After a summer off, students return to school having lost a bit of their knowledge in what is known as "summer slide." A recent study indicates that giving students books at the end of the school year can help curb the loss of reading skills.

"Reading proficiency is a critical skill and an important determinant of health. However, many students, particularly low-income students, struggle," said lead researcher Dr. Erin Kelly, a fourth-year medicine-pediatrics resident at the University of Rochester in New York, according to a press release.

An intervention at high-poverty elementary schools in Florida dramatically improved reading achievement by providing students with a collection of self-selected books at the end of each school year. Kelly aimed to improve literacy among low-income Rochester City School students by replicating the Florida intervention.

"This is a tremendous challenge in Rochester," Kelly said, according to the press release. "Only 21 percent of Rochester students are proficient on the state English/language arts exam, and the high school graduation rate is an abysmal 43 percent."

Researchers initiated a pilot project in 2013, holding a book fair for a class of 18 second-graders at the end of the school year. Students could choose 13 free books at the fair. Another second-grade class of 20 students served as a control group, receiving a few books mailed to them over the summer by a community group based on their grade and reading level. All students had reading assessments in the spring and following fall.

Results showed statistically significant improvements in reading scores among students in the intervention group but no change in scores among the control group.

In 2014, the project was expanded to four classes of kindergarten through second-graders. Each student could load up a backpack with 15 free books at the end of the school year. Students in other classes served as controls. Due to ethical considerations given the success of the pilot program, control students also were able to choose a few of the books they received.

Results showed no significant difference in the two groups' reading scores, with more than 75 percent of students maintaining or improving their reading, compared to an average summer learning loss of up to three months seen among low-income students in prior studies.

"This simple intervention allowing students to choose their own books at end of the school year had a significant positive impact," Kelly said, according to the press release. She noted that even the control group made reading gains, suggesting that receiving some books, even if students don't pick all of them out, may stem the summer slide. "A multifaceted approach is needed to address poor child literacy rates," she concluded, "but this intervention can be part of the solution."