Valuing Brain Fitness

By Wanda Dengel - Contributing Columnist

Educators agree that each summer produces a reading proficiency gap for some students that widens with each subsequent summer. The reasons seem to boil down to how much a student reads during the summer months. It is generally agreed that students in grades Kindergarten through second grade should be reading 20 minutes per day year round. Those in grades three through senior in high school should dedicate at least half an hour to daily reading.

Research indicates that, generally speaking, students from upper and middle-class families spend time reading during the summer so their reading levels increase or remain the same until school begins again in the fall. On the other hand, many students from poorer socio-economic families don’t read during the summer and consequently fall behind their peers during the months they are not in school. The stakes are high for these students. They fall far behind their peers and lose any reading increases they may have gained during the school year. This reading disparity widens each summer and makes it more difficult for these students to read on the level of their peers. The good news is this reading gap is preventable.

One school district in Michigan is tackling the problem by making books accessible to all its students throughout the summer utilizing a variety of venues. For several years now they have made books available to their students through the US Postal Service. The way this works is that each student selects seven books he or she wants to read during the summer and the eighth book is chosen by the school district. Every ten or eleven days a book arrives at the student’s home by mail. After the student reads the book, the book and a postcard describing the student’s thoughts about the book are mailed back to the school. Teacher feedback is critical to the program. Teachers respond with words of encouragement and the next book is mailed out. This pattern continues until all eight books are read by the student. The school originally received a grant to initiate this program but this year the cost of the plan was included in the school’s budget.

The school district believes that if students can spend several hours per day on electronics, they can certainly spend just 20 or 30 minutes per day reading.

Another initiative of the school district has school libraries open for a few hours one day per week during the summer. The school libraries are open to students on staggered days of the week from one to three hours at various locations in the district to allow students the flexibility of finding a location that suits their schedules. The district encourages its students to visit their public library and its branches, nonetheless, the district also wants to provide their students additional options to keep them reading during the summer since students who read year round are more likely to graduate from high school, continue on to college, and fulfill their dreams.

The district not only has a remedial summer school program but enrichment classes, as well, with emphasis on science, technology, English, language arts, mathematics, and career preparation. Elementary students attend a full day while high school students attend a half day. Breakfast and lunch are provided each day as part of the program.

This public school district recognizes the importance of engaging entire families in reading. They host hands-on literacy programs by offering free books, a meal, childcare, field trips, and door prizes to their constituents once per week during the summer. Several community locations serve as sites for the family literacy program. These include churches, boys and girls clubs, and neighborhood organizations.

When children engage in daily reading, they maintain and strengthen their literacy skills. But don’t wait for your school district to do something. You’ve heard the adage, “Be the change!” Our Portsmouth Public Library and the PBS website are two of many invaluable resources.

PBS Parents and PBS KIDS have weekly online activities that families can use to make sure their children continue to read throughout the summer. Check out

The key to combating the summer reading slump is not how many books your children read during the summer, but that they read for a consistent period of time on a daily basis to maintain the reading gains they made during the school year.

In the early 18th century, John Addison, an English essayist, wrote, “Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body.” If we are to take Addison’s admonition to heart, then we must ensure that our children keep their minds fit through daily reading.

By Wanda Dengel

Contributing Columnist

Wanda Dengel, long time local and Columbus inner-city schools teacher, can be reached at

Wanda Dengel, long time local and Columbus inner-city schools teacher, can be reached at