of Youth Services for the San Francisco Public Library and Chair of ALSC’s Public Awareness Committee.

Yay summer! At the end of every school year, children are excited to begin their summer vacations. During this time off many students also look forward to a summer enrichment camp, traveling with their families, visiting local museums and historical sites, or many other experiences.

People posing in front of a Tracking Tree billboard

For many others, especially children and teens from low-income communities, their summer vacation is not full of learning opportunities. Research over the last several years indicates that children who do not participate in learning experiences over the summer year after year have an academic achievement gap that grows throughout the elementary and middle school years. This summer learning loss can add up to about two-thirds of the gap in reading achievement by ninth grade.1

Libraries are at the center of the communities they serve, from storytimes to afterschool activities to outreach to schools and more. For more than a century, libraries have offered summer reading programs to both encourage children to read for pleasure and to borrow books, as well as to avert the “summer slide” that occurs because of lack of opportunity in some communities.2 Over the last several years, libraries’ summer reading programs have begun to transform into summer learning programs. What’s the difference? Why does it matter?

Summer learning is an approach to engaging children by providing active learning experiences that are positive, experiential, educational, but most importantly, fun! Summer learning activities can include reading and literacy activities, so it’s really an expansion of what librarians have been doing for decades. Want to share stories and create art projects with children? Summer Learning! Read a book together and host a discussion? Summer Learning! Look at informational books about water and do floating and sinking experiments? Summer Learning!

Many libraries that have transitioned to add more diverse hands-on-learning experiences have found that they are reaching new audiences who may not have been as interested in traditional summer reading programming in the past. Children who struggle with reading may not be comfortable coming to libraries for reading programs, but can feel more welcome in a hands-on activity that has a more experiential approach. Slightly changing or enhancing programming can reach many more families than traditional reading programs (see “Summer Learning in Action @ San Francisco Public Library”).

In addition, one area that children can struggle with as they are learning to read is comprehension. Some children are very fluid readers and can read aloud very well, but when they are asked a question about what they have read, they are not able to answer. One of the reasons they may struggle is because they may not have experience with the topic to relate to it on a personal level. As children move from learning to read to reading to learn, comprehension becomes even more critical to their education. By providing experiences that can scaffold children’s understanding of the words they are reading, libraries are not only providing fun experiences for children and families, but they are helping children build personal experiences and supporting their academic learning and comprehension levels.

A Jumpstart Camp student-created endangered animal book

A Jumpstart Camp student-created endangered animal book.

As the online and in-person discussions over the last year or two about summer reading and learning have increased, and librarians across the country have been rethinking what their programming could look like for children, teens, and families, the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) has taken note.

At the 2016 American Library Association (ALA) Midwinter Meeting, the ALSC board considered summer reading and learning as an area of significant strategic relevance. The board recognized that summer reading and learning is an area of focus for many members and decided to expand and strengthen the ways in which ALSC supports members in this work.

Last year, ALSC appointed a task force to explore and make recommendations to the board regarding ways in which ALSC can expand and strengthen its support of members in their summer reading and learning work.

During 2016 the task force solicited feedback from ALSC members through an online community forum, a conversation at the ALA Networking Uncommons, blog posts, and general conversations with colleagues to better understand how members would like ALSC to support their work. After hearing the feedback and reviewing existing research, the task force made several recommendations over the course of the year. These recommendations included both short-term and longer-term goals. Short-term goals included working with other ALA units to discuss mutual areas of interest, meeting with other national organizations that are also focusing on summer learning, and requesting an ALA council resolution declaring the role of libraries in summer reading and learning.

Longer-term goals include creating opportunities throughout ALSC’s portfolio of existing professional development for members to share and learn best practices, including webinars, conference presentations, and a preconference later in the timeline.

The task force also recommended that ALSC evaluate the possibility of creating an organized service model for summer learning that libraries could use in both summer and school year learning programs, like Every Child Ready to Read does for early literacy programming. The task force is working with the ALSC leadership, ALSC staff, and existing ALSC committees to update and move the recommendations forward.

ALSC is already working on summer initiatives including the annual summer reading lists and the ALSC Baker & Taylor Summer Reading Program Grant. Recently, ALSC received a grant from the Dollar General Literacy Foundation and awarded twelve $5,000 Strengthening Communities through Libraries minigrants to provide children’s programming that strengthens community opportunities for STEAM learning during school breaks.

As part of this project, ALSC is also developing additional resources that will be shared widely to support the out-of-school time programming of libraries and other community organizations. &


  1. Karl L. Alexander, Doris R Entwisle, and Linda Steffel Olson, “Lasting Consequences of the Summer Learning Gap,” American Sociological Review (2007): 167–80.
  2. David Von Drehle, “The Case Against Summer Vacation,” Time, July 22, 2010.


  • There are currently no refbacks.

© 2021 ALSC

ALA Privacy Policy