It’s a phenomenon known by several names — “summer slide or “summer slump” among them — but the gist is the same: Evidence shows there’s potential for students to lose significant academic ground over the summer vacation.
One of the first comprehensive studies on the topic, published in 1996 in the Review of Educational Research, found that students lost the equivalent of one month of learning over the break, with the effects more pronounced among children of lower income.
Subsequent research has produced similar results; a 2015 report by the Oregon-based Northwest Evaluation Association, a research organization focused on developing educational assessments, showed that 3rd-graders lost nearly 20 percent of their school-year gains in reading. Students in that grade level also lost 27 percent of their school-year gains in math, according to the report.
But thanks to local programs and initiatives, there’s no shortage of resources to help families get an edge on summer learning loss.
Though classes aren’t in session, schools play a role in helping kids continue learning over the break, according to area educators, and districts across the Monadnock Region offer summer learning programs for students in need of some extra instruction.
Elementary schools in Jaffrey and Rindge, for example, offer PEP Camp, which stands for proficiency enhancement program, according to Susan Shaw-Sarles, principal of Jaffrey Grade School. The four-week session, which runs three mornings a week and kicks off Tuesday, is designed to emphasize reading, math and language arts in a fun “camp-like” atmosphere usually centered around a theme. (This year’s is baseball.)
The Jaffrey-Rindge Cooperative School District also sponsors a “bookmobile” — a moving truck filled with more than 4,000 titles for students to borrow — that makes stops at the PEP Camp, the local farmers markets, and other summer camps and programs in the area.
“So a big thing is just getting books in the hands of kids, so that’s one way we do that,” Shaw-Sarles said. “Certainly, at the end of the year as teachers are cleaning out, we try to put the ‘give-away’ books out just as another way of getting kids to have things at home to read.”
At Fuller Elementary School in Keene, many teachers send home recommendations and strategies at the end of the school year for keeping skills sharp in the summer months, according to outgoing Principal Emily Hartshorne. The staff also host a school-wide assembly with the Keene Public Library to promote summer reading, she said.
Hartshorne noted that teachers can be a great resource for parents, who are often aware of the “summer slide” but may not always know how to address it.
“People are busy, and I think that it doesn’t always get onto the front burner, and it’s not for lack of wanting to or understanding. It’s just, people are busy,” Hartshorne said. “If you have families that are working all summer, and the kids are at camp or in childcare, it doesn’t always become top priority.”
One way to emphasize continued learning is to set a designated time each day for reading, perhaps replacing what might otherwise be used for “screen time,” she said. Families could also choose a book to read and talk about together.
“I do that with my son sometimes, and we’re able to really discuss the book, and it comes to life, and students can see their parent engage in literacy, too,” Hartshorne said. “It’s always great when parents can model the behavior for the student.”
There is also a wealth of resources on the Internet for parents, Hartshorne noted. For example, the National Center on Afterschool and Summer Enrichment has published strategies online for keeping kids engaged in learning, from playing board games and card games that strengthen math skills to incorporating a game of “I spy” into daily routines.
Learning at the library
For families who aren’t sure where to begin, the library is also a great place to start, local educators say. In fact, summer reading initiatives make up a significant part of programming for many libraries, according to Gail Zachariah, head of engagement, outreach and youth services at the Keene Public Library.
Though programs vary from library to library, most offer prizes or incentives for completing books or participating in accompanying activities, she said.
“The reason that the library is such a central place to find a solution for any of that kind of summer slide is because we have the resources,” she said. “You can’t address reading unless you’ve got something to read.”
But summer learning loss isn’t limited to reading, and that’s why the Keene library’s summer program also includes math and writing-focused activities, she noted. There’s a “bedtime math” challenge that asks kids to complete a different story-based problem each night, and writing challenges requiring them to “review” the books they’ve read, she said.
At the Walpole Town Library, many of the programs and events offered throughout the year continue during the summer, said Julie Rios, assistant children’s librarian.
In addition to the library’s summer reading program — in which participants set their own reading goals and receive a raffle ticket for a prize each time they complete one — there are weekly events such as presentations from the Grafton Nature Museum in Vermont and STEM-based “maker play” activities.
Just getting kids into the library for one of those happenings can have an impact, she said.
“To us, the minute you’ve got the kids in here for a program, then they are looking at the books. They may say, ‘Oh no, I don’t want to get a book. I don’t want to read. I hate reading,’ ” Rios said. “But then they’re here for a program, other kids are excited about the books — we see it time and time and time again.”
And helping kids develop a love for reading and get excited about learning in general is really the underlying goal, the librarians said.
“Instead of looking at the summer slide, I would rather look at the opportunity, the summer opportunity. Because in the summer, kids can read whatever they want. They can’t do that anymore always during the school year,” Zachariah said. “And they really even have the opportunity to try all kinds of new things.”
Camp’s in session
Some children might spend their days in summer camps or childcare, which can also provide opportunities to get some learning in during the break.
At the Keene Family YMCA, which offers a range of summer camp programs for kids age 3 to 12, a half hour of reading is incorporated into the daily schedule, said Kelly Fleuette, the Y’s camp administrator and childcare director. In Camp Wakonda, a program for students in 1st to 6th grade, kids also practice “mastery skills” such as letter writing, knot-tying and learning to use a compass.
Making learning a part of daily camp activities takes some of the pressure off parents, she said.
“Most of our staff are [of an] education-based background, so we can take our learning a little bit further,” Fleuette said. “But at the same point, some of these kiddos are here all day, so when they do get to get home to mom and dad, they need some family time to just be and have that relationship bonding with their families at home.”
The Y also emphasizes “learning-based play,” added CEO Daniel Smith, with activities that use problem solving, team building and science principles to promote cognitive along with physical development.
“When it’s outside of school time, we have a community responsibility in all the ways that we touch the lives of these kids to incorporate a love for learning and the skills that come with the different levels and stages of learning,” Smith said.
Getting back up to speed
But despite the best efforts of parents, educators and caretakers, summer learning loss isn’t always avoidable. So schools have to be intentional about addressing any regression that’s occurred as soon as the new year begins, Hartshorne and Shaw-Sarles said.
That’s important because some research, namely the 1996 analysis in the Review of Educational Research, has shown that summer learning loss can be cumulative as students continue through the school system.
Fuller’s summer school program runs for three weeks right before the start of the new year to help students “step back into school,” Hartshorne said. And the elementary school has had success instituting something called WIN time — which stands for “what I need” — within the first few weeks of the year to provide a half hour each day of small-group instruction in grade-level skills.
“So we try and start that intervention as soon as school gets off the ground,” she said. “And that, I think, has been really helpful, because it gets kids back into that routine, and it also just has everybody focused on the areas that, with targeted intervention, can help have leverage in other areas of the school day.”
Jaffrey Grade School also tries to get the ball rolling early on targeted instruction to help students catch up, Shaw-Sarles said. But when it comes to avoiding the problem, educators agree that regardless of the season, learning should be a year-round priority.
“Whether it’s during the summer or anytime, the amount of time kids spend reading outside of school [or] within school is obviously a huge factor in their growth,” Shaw-Sarles said. “So, the more we can connect kids with books that they enjoy and want to delve into, the better.”