May 21, 2018

The academic “summer slide”: fact or fiction?

It is wise to be wary of old wives’ tales, myths, rumors, and superstition. But when a phenomenon is supported by substantial data, it’s hard to keep looking the other way! Although parents, students, and educators all hate to admit it, students experience significant learning loss when they are out of school during summer months. This learning loss, often referred to as the “Summer Slide,” is the real deal, and has long-reaching effects. Luckily, the Summer Slide is preventable with the right tools, goals, and programming. Parents and educators can help students stay academically engaged throughout the warmer months, counteract significant learning losses, and even make some learning gains.

To study the Summer Slide in depth, the National Summer Learning Association (NSLA) gathered facts from leaders in educational research that spanned over 100 years. These researchers conducted empirical tests of several varieties to discover the truth about summer learning losses in young people of different age groups, intelligences, and economic backgrounds. Their data posits that, “All young people experience learning losses when they do not engage in educational activities during the summer,” meaning that no matter the student, education, or background, the Summer Slide is still powerful and still happening to everyone. At the end of the day, when students do not practice their skills, those abilities go into disuse and disappear. So, while students don’t need to write dissertations or present new research as prestigious conferences, they do need to do something, however small, to keep their mind working and growing.

The Facts about Summer Slide

Data supporting the impact of the “Summer Slide” is staggering and longitudinal. In 1906, W.S. White found that students consistently score lower on standardized tests at the end of summer vacation than they do on the same tests at the beginning of summer. In 1978 Heyns came to the same conclusion, followed by Entwisle and Alexander in 1992, Cooper in 1996, and Downey et al. in 2004.

Cooper (1996) conducted additional studies to investigate the extent of learning loss suffered by children of different socioeconomic groups and found that, “Most students lose about two months of grade level equivalency in mathematical computation skills over the summer months.” Students experience similar losses in reading comprehension skills, especially when they don’t seek out educational opportunities throughout the summer. Cooper’s findings show that learning loss varies according to grade level, subject matter and socioeconomic status, but there is still no question that it occurs to some degree in each and every student during the summer.

Moreover, parents from all classes “consistently cite summer as the most difficult time to ensure that their children have productive things to do” (Duffett et al, 2004), meaning that access to educational opportunity can prove difficult even when a family can afford special programming. If access to learning opportunities over the summer creates learning losses across all class categories, and middle-class families still struggle to find the right opportunities for their children, we clearly have a problem on our hands. These findings consistently prove that summer education is as crucial to building a strong and prepared student as any other part of the school year.

Never Fear, Summer Tutors are Here

It follows that summer educational programming will positively impact any student’s performance when they return to school in the fall. The NSLA’s data even shows that teachers unanimously spend a significant period of time at the beginning of each school year re-teaching material that students learned before their summer vacation, something that could be avoided by staying engaged throughout the summer. For these teachers, and for their students suffering learning losses,“The Summer Slide” is real and has been real for at least 100 years.Now it’s time for parents and students to start taking charge of their summers and ensure that learning losses are prevented or minimized, with these do-it-at-home tips:

Read Everyday: Reading fluency and comprehension are some of the most devastating losses for students returning to school in September. However, if your child reads every day throughout the summer, they will have a better opportunity to prevent the summer slide. Some ways to read daily include:

  1. Start a book club: Have your child gather their friends for a summer book club, or start a family book club at home. Reading and discussing a book together, especially one of their assigned summer reading books, will help your child feel productive, discuss what they read, and develop their reading skills and understanding of their text.
  2. Read throughout the day: Start the morning off by reading the newspaper. Have everyone participating look for an interesting article to share with the rest of the family over breakfast. At lunch time, read anything you can find, whether it’s a magazine, cookbook, summer reading book, travel guide, TV guide, etc. Consider selecting a recipe a cooking it together to promote reading, math, and executive function skills. At night, have your child read aloud from their summer reading book, or log 20-30 minutes of silent reading and annotating.
  3. Set a reading goal: Your child may only have one or two summer reading books assigned from school. However, you can increase the number of books they read over the summer by setting a higher goal together, or having a friendly family reading contest. Decide that everyone has to read at least 4, 5, or 6 books over the summer. Or–challenge your family to see who can read the most books this summer and select an appropriate reward for the winner!
  4. Listen to audiobooks: Many students respond very favorably to audiobooks, since they deliver reading information in a way that sometimes feels more efficient and accessible. If you are traveling over the summer, listen to audiobooks in the car together and discuss major characters, plot twists, themes, and more.

