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How free books are helping fight learning loss in Tennessee youth

Key Takeaways

  • Grade school children typically lose 20% of reading proficiency during the summer months
  • The BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee Foundation awarded $100,000 to the Governor’s Early Literacy Foundation for their K-3 Book Delivery Program
  • The grant will fund the distribution of 192,000 books to 32,000 students in kindergarten through third grade across 37 Tennessee school districts
  • The K-3 Book Delivery Program is part of the “Stop the Slide!” campaign to combat learning loss

After a demanding year of learning beset with unprecedented challenges, educators, parents and kids across Tennessee are enjoying a well-deserved reprieve during the summer months. However, new data has caused many to rethink and double down on strategies to prevent summer learning loss in kids, sometimes referred to as the “summer slide.” 

Summer slide is a national phenomenon in which students, especially those from low-income families, tend to lose some of the achievement gains accomplished during the school year. Research shows that children from low-income households will fall behind an average of two months in reading during the summer, further noting that the learning losses from the summer slide are cumulative and will continue to build year after year. 

Lisa Boyatt, a third grade teacher at Oneida Elementary in Scott County, has witnessed summer slide each of the 15 years she’s been an educator.

Lisa Boyatt

“Every fall when school starts, we need to take time for review because of the learning loss over the summer,” she explains. “It’s not universal; you need to evaluate each student individually to see what kind of slide they’ve experienced. The pandemic has made it more challenging. While most of our students were in the classroom, some were quarantined at home, so we really had to monitor who was experiencing additional loss. We definitely saw additional loss of reading fluency.”

This loss of reading ability could be devastating in Tennessee, where just 34.7% of third graders read proficiently. Even fewer may hit that benchmark due to COVID-19. The Tennessee Department of Education projects an estimated 50% decrease in proficiency rates in 3rd grade reading. And the estimated learning loss for this summer is about 2.5 times higher than in years past. 

Third grade reading proficiency is the benchmark that allows children to transition from “learning to read” to “reading to learn,” and it is a key indicator for a child’s future educational success, health, workforce readiness and quality of life.

Students who do not read over the summer lose 2-3 months of reading proficiency.

However, research shows that reading 4-6 books has the potential to mitigate, stop or even reverse the summer slide.

‘Stop the Slide!’ aims to combat learning loss

To help reduce the “summer slide,” the BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee Foundation donated $100,000 to the Governor’s Early Literacy Foundation’s (GELF) K-3 Book Delivery Program, an initiative designed to promote summer reading among students in rural counties and directly combat the projected loss of proficiency. The BlueCross Foundation’s grant funded the distribution of 192,000 books to 32,000 students and teachers in kindergarten through third grade across 37 different school districts.

The K-3 Book Delivery Program is part of GELF’s “Stop the Slide!” campaign to promote reading over the summer. GELF strengthens early literacy throughout the state of Tennessee by partnering with organizations to put books and learning resources in homes and classrooms throughout the state, regardless of the recipient’s location or socioeconomic background. 

Credit: Governor’s Early Literacy Foundation

As a teacher, Lisa knows the power of books to maintain and improve reading skills.

“The books being distributed are not only age appropriate, but they are also interesting and fun,” she says. “We’ve found them to be great at starting conversations with and among the students. I love the program – and that’s not just as a teacher. My daughter, Sadie, will be entering kindergarten this fall. She has received books through Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library in the past, but those will stop now that she’s entering school. We were thrilled when our box arrived from the K-3 Book Delivery Program, full of great books for the summer. She immediately went to them and started working through them.”

In addition to the BlueCross Foundation, the K-3 Book Delivery Program is underwritten by the State of Tennessee with support from Dollar General Literacy Foundation and Amazon. This year, the program will distribute a total of 500,000 books to 110,000 rising first through third grade teachers and students, including every first grader, across the state. In collaboration with Scholastic, the global children’s publishing, education, and media company, each participating student and teacher will receive a pack of high-quality, age-appropriate books this summer, delivered directly to their home.

“The value of summer reading carries extra weight this year, as time spent in classrooms was inconsistent for so many children,” says James Pond, president of GELF. “Our mission to strengthen literacy in Tennessee has never been more meaningful, and collaborative partnerships aligned with our shared vision have never been more valuable.”

In extraordinary times, extraordinary acts are required. COVID-19 has exposed and exacerbated inequities across Tennessee, which is why continued community support is critical.

“We recognize the importance of childhood literacy, and we understand that, unfortunately, many Tennessee students may not have access to books, particularly during the summer when school is not in session,” says Chelsea Johnson, director of the BlueCross Foundation. “We are pleased that this grant will help get books into the hands of more of our state’s children, allowing them to maintain and expand critical reading skills, even when they’re not in class.”

Header image credit: Governor’s Early Literacy Foundation

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