The Summer Learning Backslide: Does Your Child Lose Skills?

Students who are economically disadvantaged are more likely to suffer

Posted Sep 30, 2013

by Christine Malecki, Ph.D., guest contributor

Across America, students from kindergarten to 12th grade are back to school. While teachers and students alike will miss their summer freedom, teachers most lament the loss of skills students had mastered just a few short months earlier. It’s as if too much time on the waterslide resulted in a learning backslide.

The old adage says, “Use it, or lose it,” and research supports this wisdom as it applies to the loss of student skills over summer break.

Standardized test scores show that students appear to lose one month of grade-level equivalent skills during the break, with the loss of math skills being even more pronounced than reading (Cooper, Nye, Charlton, Lindsay, & Greathouse, 1996). What is seven times eight? How do you find the lowest common denominator? These are discrete and specific skills that we can and will forget without practice.

Why does this happen? In the summer, there are no spelling lists to study, math facts to practice or reading logs to sign. Children just don’t have the natural routines that schools bring to keep academic practice in their daily activities. Parents often anticipate this. They make great plans for keeping some “academic time” in the summer for their children. Then summer life hits, and we don’t follow through, only to panic when August comes.

Here’s the good news: The parents who make those plans often provide their children with enriching academic activities without even realizing it. They are conversing with their children daily, introducing advanced vocabulary, asking (or answering) “why” questions and pointing out math in daily activities. Family vacations can become opportunities for learning about new cities, history, art, science and more.

Additionally, children from middle or upper middle-class families are typically enrolled in summer programs involving sports, music or academics. These children often have easy access to appropriately leveled, high-interest reading material. More affluent children also spend more time visiting cities, museums, zoos and national parks. Even participating in a baseball league provides an opportunity to learn complex statistics (Alexander, Entwisle & Olsen, 2001). Such activities support traditional learning and give these children an advantage.

The children of more well-off parents will go back to school and generally be just fine. They may be slightly rusty in their math facts or their book report writing, but they will catch up rather smoothly and easily. Their standardized test scores will not be drastically affected, and some studies have shown that they even make slight gains in their reading abilities.

Now here is the bad news: Poor kids are more negatively affected by the summer break (Alexander, Entwisle, & Olson, in press). For students of low-income families, the achievement gap in reading skills widens, leaving them more disadvantaged (Cooper et al., 1996).

Interestingly, while poorer children tend to be somewhat behind their more well-off peers, rates of learning during the school year are comparable. Regardless of economic status, kids benefit from the enriched learning environment provided in school.

So, it’s the inequity of enriched learning experiences across economic boundaries that is the most likely culprit for the loss of learning over the summer for poorer kids (Alexander, Entilwise, & Olsen, 2007).

How do we fix this? Some solutions are already offered in this blog. Economically disadvantaged students need enriched experiences with their families and access to high interest books, museums and other kinds of activities that covertly reinforce learning from the school year. Therein lies the complex nature of the problem because poor families simply do not have the financial resources to provide these experiences.

But existing resources can be used to address this. For example, library usage, particularly checking books out of the library, predicts summer reading gains in students (Alexander et al., 2001). Perhaps providing disadvantaged students with the methods they need to gain access to these resources is another way to decrease the gap.

Additionally, school districts can offer academic programs to counter the summer slump. Voluntary programs that are designed specifically to avoid the summer achievement drop can have positive effects on students’ learning (Borgman, Benson & Overman, 2005). Unfortunately, such programs are often unpopular because they feel too much like school. This doesn’t have to be the case, but it requires resources and committed instructors who know how to engage students and get them excited about learning.

One final and more controversial solution is year-round schooling. It might seem radical but would likely be a win-win prospect for all students, as long as educational experiences and quality of the teachers are more or less equal across economic boundaries (Alexander et al., 2007).

Christine Malecki is a professor of psychology at Northern Illinois University. She is the director of the School Psychology Program and teaches lifespan development and school-based practicum in school psychology. Her research interests include social support, response to intervention assessment and intervention methods, and bullying and victimization.


Alexander, P., Entwisle, D. R., & Olson, L. S. (in press). Schools, achievement, and inequality: A seasonal perspective. In G. Borman & M. Boulay (Eds.), Summer Learning: Research, Policies, and Programs. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Alexander, K. L., Entwisle, D. R., & Olson, L. S. (2007). Lasting consequences of the summer learning gap. American Sociological Review, 72(2), 167-180.

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 Educational Research, 66(3), 227-268.

Alexander, K. L., Entwisle, D. R., & Olson, L. S. (2001). Schools, achievement, and inequality: A seasonal perspective. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 23(2), 171-191.