Write and Think Critically: Finding creative ways to keep your child writing over the summer is often the hardest task! Sometimes, children receive writing packets or assignments from school, but often writing skills are entirely neglected, with focus placed exclusively on math and reading. Give these methods a try to get your child thinking critically and communicating their best ideas:

  1. Take a field trip and keep a journal: Visit a museum, zoo, or local park with walking trails. Take photos and keep a journal of the experience. Later, you and your child can create a scrapbook of your field trip, or simply reflect back on the details your child recorded in his “travel journal.”
  2. Learn a new word each day or week: Building vocabulary is one key way to improve writing skills and critical thinking. After all, the more words your child knows, the more ways he can express himself! Hang a new vocabulary word each day or each week on the refrigerator or in another highly trafficked location of your home. Challenge each other to use the new word as much as possible!
  3. Write letters, postcards, and emails: If your child is traveling, away at camp, or just in the mood to get in touch with friends, they will have a wonderful opportunity to practice and use their writing skills. Be sure to pick up some extra postcards on your vacation and encourage your child to write home to everyone he knows!
  4. Have a weekly writing prompt: Consider current events and summer themes when compiling a short list of writing prompts. Ask your child to write about their favorite summer memory, what they’d like to do to celebrate the 4th of July, or plans they have for their next school year.
  5. Write about things your child loves: One reason students balk at writing assignments is because they are not interested in the topics at hand. However, the summer is a great time to train writing skills using topics your child truly loves. Choose your child’s favorite book or television series and plan out a “fanfiction” together. Or- brainstorm a new superhero, zombie, or vampire novel your child might write over the summer months.
  6. Play word games: There are hundreds of games that involve words and critical thinking. Challenge your children to a game of Scrabble, Balderdash, Scattergories, Catch Phrase, Bananagrams, or Boggle. Complete a crossword puzzle,  play Cranium, or have a house spelling bee.

Practice Math in Everyday Life: Math skills are everywhere, students need only take advantage of their opportunities to use them. Calculate change at the grocery store, find the probability of winning a prize at the arcade, or determine the number of miles driven over the course of a summer road trip. The possibilities are endless, so here are just a few suggestions:

  1. Practice math and movement: Research shows that kinesthetic movement helps children to learn new facts. The movement pumps blood to their brain, giving it precious oxygen that facilitates learning and other brain processes. Have your child recite the 9 times tables as they bounce a basketball, saying one number per bounce (9, 18, 27). Or- Calculate the average number of times they score a goal, touchdown, or home run over several practices, then consider the probability of them making any given shot.
  2. Save and calculate: Have your child determine how long they will need to save their allowance or job earnings in order to make a desired purchase. Maybe your high schooler is saving up for a car, or your 2nd grader is saving for a new bicycle. Either way, calculate average earnings, and estimate the amount of time it will take to afford what they wish to buy.
  3. Play games with math and strategy: Yahtzee and Monopoly are both excellent choices to train math skills. Yahtzee requires your child to identify, tally, and total their scores for each dice roll. Monopoly requires your child to keep track of their money, make purchasing decisions, and (if you make your child the banker) calculate change. There are also hundreds of online math games that children love!
  4. Cook together: Practicing math can happen in the kitchen too. Doubling or halving a recipe can be a great opportunity to practice adding and subtracting fractions. Moreover, cooking lends an opportunity to practice planning and executive function, too. Calculate the number of people eating, the amount of food each person might consume, and the total food needed to feed the guests in question.   

These DIY strategies to use at home are effective, but may not always be enough for every student. Some students benefit most from a structured, professional tutoring experience that lends them a sense of routine, accountability, and accomplishment over the course of consistent session. Often, it can be useful to get your child a summer tutor, enroll them in summer educational programs, or send them to a camp focused on academic experiences. Sign up your child for an engineering internship, a marine biology camp, a writing course, or art class. Or, better yet, stay tuned for a full breakdown of Engaging Minds summer workshops coming soon!