Summer reading programs keeping youngsters' brains in shape

The pleasures of reading is its own reward, but a free waffle doesn’t hurt.

Just ask Latrell Ellington.

“I’ve read 11 hours and 30 minutes,” the 10-year-old said, walking up to a Washington Memorial Library station to collect his Waffle House coupon for reading a series of animal books this summer.

The Ballard-Hudson sixth-grader is one of about 1,500 Bibb County children — and at least 400 teens — participating in the Middle Georgia library system’s summer reading program. For reading up to 16 hours, children and teens get certificates, food coupons and other prizes.

It’s just one way that some libraries, book stores and school systems are encouraging children to read, read, read this summer to keep their minds and literacy skills sharp.

“School testing shows that children who read for pleasure in the summer do better and forget less when they go back to school,” said Joanne Hinman, head of children’s services for the Middle Georgia Regional Library System. “Too many parents set (their children) in front of the TV” during the summer break.

When students are out of class for the summer months, research shows that they can slide backward not only in reading, but in all subject areas, school curriculum experts say.

“They do forget,” said Suzanne Spaid, the school improvement coordinator for Bibb’s middle and high school language arts programs. “Reading being such an essential skill is why summer reading has always been encouraged.”

For middle school and high school students, reading a minimum of two books during the summer months is suggested, while elementary students, depending on their ages, should read for at least several hours.

Both Bibb and Houston schools send out a suggested reading list for students. Bibb’s Title I, low-income schools also bought a book for each middle school student to read this summer.

Spaid said students should read books of interest to them, which could include everything from comics to graphic novels.

Parents can also look up what curriculum their children will be studying in the coming school year in subjects such as social studies or history and encourage their children to read about related events to get a jump-start on the school year, she said.

Nancy Fordé, who’s in charge of literacy programs for elementary schools, also suggests that students cross genres and read poetry for learning conventions, style and grammar or that they read folk tales to improve their storytelling skills. It not only helps with reading, but it also makes for better writing, she said.

In Houston County, about 2,200 children are signed up for the vacation reading program through the public library system. When students read for 10 hours, they get a trip to the “treasure chest” and after 20 hours they get a free book.

Teens also can earn everything from movie tickets to manicures, said Nancy Granger, coordinator of children’s services for the library system.

“Being a substitute teacher, I can see the need to be a good reader,” said Brenda Williams, Latrell’s grandmother, who has taken the 10-year-old to the library twice a week this summer. “I don’t want him to stop with A’s. I want him to go to the top.”

Alexander II kindergarten teacher Stacey Collins has her 3-year-old and 5-year-old participating in Macon’s summer reading program, too.

“It’s extremely beneficial to prepare them for school,” Collins said. “And you don’t want them to (read) because they have to, but to fall in love with reading.”

Stratford Academy junior Peyton Smith is reading four books this summer, two for his English class and two for history.

“I’d rather read what I want to read, but I kind of understand it,” he said.

Spaid says parents need to think of summer reading just like a sport and not allow their children to get rusty.

“A coach would never allow an athlete to go two months without doing some activity related to that sport,” she said. “When we don’t do anything with them academically, it’s comparable.”

To contact writer Julie Hubbard, call 744-4331.