“Yes, a reading program fits into camp. Sherwood [Forest] Camp is a lot more than camping, mosquitoes, and swimming — it’s aimed at the whole child.” — Parent of a 2011 reading program participant

On an especially hot day in June, twelve fourth-grade boys sit on Crazy Creek chairs in a cabin situated in Southeast Missouri. The room is hot but quiet. Some boys fidget slightly or are looking around the room, but most have their noses buried in paperback copies of the book Hatchet while their teacher reads out loud. This is summer camp, and nine-year-old boys are sitting around reading together.

After exploring the idea of a camp-based reading program in 2009, Sherwood Forest introduced a formal reading program the following summer. Mary Rogers, executive director, with the board of directors and senior staff leadership, wanted to encourage a love of reading by connecting children both to the stories in the books they read and to their teachers. They also recognized that camp is a powerful environment for children to make emotional connections — in friendships with peers and adults, through support for trying new things, and by being in a place of beauty and wonder. They thought that this openness to emotional connections might extend to reading: being read to at bedtime, getting lost in a book out in the woods, and having books to take home and treasure. Camp could be a place where reading is one of the coolest things to do. In 2011, the reading program was implemented with sixteen fourth-grade campers (one cabin of boys and one cabin of girls) for a twenty-six-day session.

In the summer of 2012, the Sherwood Forest reading program was expanded to include all of the fourth-grade campers. A total of twenty-four boys and twenty-four girls participated in the program. Campers met for one-and-a-quarter-hour sessions on most days. The boy campers focused their reading on the book Hatchet by Gary Paulsen. Girl campers read the book Belle Prater’s Boy by Ruth White.

After three years of implementation and external evaluation of the reading program outcomes, Sherwood Forest Camp has developed promising practices for designing, implementing, and evaluating a reading program situated in the context of camp.

Summer Learning Loss

“Yes, a reading program fits into camp. Sherwood [Forest] Camp is a lot more than camping, mosquitoes, and swimming — it’s aimed at the whole child.” — Parent of a 2011 reading program participant

Summer learning loss, or the “summer slide,” refers to the loss of academic skills during the summer months. Researchers have found that the phenomenon of summer learning loss has a greater impact on those students who are already struggling in school. While the top 25 percent of students make slower but continued growth over the summer, average students maintain or even fall in their growth, and the bottom 25 percent of students lose a significant portion of the learning gains over the summer (Mikulecky, 1990).

An extensive literature review conducted by Terizan, Anderson, and Hamilton (2009) found that children who live in underresourced urban neighborhoods experience greater summer reading loss than their middle and upper income peers. A meta-analysis conducted by Cooper, Nye, Charlton, Lindsay, and Greathouse (1996) found that reading loss was found to be directly related to family socioeconomic status. On some measures, middle-class children made actual gains in reading over the summer, while disadvantaged children showed losses.

Over 80 percent of Sherwood Forest Camp participants qualify for the school lunch program and most reside in urban settings. Over two-thirds of the achievement gap is explained by unequal access to summer learning (Terizan, Anderson, & Hamilton, 2009). The Sherwood Forest Camp leadership decided to integrate a reading program in order to address the growing achievement gap between the campers and their higher-income counterparts.

Reading, Writing, and the Formation of Identity

Some might argue that reading programs do not have a place at camp, that camp should be a “break” from formal academics. And a few of the campers and parents at Sherwood Forest agree. One parent said of the program, “I want to know that he is reading AND having fun.” A camper, although he enjoyed the program, remarked, “Next year I think I can take a break from reading.”

The research, however, suggests that taking a break from reading and writing can be problematic, not only from an academic standpoint, but from a personal development standpoint as well. In an age where children are categorized based on their performance on reading and writing measures, there are high stakes for literacy development. Imagine the difference in self-concept for a child labeled “struggling” and one labeled as “above grade-level.” “Both what and how one reads and writes can have an impact on the type of person one is recognized as being and on how one sees oneself ” (Moje & Luke, 2009, p. 44). Opportunities to read and write in a purposeful way allow campers to maintain their learning skills over the summer months but also explore their developing identities (Arend & Buckner, 2012).

Promising Results

Three years of evaluations of the reading program at Sherwood Forest have documented several specific positive outcomes. Several data sources were utilized to investigate specific evaluation questions, including vocabulary tests, reading attitude surveys, camper writing samples, and library usage.

