Children are capable of learning all year long, summer included: the fascination of seeing fireflies blinking at night, queries about why we shoot fireworks on the Fourth of July, figuring out how long the ride to the lake will take. These are among the countless occasions for children to learn during the summer. However, our school calendar is an artifact of the days when up to 85 percent of Americans were connected with agriculture for their livelihood and children were needed to help on the farms. Today only 3 percent of families earn their living directly through farming, yet our kids continue to have a three month gap in their formal learning each year.
While there are many positive things about this break, such as opportunities for outdoor activities, camp, and family vacations, it is important not to neglect on-going learning during the summer. Only approximately 10 percent of students nationwide participate in a formal summer school, or attend schools with a non-traditional, year-round calendar.
Research indicates that students who do not engage in summer school or other intentional activities to retain their skills will lose ground. The two biggest areas of loss are math computation and spelling; skills that are based on remembering facts and procedures through frequent use. For example, on average, without structured practice, children lose 2.6 months of grade level equivalency in mathematical computation skills. This is true regardless of family resources (Cooper, 1996).
Reading presents another picture. Children in middle- or upper-income families tend to make gains in reading proficiency over the summer, while children in lower-income families tend to lose ground in their reading proficiency. This can be attributed to the availability of books at home and a stronger habit of reading for leisure, both of which are closely associated with increased financial resources. A recent study showed that two-thirds of the achievement gap in reading is directly related to unequal summer learning opportunities (R. Fairchild, J. Smink, 2010).
Students with a Learning Disability (LD), Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder(ADHD), or other learning challenges are likely to also experience a “summer slip” without planned activities that not only provide practice using academic skills, but also maintain study habits and organizational skills. Often these skills and habits are a part of an Individualized Learning Plan for those students. It is valuable to continue use of structures that support school-year learning throughout the summer.
A range of options that families can employ to ensure that their children avoid the summer learning slide may include setting up daily study times for practicing things that require rote practice, such as spelling words and math facts; weekly trips to the library; involving kids in a summer activity that involves math such as planning a road trip or keeping score at a ball game; planting a garden; and setting aside time each week for family members to share what they have been reading and ask each other questions about their books. Answering questions (and looking up the answers when they don’t remember) about the plot, setting, or characters will help in guiding your child to read more closely and with greater comprehension. Also, setting weekly goals for numbers of pages read, letters (or e-mails) written, number facts mastered, and so on, with a modest reward attached, can help motivate kids to keep their skills sharp. In addition, many community programs are available which cultivate children’s interest while keeping their learning minds active through local museums, theater and arts organizations, and nature centers.
Your child’s teacher is also a good resource for which summer programs students in past years have enjoyed. While summer is a great time for fun, fresh air, and free time, keeping your child connected with what they learned during the school year can also offer fun ways to nurture family connections and reduce the stress associated with the start of the new school year in the Fall.