3 Reasons to Move From Summer Reading to Summer Learning

Girls working on robot in libraryEvery youth librarian in a public library knows that the last bell on the last day of the school year means one thing: the start of summer reading. Summer Reading Programs (SRPs) for children and teens are a long-standing tradition in public libraries, and for good reason. SRPs help combat “summer slide,” get kids and families into the library and provide a free, structured activity to fill the summer months. As public libraries modernize their goals, their spaces and their collections to meet the needs and expectations of their communities, shouldn’t SRPs be reexamined as well?

What Is Summer Learning?

In recent years, libraries have begun to update their summer programs by moving from the traditional summer reading model to a summer learning model. Summer learning expands on the traditional summer reading model by making the program about more than reading. This can take many forms. At the Chicago Public Library, they created learning tracks — read, discover, create — under their “All Learning Counts” model and designed all programing around one or more of those tracks. At my library, the Newton Free Library in Massachusetts, kids and teens can earn online badges for completing suggested activities in the community, such as visiting a local park, recycling, reading in a new place, asking a family member to tell them a story about their life and many more. For teens, some summer learning programs focus on career skills and college readiness.

The beauty of summer learning is the seemingly limitless possibilities for both the participants and the library. Simply put, it’s about kids and teens exploring their interests, engaging in their community and developing new skills in the summer months. For libraries, this shift toward learning broadens programming, community partnership and family engagement opportunities. It is a truly exciting innovation in library services to children and teens.

Why Summer Learning?

Skeptical that summer learning is worth the shake-up to your traditional summer program? Here are some reasons to consider it.

1. It’s Inclusive

Public libraries pride themselves on being free and welcoming to all. However, a kid who dislikes or struggles with reading can easily dismiss a summer reading program, and the library, as not for her. A summer learning program, which offers various avenues of participation, may appeal to nonreaders, English language learners and those who have seen the library as a place for reading only. Like so many other library programs and services, summer learning is also a way to offer enriching experiences to families who can’t afford more formal summer activities and camps for their child. The average cost of a summer program or camp, according to the National Summer Learning Association, is $288 per child per week, putting them out of reach for many low-income families. Through summer learning, the library can help fill that need, but our programs must go beyond reading.

2. It’s Educational

Shhhh, don’t tell the kids, but all that fun they’re having in your summer learning program is contributing to their future academic achievement. Research from the Wallace Foundation reported that the academic effects from participating in high quality summer programming could last up to two years after participation. It can also help mitigate summer slide and narrow the achievement gap for low-income families.

3. It’s Fun

Summer learning is fun, and I’m not just talking about for the kids. Planning summer learning can be fun for librarians too! The broad application of summer learning to library programming and partnerships allows librarians to share and explore their own interests, passions and expertise beyond, but not excluding, books. For example, the year my library moved toward summer learning, I started a Design Squad Global club, a sort of engineering club for tweens. I had no background in engineering and it had no connection to reading, but I had an interest in it and thought others might too. It was such a success that it has continued into the school year! In a traditional summer reading program context, it would not have occurred to me to start this club as an integral part of our summer reading program, but summer learning encourages the integration of all kinds of programming.

Make a Bigger Impact with Your Summer Programming

Learn how your library can boost excitement and reach a wider audience by making the switch to a summer learning program.

What About Books?

I know from experience that some may see the shift from summer reading to summer learning as a move away from books and reading. Please don’t think of it as summer reading versus summer learning. Summer learning is not a replacement of summer reading; it is an expansion of summer reading. Books and reading remain the cornerstone of the program, grounding it in what the library does best — promoting literacy and a love of reading.

A multitude of activities are contributing to a child’s literacy, even if those activities have nothing to do with reading. Broadening a child’s experience contributes greatly to literacy and reading comprehension. Studies have shown that a child’s background knowledge on a topic affects how well they make connections while processing text. Ways to build background knowledge are through direct experience and reading broadly on a particular topic of personal interest. Summer learning combines both approaches through hands-on experiences and by exposing kids to new topics of interest, with the goal of creating better readers in the school year.

How to Make the Change

My library has been in the process of making the change from summer reading to summer learning, and it is a big change indeed. There are a few very important first steps to take to have the best chance at success in summer learning.

1. Do Your Homework and Start Early

This post is a good start, but there is so much research on the benefits of summer learning and examples of libraries who have done it successfully. Start planning early and read as much as you can about summer learning, both inside and outside the library world (see the list of resources at the end of this post). As you read, consider what aspects of summer learning might work best for your library and community.

2. Get Administration on Board

Armed with your research, take the idea to your library’s administration. It is so important to have their support, even if you have to do some convincing. If they seem reluctant, suggest one or two small changes to make in the coming summer that can move your library toward a learning model, rather than a full overhaul.

3. Communicate With Staff and Provide Training if Necessary

You may have staff that are reluctant to change such a longstanding program. Listen to their concerns. Ask them for their ideas and how their expertise or interests can be served by the change. If they lack the skills necessary to facilitate a change, provide some training or resources to help build their confidence and empower them to support the new program.

4. Communicate With the Community

No doubt your library has regulars who know the summer reading drill. Change might be hard for them too! With the other youth staff, create a brief message, like an elevator pitch, about the changes and encourage everyone to use this statement with the public. For example, my library stopped giving individual prizes this past summer in favor of working toward a community prize in the spirit of that year’s theme, Build a Better World. Kids and families, used to earning personal prizes over the years, were shocked by this change. Our librarians explained that “building a better world” means joining with your community toward common goals and that everyone’s contributions, not just the most voracious readers’, should count. When we put it that way, people easily got on board.

5. Do It!

When that bell rings on the last day of school and all your planning goes into action, your library will be prepared to support the youth in your community in reading, but also more than that. Your library will be taking a more holistic approach to summer programming that has the potential to affect those you serve for school years to come.


Amanda Bressler

Amanda Bressler

Supervisor of Youth Services at Newton Free Library
Amanda is the former Youth Outreach Librarian at the Boston Public Library, for which she visited hospitals, schools, juvenile detention centers, farmers markets and more. Currently, Amanda is the Supervisor of Youth Services at the Newton Free Library (MA) and serves on the ALSC Building Partnerships Committee.