Can raising reading levels be fun? It was for these kids in Nashville

Nashville youngsters spent part of their final day of summer camp last week rolling Play-Doh in snakes and coils under the guidance of children’s book author and illustrator Susan Eaddy — all for the cause of literacy.

The children were among nearly 40 students in kindergarten through third grade who spent four weeks of summer break at Camp Explore at J.E. Moss Elementary School.

The camp was funded with a $30,000 philanthropic grant through the Tennessee Department of Education’s Read to be Ready campaign, which aims to get 75 percent of the state’s third-graders proficient in reading by 2025. It was one of a dozen grants awarded statewide this year for summer reading programs, and state officials plan to compile data and best practices from the sites.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits students at Camp Explore. (Jeanne Fain)

At Camp Explore, participants either raised or maintained their reading levels during four weeks, especially crucial during the summer, when students often drop in reaching achievement, according to Jeanne Fain, the Lipscomb University researcher who designed the camp.

Turns out, Fain said, that having fun is a proven technique to boost literacy — and one often missing from classrooms.

“There are very real, research-based reasons for what they (read), what they (did),” Fain said. “Why do we only give space for fun in the summer? This could happen all year.”

Camp Explore focused primarily on English language learners, a growing Nashville student population for which Tennessee’s reading gaps are particularly wide.

J.E. Moss students who are native English speakers also attended Camp Explore. Segregating ELL students is a big mistake, Fain said.

“You want to be speaking with someone who has knowledge of the language,” she said. “Talk is missing in a lot of classrooms, and it’s really troubling for multiple language learners.”

Each day after being served breakfast, kids spent their mornings being read to by their teachers before breaking up in small groups where they read a book together. After lunch, they picked from electives such as science — where students built ramps for toy cars — and cooking or music.

The children received visits from Gov. Bill Haslam and first lady Crissy Haslam, as well as Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen. They also went on field trips. Last Friday, Nashville bookstore Parnassus brought its bookmobile and bookstore dog Bella to the camp. All of the kids got signed copies of a book by Susan Eaddy, who lives and works in Nashville.

Throughout the summer, the students wrote about everything they did. “It’s much easier to write if you have experiences, and I wanted to build those,” Fain said.

Fain provided each camper with backpacks and eight books to take home and read throughout the summer. She selected books with characters of color, because research shows that such books help students connect to literature, which then encourages them to bolster their literacy skills. She also selected multilingual books so that her bilingual students could read in their first languages — and so non-English-speaking parents could join in on the reading too.

Fain is distributing her reading list to schools across the state and donating extra books from camp to other districts. She is conducting her own research based on Camp Explore, using writing samples from the children and reading assessments administered by teachers.

Next year, Fain and Moss principal Carl Febles hope the camp can expand to serve 240 students because this year’s waiting list was so long and parents are eager to help their kids learn.

“(Camp Explore) has lit a fire in this community about having school services during the summer,” Febles said.

Most importantly, camp has gotten kids excited about reading.

“They came home and were like, ‘OK, Mom, it’s cool to read,” said Jessica Oglesby of her three sons, ages 8,6 and 5. “It was lovely.”