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Blugolds take on the 'summer slide'

| Shari Lau

Once the final school bell rings in June and summer hits, kids have a list of fun activities to keep themselves occupied: baseball, swimming and biking to name a few. Although reading isn't usually at the top of that list, 7-year-old Jack Barthen and his older brother, Carter, 10, eagerly added it through their involvement with the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire's Summer Reading Program.

The five-week program — an extension of the UW-Eau Claire Human Development Center's Academic Intervention Clinic — provides kids from the community an opportunity to get reading intervention in three areas: decoding, fluency and comprehension. Twenty-four kids are enrolled in this year's program, which runs in 50-minute sessions four days a week. The kids work one-on-one with undergraduate students who receive extensive training in delivering research-supported reading interventions specifically designed for elementary-age children. 

Building confidence through firsthand experiences is the best way to prepare for a career in psychology, said Felicia Som, a junior psychology major from St. Paul, Minnesota. 

"Psychology is very hands on," she said. "I'm interested in going into counseling or school psychology, and I know that my hands-on experience with children and what I am learning in the Summer Reading Program will help me prepare for graduate school. This program has also helped with my parent communication. I've learned how to interact with parents on a professional and positive level and communicate with them about their children's progress and what they need to work on. This is an experience I will keep with me for a very long time."

Six undergraduate interventionists work under the direct supervision of Dr. Michael Axelrod and Dr. Melissa Coolong-Chaffin, who have expertise in academic assessment and intervention. They assess the kids to determine their reading baseline level, deliver appropriate interventions, collect outcome data to graph progress over time and report the results to parents.

During the summer, kids can lose an average of one to two months of reading achievement, and students who are already below average will slide more in the summer compared to average and above average students, said Axelrod, associate professor of psychology and director of the Human Development Center. 

Preventing the "summer slide" is why Tammy Barthen enrolled her two sons in the program for the second year.

"I wanted Jack and Carter to keep active during the summer and keep up with their reading so they don't fall behind and lose what they had gained all year long," said Barthen, Eau Claire. "Carter's comprehension has improved, and Jack has gone above and beyond, now reading at a third-grade level when he just finished first grade. It's exciting to see that. They love coming here, and it makes me proud that they're doing so well. I recommend keeping your kids involved in the summer so they don't slip behind before entering the next school year."   

Schools are paying more attention to the summer slide and recognize that kids who are struggling actually lose skills over the summer, whereas kids who aren't struggling can make gains on their own. This makes it more difficult for struggling kids to catch up, said Coolong-Chaffin, assistant professor of psychology and associate director of the Academic Intervention Clinic.

"On average, students in our program made more than twice the amount of growth we would expect them to make in a similar time period during the school year," she said. "This is remarkable given the fact that students who struggle in reading are likely to actually lose skills over the summer. For these students, just maintaining the skills they had at the end of the school year would be a success, so it's even more remarkable that they actually made gains. This is crucially important if we hope to close the achievement gap over time."

In addition to helping children make gains in their reading, the Summer Reading Program provides UW-Eau Claire undergraduates with opportunities to learn about intervention programs and work professionally with kids.

"This program prepares students to think about problems in regard to kids in a more scientific way," Axelrod said. "When they leave the summer program, our interventionists will be fluent at speaking about the process of reading and how to intervene with reading problems, as well as how to develop relationships with kids in different ways."

Many of the interventionists have worked with kids before either through babysitting, volunteering with the Boys & Girls Club or through Blugold Beginnings, but when they get involved in this program, they learn to develop meaningful relationships with kids in the context of teaching and improvement, Axelrod said.

"It's not just being a friend or mentor," he said. "It's about developing a relationship between the interventionist and the kid and then capitalizing on that relationship to help develop reading skills. We are really proud of the undergraduates, and it's exciting for us to see them go out into the professional world and engage in practice in a better way. We know that they will be effective leaders."

The main focus of the Summer Reading Program is to provide a service for the Eau Claire community, but it also serves as a valuable opportunity to ask research questions and make contributions to the field, Coolong-Chaffin said.

"We're interested in the best ways to customize these reading interventions to meet individual kids' needs," she said. "Most of our undergraduates are interested in careers related to applied psychology and education, so their chance to learn about the research behind this and to understand how we know what we do is effective is valuable as they go on to careers or graduate school."

Students also get the chance to present what they've learned at national conferences alongside graduate students, professors and practitioners in the field.

"That's incredibly exciting for them," Coolong-Chaffin said. "They are, as undergraduates, talking with others in the field and sharing the information they have learned through this program. It's impressive for them to have that on a resume when applying to jobs or graduate school."

For more information about the Summer Reading Program, contact Dr. Michael Axelrod at axelromi@uwec.edu or 715-836-5020, or Dr. Melissa Coolong-Chaffin at chaffimc@uwec.edu or 715-836-3925.