Reading Attitudes

In order to assess changes in reading attitudes for the summer 2012 campers, data from the Elementary Reading Attitude Scale (ERAS) (McKenna & Kear, 1990) were analyzed. Recreational and academic reading attitudes improved for the whole group and the groups broken down by gender. The improvement in reading attitudes was particularly significant for boys (see Figure 1).


The majority of campers (75 percent) showed increases in vocabulary knowledge over the course of the reading program. Both the girl and boy reading groups demonstrated statistically significant gains in vocabulary scores. The vocabulary lists were generated from Hatchet and Belle Prater’s Boy, books that are well above grade level for fourth-grade students. The implication from these findings is that when campers learn challenging new vocabulary words in the context of a piece of literature, they are able to demonstrate gains over a short four-week program.


Campers wrote in their journals each time they met in the reading program, responding to “prompt s” to focus their work. The 6-Point Writer’s Rubric (Education Northwest, 2010) was used to score writing samples from each camper’s journal on Day 1, Day 10, and Day 18 of the reading program.

The average camper writing scores were below proficient for fourth- and fifth-grade students at the Day 1 assessment (significantly below for boys) and still remained slightly lower than grade expectations at the end of the program. This indicates that a writing component is important and needed for this group of children.

Overall, girls’ writing scores were significantly higher than boys’ scores. A significant improvement was found in writing scores over time for all campers. Additionally, boys increased their writing scores more than girls over the eighteen-day period. This is consistent with the findings from the vocabulary tests and the reading attitudes assessment. While the reading program benefits all campers, the benefits are magnified for the boys (see Figure 2).

Library Usage

Library usage data in the summer of 2012 revealed that campers enrolled in the 2011 reading program used the camp library more and checked out significantly more books than those campers who never participated in the reading program. This indicates that the interest in reading is sustained from summer to summer for campers participating in the program.

Continued Growth

The Sherwood Forest Camp 2012 reading program demonstrated improvement over the previous year’s program, indicating the program leadership is using evaluation findings to make real and sustained improvements in programming. As the program continues to expand, the camp leadership continues to find ways to further embed reading into the camp experience.

What is clear from three years of evaluations of the reading program is that reading at camp is fun and good for kids. There are real changes to the campers’ views about reading and their abilities to express their thoughts in writing. A quote from Hatchet captures this learning:

Many of the changes would prove to be permanent. Brian had gained immensely in his ability to observe what was happening and react to it; that would last him all his life. He had become more thoughtful as well, and from that time on he would think slowly about something before speaking. (Paulsen, 1987, p. 193)

Implementing a Camp Reading Program

Thinking about developing a reading program at your camp? Sherwood Forest Camp has discovered that there are four main areas to consider: staff, specified outcomes, supplies, and space.


A key component to developing a reading program at camp is hiring a high-quality reading teacher — one who is not only skilled in reading instruction but gets what camp is all about. Shiela Laramore, the 2012 Sherwood Forest reading teacher, was the perfect fit. The inclusion of competitive skill-building games, recognizing campers who were “stars of the day,” using a weather-oriented behavior chart (was it clear skies or overcast in the reading cabin?), and the encouragement of active questioning led to a high-quality program and a well-managed camp session.

In addition to a reading teacher, volunteers are necessary to keep adult-to-camper ratios low, help with behavioral problems, and work one-on-one with campers who are struggling or have identified learning disabilities. Volunteers should be trained in order to understand the expectations of the reading program.

Local colleges of education are great recruiting sites for both reading teachers and volunteers. Potential reading teachers include recently graduated education majors looking to build their resumes and gain experience as classroom teachers. Current undergraduates studying education can be a great source of high-quality volunteers, and sometimes they can even earn internship hours over the summer.

Specified Outcomes

“I have a perfect teacher and a perfect place to read.” — 2012 camper

When designing a new reading program at camp, it’s important to have specific and measurable outcomes. Whether you just want to increase trips to the library, have each camper read fifteen minutes a day, or track changes in writing skills, a specific plan for what you want to achieve and how you will measure those achievements ensures program success and provides examples of program achievements to potential donors.

Sherwood Forest Camp started slowly, adding new measurable goals to each year’s program. Evaluations were conducted by an external evaluator and guided by Michael Patton’s (1997) model of utilization-focused evaluation. The evaluation process was focused not only on how the Sherwood Forest Camp program impacted campers, but also on how the evaluation findings could be utilized by the Sherwood Forest Camp reading program leadership to sustain and improve upon the components of the program.


