Summer Learning Loss: The Problem and Some Solutions

Summer is just around the corner. Cue influx of articles, blog posts, and discussions about dreaded summer learning loss and summer learning opportunities. (And here’s one more, haha!) Before we go into a frenzy, signing kids up for educational summer camps, making reading schedules, and grasping for workbooks for our children, let’s take a look at summer learning loss research and then reflect on what our kids—and the kids in our community—really need this summer.

The Jury Is Still Out on Summer Learning Loss

Summer learning loss, or the catchier “summer slide,” receives a lot of attention every year. In 2018, one researcher found about 50,000 stories in the media on the topic, many with gloomy forecasts of how far children “fall behind” each summer.

Some studies suggest a one-month loss in academic achievement over the summer so that when children return to school in the fall they are a month behind their achievements reached by the end of the previous school year. Other studies say there may be up to a three-month reading gap created over the summer when comparing children who read during the summer and children who do not read or do so very little.

However, overall, the summer learning loss research is truly mixed.

In fact, a review of the available data in 2019 found that fewer than 10 percent of children starting first grade experience a one-month learning loss in math and reading, according to Abel J. Koury, Senior Research Associate at Ohio State University. This went up a few percentage points when looking at children starting second grade, but overall the vast majority of children do not lose a month of learning over the summer.

By the end of fourth grade, there is little difference between those perceived to have experienced a summer slide, with test scores varying by justv0.04 points in math and 0.12 points in reading, according to Koury.

Are There Summer Learning Gains?

While we may be concerned at first about summer learning loss, the next question for some may be, are there learning gains to be had during the summer?

The answer is a resounding, “yes,” but they may not come in the way we first think.

Summer “homework” is not really the answer. In fact, Koury’s research found that 78 percent of parents of children who gained reading skills during the summer and 79 percent of parents of children who “slid” during the summer read to their children regularly during the summer. There was however, a slight perceived difference among children who read independently on a regular basis during the summer.

Additionally, there are two ways children can learn and wire their brains for success during the summer, and guess what? Neither involve workbooks or academic training. Both rely on downtime.

First, while we Americans are not typically good at allowing ourselves and our brains (or our children’s brains) to rest, doing so is actually quite important. “When the brain is at rest—daydreaming, staring into space, meditating, and sleeping—it is consolidating new information and skills, making connections that can only come with what we call radical downtime,” according to William Stixrud, Ph.D. and Ned Johnson in an article in Psychology Today.

In addition to allowing time for rest, the summer has been observed to be a critical time for children to pick up reasoning and life skills that often fall by the wayside when they are engaged in academic endeavors and structured extracurricular activities.

Some studies have shown that while some children may temporarily forget certain math processes they learned in school, their math reasoning sometimes improves as they actually apply math skills to their day. Whether baking, dividing up cookies among friends, or calculating how many hours until they can have a popsicle, children often naturally engage with numbers throughout the summer.

Furthermore, children tend to pick up valuable life stills during the summer as they have time to engage more naturally with the outside world. They may help cook dinner, help with laundry, pack their own suitcase for a trip, or  use some physics and risk assessment skills to decide which trees to climb and how high to climb.

Thus, we parents can calm our worries about summer learning loss and focus instead on what our children have to gain during the summer.

Who Is at Risk for Summer Learning Loss?

While the studies are mixed, there is no denying the countless headlines and studies that claim children slip a little in their academics during the summer. As Koury noted, learning loss is evident among just a minority of students, but who are these students? Should we worry? And how can we help them?

The first guess might be that children who are already behind my lose more during the summer, but Koury says that’s not actually the case. In his observation, children with the highest math and reading test scores are the ones who tended to slide during the summer. Perhaps these students have been able to cram a lot of information into their brains during the school year without taking 100 percent of it into their long-term learning.

Allowing these students time to explore and rest may help them solidify some of what they learned, and evidence shows these children tend to “recover” academically fairly quickly when they return to school in the fall.

What Should Your Children Do This Summer?

If we’ve calmed some fears of summer learning loss, we might then wonder, what should children do during the summer? The summer break is long, and while rest is good, most children don’t want to stare into space for three months.

The summer is a great time to allow children to enjoy books. Let them choose books from the library, them flip through magazines, or read comic books independently. Helping our children ignite a love for reading can benefit them in countless ways long-term.

Also, while summer homework assignments tend not to demonstrate much academic advantage, one study showed that children who read independently during the summer between first and second grade did have a slight advantage over their classmates.

In addition to reading time, allow children to follow their own interests. Talk to them about how they’d like to spend their summer days, what they’d like to learn, and what they’d like to try for the first time perhaps. Maybe  they’d like to learn to draw better, or maybe they’d like to learn about all the types of birds that live in their neighborhood. It matters much less what exactly they are learning and much more that they are motivated to learn, gather information, and apply and improve their skills.

If you plan to sign your child up for some summer camps, try to take their input, and also seek out camps and activities that provide some unstructured time and some self-directed or group-directed activities.

How to Help Those Who Lag Academically Take Advantage of Their Summer:

When we think about summer learning opportunities for our own children, it can be a relief to know that summer learning loss may not be all it’s hyped up to be. It’s good to know that our children can and should have undirected free time, relaxation, and some good old fun during the summer.

However, we should also take a moment to think outside of our own home for a moment and consider how we can help children who are vulnerable to the very real and documented achievement gap between children from high-to-middle- and low-income households.

One way to help is by providing books to those who may not have an extensive home library. Some schools host a school-wide book exchange either throughout the year or at the end of the year to provide children with access to at-home reading materials. Children can bring in books to donate, and then any student can take a book or books of his/her choosing. If your school has one, be sure to participate, and if your school doesn’t have one, perhaps you could suggest or even help organize one.

There are also several book charities working hard to provide children with access to engaging and age-appropriate reading materials. Check them out, and find ways to help all children find some book joy this summer!


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