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The Summer Slump: Do Kids Backslide During Summer Vacation?

Research shows what you can do to help kids succeed in school this fall.

CC0 Public Domain
Source: CC0 Public Domain

Kids across the nation are well into summer days of swimming, day camps and—in many cases—extra time in front of TVs. For most children, this also means less time engaged in educational pursuits like reading, math, and problem solving.

Educational professionals fret that our long summer vacations from school in the U.S. lead to a “summer slump,” where students forget some of what they learned over the previous school year. But what does the evidence say about summer learning loss?

It turns out the topic is more complicated than it first appears. A systematic review of 39 studies published in 1996 found summer loss equaled about one month of classroom learning, and students tended to regress more in math skills compared to reading skills. It also found that students from middle- and upper-class families improved in reading over the summer, while students from lower-income families regressed.

Since then, additional studies and reviews have found similar results. A 2007 study by researchers at John Hopkins University examined data from a nationally-representative sample. They found the achievement gap at ninth grade mainly traces to differences in summer learning during the elementary school years. And a 2011 study found students can lose up to two grade levels of reading skills due to summer reading loss by the time they reach sixth grade.

In addition, recent data show that summer vacations further complicate recent efforts to measure the quality of schools based on students’ performance on tests.

The evidence clearly demonstrates that summer learning loss is a problem, especially for low-income students. So, what are some evidence-based solutions?

A Harvard University meta-analysis published in 2013 found that reading interventions for children in kindergarten through eighth grade improved reading outcomes, most significantly for children from low-income families. Kids who learned in classroom and setting and at home both experience improvements.

In another study published this year, 6- and 7-year-olds who participated in a structured reading program at their local YMCA showed no signs for summer reading loss.

According to a paper published in 2015 in the Journal of Organizational and Educational Leadership, the keys are three-fold: Targeting the students who are struggling the most, creating a routine that requires students to practice every day and building strong relationships between kids and their parents or teachers.

The evidence is clear: Children do forget skills and knowledge learned in the previous school year. But if families and educators encourage kids to stay engaged in learning throughout the summer, students may not only maintain, but improve their knowledge.

Although we’re well into summer, it’s not too late to start a learning program with your kids. Most local libraries offer reward programs for reading. Instead of cartoons, encourage your kids to play an educational computer game. Keeping kids’ brains active really will make a difference come fall.

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