Is your learning slip-sliding away?

Summer slide”, “summer regression”, “summer set-back” are all terms used to describe the loss of learning that takes place when young people are not in school during the summer.

It is estimated that school summer breaks will cause the average student to lose up to one month of instruction, with disadvantaged students being disproportionately affected. Researchers conclude that two-thirds of the reading achievement gap for students just entering second level can be explained by unequal access to summer learning opportunities during the primary school years, with nearly one-third of the gap present when children begin school. Existing research demonstrates the critical importance that the early development of summer reading habits can play in providing the foundation for later success.

There is very little difference in reading gains between children from high and low-income families during the school year. Over the summer, children from high-income families make better progress in reading and the difference is cumulative over time. Differences in out-of-school access to books, positive reading practices, and connections with institutions supportive of self-discovery and reading, account for much of the disparity in student academic success. Since this has a cumulative effect as children grow and develop, the overall effect can be very significant by the time students finish their formal schooling. This disparity in academic achievement along socio-economic lines is sometimes called the “Matthew effect,” a reference to the Biblical passage of “the rich-get-richer and the poor-get-poorer” phenomenon.

Reading is the most influential factor related to summer learning. More access to books results in more reading. When schools close their doors, the opportunity to read is often closed with them, especially for those children without access to books. There is considerable evidence that the amount and quality of student’s access to reading materials is substantively related to the amount of reading they engage in, which in turn is the most important determinant of reading achievement. The more students read, the better their writing and spelling, the larger their vocabularies, and the better their control and comprehension of complex grammatical constructions.

Extensive, successful reading experiences are important in the development of reading proficiency. If children have the opportunity to listen to, discuss, and read books on topics that they select, they will develop extensive background information which can serve as a platform from which to engage in their own independent reading. Not expectantly, a history of less-successful reading experiences produces less interest in voluntary reading than a history of successful reading experiences. The key predictors of positive reading development are success when learning to read and numerous opportunities and experiences with reading. Children who enjoy reading will read more and become proficient at the same time. The amount of reading done out of school is consistently related to gains in reading achievement.

Current research points out that increased summer reading reduces summer learning loss. Educational researchers from the University of Florida cite research suggesting that children who read as few as six books over the summer break can maintain their reading skills at a level achieved in the preceding school year. Children will engage in more independent reading when they have greater access to books. Libraries play a crucial role for families that cannot afford to buy books. Giving a child a library membership card to encourage them to read could indirectly have very valuable life-long benefits.

Researchers from the University of Missouri performed a meta-analysis of 39 existing research studies that measured summer learning and school achievement. They found that most students lost an average of one month of school learning over summer vacation. Some students, particularly those from disadvantaged households, lost up to three months of learning. Summer learning loss was greatest in math computation, reading, and spelling, but occurs to some extent in all subjects.

Public library summer reading programs are one solution to the “summer slide. Children can benefit from “hybrid” programs which combine elements of youth development principles with academic enrichment. For example summer camp in the Gaeltach in which students engage in social and academic activities through the medium of Irish can have a very beneficial effect on performance in the following school term. For those who can afford it private grinds can be another effective option.


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