Ashley McCants, a Hilton Head Island Boys & Girls Club reading interventionist, sits at a table with four elementary-school boys and begins reading a chapter from "Twister on Tuesday."
The book's characters, Jack and Annie, travel back to the Kansas prairie of the 1870s, where they meet a teenage teacher and her students -- including a scary bully -- in a one-room schoolhouse.
In the book, Jack writes down unfamiliar words or terms -- such as "Prairie schooner" and "sod" -- along with their meaning.
"Sod. What is sod?" McCants asks.
"It's like grass or hay," one of the students responds.
The four boys are among about 30 students from Hilton Head Island Elementary School and Hilton Head Island Elementary School for the Creative Arts participating in program aimed at helping struggling readers make gains over the summer.
McCants keeps a list of new vocabulary words that appear in each chapter and asks the students to define them. The boys also jot down any other unfamiliar words they come across.
"Reading is the holy grail of education," said John Preston, head of the Boys & Girls Club's program and education committee. "It's like building a house. If you can't read, there's no foundation to build on."
Preston sought help from Renarta Tompkins, assistant professor of early childhood and elementary literacy at the University of South Carolina Beaufort, to offer the new learning-loss prevention program for children entering second, third and fourth grades who are most at risk of falling behind in reading during the summer.
"We really looked at what students were going to be needing coming into the fall, especially with the transition to the new Common Core state standards," which requires students to read more nonfiction, and communicate their understanding through writing, speaking and problem-solving, Tompkins said.
"One of the things we knew was going to be important was vocabulary," she said. "Instead of using the traditional flash cards, we read with them and help them figure out the meaning of words within context."
As McCants reads, she periodically stops and asks the students to demonstrate the meaning of certain words, such as "scowl." Ordinarily, struggling readers would simply read over an unfamiliar word without gathering clues that can help them comprehend its meaning, Tompkins said.
Studies indicate third-graders who read at grade level have a better chance of graduating from high school, she said.
At Hilton Head Elementary and the School for the Creative Arts, 238 students were not reading at grade level last year, and 407 students scored in the lower quartile on the Measures of Academic Performance in English this spring, according to Beaufort County School District data provided by the club. Numbers specifically for third-graders were not immediately available.
The test -- given to public school students in kindergarten through eighth grade at the start, middle and end of each school year -- is used to help teachers identify students' weaknesses and tailor instruction to address them.
"You can anticipate the students will have a two month loss over the summer, which compounds over time," Preston said.
"Our goal is for them to have a two-month gain."
Follow reporter Tom Barton at twitter.com/IPBG_Tom.
The (Columbia) State newspaper contributed to this report