Allowing young children to choose books they'd like to read over the summer break from school may hone their reading skills and prevent “summer slide” in reading scores, suggests new research.

Kids who were allowed to select books to take home at the end of the spring term had better reading scores when they returned to school in the fall, compared to kids who received books they had not chosen, researchers found.

"We're starting to get the message out there that reading is a key determinant of health," said Dr. Erin Kelly, the study's lead author from the University of Rochester in New York.

Past research suggests kids' long term health is better if they can read, she said. "This is more than a problem for the school system that kids aren’t doing well. It’s a problem for all of us."

Kelly and her colleague Dr. C. Andrew Aligne aimed to reproduce a successful experiment conducted among Florida elementary schools with high levels of poverty.

In 2013, Kelly and Aligne held a book fair for 18 second-graders in Rochester City Schools. Students chose 13 free books. Another class of 20 kids was used as a comparison group; these kids received a few books over the summer that they had not chosen.

Based on reading assessments before and after summer break, the researchers found that reading scores significantly improved among children who selected books before break. There was no change among students who received unselected books in the mail.

The researchers expanded the program the following year to four classes of students in kindergarten through second grades.

Students in the four classes were allowed to select 15 books before summer break. Two other classes were used as a comparison; those students were also allowed to select a few books, because the first experiment was so successful.

Overall, the reading scores in both groups improved, the researchers reported Saturday at the Pediatric Academic Societies meeting in San Diego, California.

About three quarters of students maintained or improved their reading levels over the break. Prior studies have found that low-income students typically lose a few months of learning over summer break.

Some schools are adopting free choice in reading, said Sheridan Blau, a distinguished senior lecturer and English Education Program Coordinator at Teachers College, Columbia University in New York City.

If students are allowed to select from a range of books that are considered appropriate for their reading level, "of course free choice is going to be better," said Blau, who was not involved in the new research.

"They’re going to find something they’re interested in instead of being assigned work," he added.

For in-school learning, however, Blau said teachers would likely want to preselect books to teach students what to do when they encounter a challenging text.

"I think you need both in a well organized classroom with a teacher who knows what she’s doing," he said.

Kelly said the next step for the research is to start working with schools to integrate choice into student programs.