Sue Wilkinson on 20 years of the Summer Reading Challenge

Sue Wilkinson on 20 years of the Summer Reading Challenge

This year is the 20th anniversary of the Summer Reading Challenge. To mark the occasion The Reading Agency and libraries are calling on families to make space for reading over the summer by setting aside time each day to read together, with its special "Space Chase" theme. We talk to Sue Wilkinson, outgoing c.e.o. of The Reading Agency, about the history of the challenge and the plans for the upcoming years. 

Why do you think the Summer Reading Challenge is so important? 

The Summer Reading Challenge is the biggest children’s reading for pleasure programme in the UK, run in partnership between The Reading Agency and Libraries Connected and taking place in 96% of public libraries in England, Wales and Scotland. The Challenge helps get around 700,000 children into libraries each year to keep up their reading skills and confidence, encouraging those aged four to 11 to read six books during the long summer holiday. They receive incentives for each book read and a certificate upon completion. The Challenge is completely free to take part, which makes it accessible to all families. 

There is plenty of evidence to show that reading for pleasure can have huge benefits for children. It’s more important for children’s cognitive development than their parents’ level of education and is a more powerful factor in life achievement than socio economic background. It’s also been proven that children who read books often at 10 and more than once a week at age 16 gain higher results in maths, vocabulary and spelling tests at age 16 than those who read less regularly. Every time parents read to and with a child, they are improving their life chances—as well as introducing them to a whole host of new ideas, new worlds and new ambitions. 

How has the challenge changed over the years? 
Over the years, the Challenge has almost doubled in size. The first Summer Reading Challenge in 1999 was an instant success, with 440,000 children taking part in the first year now nearly 700,000 children take part every year. 

The Challenge has a massive impact. Children have taken part in the Challenge over 13 million times, and many children love the Challenge so much they take part year after year.  Over the years, the Challenge has grown and now approximately. 96% of UK library services take part each year, involving around 700,000 children, 45% of them boys. 

In 2012, we also went digital with the Challenge, and started a book sorter on the year-round Summer Reading Challenge website. The Book Sorter is an evolving database and books have been added and reviewed for children by children 905,000 times. This year we’re hoping to get that figure to the big 1 million! The website also hosts a Reading Club, which includes videos from well-known authors, activity sheets, book reviews, and how-to videos from top children’s illustrators.  

Tell us about this year’s theme—what inspired it? 
Each year the Challenge has a different theme. In 2019, we were inspired by the 50th anniversary of the moon landing to create "Space Chase". The theme celebrates adventure, exploration, reading and fun. Children taking part in the Challenge join the super space family, The Rockets, for a thrilling mission to track down books nabbed by mischievous aliens. 
What is the vision for the next 20 years of the Summer Reading Challenge? 
Every four years we consult with key stakeholders to review the Challenge. The 2017-18 review showed the huge support the Challenge has in the library sector but also from parents, carers and children. It also showed how ambitious everyone is. All of our partners wanted to see more children reaping the benefits of participation, so an ambitious programme of work came out of the consultation. 

We want to develop the co-creation model and sustain and develop the young people’s volunteering offer which provides young people with access to high quality work experience as well as harnessing their passion and enthusiasm to help inspire children to read more. We also want to work with new partners to help us reach new audiences. We are exploring new delivery and engagement tools and to harness the power of digital technology to help us engage children in different ways. Importantly, we want to find out more about the impact of participation to help us make the case for the investment these ambitions need - locally and nationally. 

We have been awarded a £120,000 grant from Arts Council England to undertake an independent, large-scale study of the Summer Reading Challenge. The research will be conducted in partnership with the Association of Senior Children's and Education Librarians (ASCEL) and Libraries Connected. This funding allows us to evaluate the impact of the Summer Reading Challenge on the ‘summer slide’ in relation to both reading skills and attitudes. A secondary aim is to explore the role a public library-based reading activity like the Summer Reading Challenge can have on building wider school and family engagement with reading.  

How do you encourage families to make space for reading in the summer? 
We talk to them about the benefits which can come from going down to the library and taking part in a fun, free activity. Ninety six percent of library authorities are running the Challenge across England, Wales and Scotland.  Our central theme this year is ‘Make Space for Reading’ and through it, we want to encourage people to make the time and physical space ‘reading dens’ for their children during the summer and we are showcasing examples of how they might do it.  We reward achievement - there are lots of exclusive rewards to collect along the way to reading the six books children need to get their certificate. 

We also offer advice to parents and carers to help them get their children into reading. It’s important to start small. Some children might not imagine books being a part of their dream summer holiday, so starting off with a magazine, comics or graphic novels will show the that reading doesn’t have to mean long, dense text. Parents should be their children's reading role models—taking to children about the books they enjoyed at their age and showing them they enjoy reading too. It’s amazing what 15 minutes set aside to read together can do.