The basic supplies needed to develop a high-quality reading program are high-quality books. This summer, the books Hatchet and Belle Prater’s Boy were chosen because they were challenging (above grade level) and highly engaging. A decision was made to choose different books for the boy and girl campers because, historically, the girls had higher-level reading skills than the boys. Finding books that are related to outdoor themes (such as Hatchet) is another way to embed a reading program into camp. Other basic supplies for starting a reading program can include:

  • Copies of a common novel for all participants
  • Writing journals and pencils
  • Chart paper and/or dry erase boards for group instruction
  • Book “giveaways” for campers to take home at the end of the summer


One of the major recommendations from the 2011 evaluation of the Sherwood Forest reading program was to create a “space” for the reading sessions. In 2012, a special cabin was devoted to the reading program. Creating a unique space for the reading program in a cabin equipped with both the necessary teaching tools (chart paper, table, and chairs) and components that fit with camp (Crazy Creek chairs, reading “tent”) made the reading teacher and the campers feel that their work in this session was special and valued. A capital improvement project currently underway at Sherwood Forest includes an entire wing of a new air-conditioned building devoted to reading and other academically oriented activities.

Finding a space at camp that supports literacy activities (privacy, comfortable spots for reading and writing) and arranging the environment to reflect camp is essential for getting campers and staff on board. Camp reading “classrooms” can include:

  • Camping chairs and tents for comfortable reading spots.
  • Tables for writing.
  • Large area rugs for group reading time.
  • Examples of camper work hanging on walls.
  • Posters with quotations from important literary works.

Tips for Funding a Camp Reading Program

  • Start with funders who know and like your current programs.
  • Research other funders in your area to find those with an interest in reading.
  • Anchor your request for funding with current research findings.
  • Explain how the program will support your larger mission.
  • Make the case for your reading program (why it is needed, who it will serve, and how it will be delivered).
  • Share the goals of the program, how they will be measured, and who will conduct the evaluation.
  • Ask for letters of support from partner organizations, schools, parents, and campers.
  • Provide timely feedback after the program results are known.


Sherwood Forest Camp, founded in 1937, is a St. Louis-area youth development agency that serves children primarily from low-income families and underresourced communities. Its programs are centered on a resident camp program with school year “continued contact” follow-up activities. Campers in first and second grade attend an introductory mini camp program. From third grade to completion of the Leadership Program in ninth grade, campers participate in twenty-sixday sessions. These long-term relationships over the years are the heart of the program’s success. Over the last ten summers, the camp has created a camp library and a reading program to address a critical area of concern: the issue of “summer learning loss,” especially regarding reading skills for children from socioeconomically disadvantaged communities.


Arend, L. & Buckner, E.B. (2012). Perspectives worth sharing: Reading and writing at camp. CompassPoint, 22(4), 20–22.

Cooper, H., Nye, B., Charlton, K., Lindsay, J., & Greathouse, S. (1996). The effects of summer vacation on achievement test scores: A narrative and meta-analytic review. Review of Education Research, 66(3), 227–268.

Education Northwest. (2010). 6-point writer’s rubric. Retrieved from http://educationnorthwest.org/webfm_send/773

McKenna, M. & Kear, D. (1990 May). Measuring attitude toward reading: A new tool for teachers. The Reading Teacher. 626–639.

Mikulecky, L. J. (1990). Stopping summer learning loss among at-risk youth. Journal of Reading, 33(7), 516–521.

Moje, E. & Luke, A. (2009). Literacy and identity: Examining the metaphors in history and contemporary research. Reading Research Quarterly, 44(4), 415-437.

Paulson, G. (1987). Hatchet. New York, NY: Macmillan Books for Young Readers.

Patton, M. (2008). Utilization-focused evaluation (4th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Terizan, M., Anderson, K., & Hamilton, K. (2009, July 10). Effective and promising summer learning programs and approaches for economically-disadvantaged children and youth: A white paper for the Wallace Foundation. Child Trends.

Lauren Arend, PhD, is an assistant professor in the Department of Education at Saint Louis University, where she teaches statistics and research methods courses. In addition to her work at the university, Arend conducts program evaluations for nonprofit programs and has been the external evaluator for Sherwood Forest Camp’s reading program for the past three years.

Mary Rogers is the executive director at Sherwood Forest Camp. She attended Sherwood Forest as a camper and has spent every summer at camp, in different roles, ever since. Mary is a longtime ACA member and has served in various volunteer roles at local, regional, and national levels. She holds a master’s degree in education from Harvard University.

Originally published in the 2013 March/April Camping Magazine.