The Summer Slide Problem And How To Prevent It
The summer slide is a pervasive challenge for educators at all levels, from elementary school to higher education. Let’s examine the summer slide’s nature, why it’s relevant, whom it affects most, and what can be done to prevent it.
What Is Summer Slide?
The summer slide, also known as summer learning loss, is the loss of reading achievement and academic skills (made during the previous school year) over the course of summer vacation. Although it may seem like a relatively new issue, this phenomenon has been a concern for over a century, according to a study published in the Review of Educational Research. More recently, it’s also been exacerbated by the global COVID-19 pandemic.
Research by the American Sociological Association has shown that, in general, grade-school learners lose between one to two months of reading ability (also called literacy skills) over the summer months and roughly two to three months of Math skills. In numerical terms, this loss constitutes anywhere between 11.11% and 33.33% of the learning gains made in the preceding academic year. Importantly, summer learning loss seems to be directly proportional. That means that the more a student learns during the year, the more knowledge they lose during the summer break.
Psychological study has shown that it’s perfectly normal to forget some information, particularly procedural skills (understanding that requires a person to complete a series of steps). As Professor John Anderson explains, this forgetting might actually serve an essential cognitive function because it can facilitate atomization, a process in which an individual relies less on explicit or factual knowledge, which can be forgotten more easily.
So, some learning loss is acceptable. But, that begs the question—When and how does learning loss become a problem, and what issues are caused by the summer slide?
Why Is Summer Slide a Problem for Students?
Summer loss is a major worry because it sets learners back a couple of months. That means that by the time they’re back in the classroom or lecture hall, they can’t start where they left off. Educators have to spend precious time revising work that was covered in the previous year so that students have the foundations necessary to begin learning new material and concepts.
When you consider the fact that learners are at school for only 75% of the year, it becomes apparent that there’s no time to waste, especially in subjects that require a lot of practice to master, such as math and science.
Additionally, the summer slide’s effects are cumulative: Learning loss year after year adds up. Time used to cover the previous year’s material means less time is spent on the current year’s information, which results in students having even less knowledge going into the following year.
What Demographics Are More Vulnerable to Summer Slide?
It’s vital to be cognizant of the fact that learning loss affects some populations more than others. The two primary determining factors that contribute to the severity of learning loss are age and socio-economic status. This loss is most notable in young children (specifically pre-kindergarten) because they’re at the most crucial stage of their cognitive and psychological development that sets the stage for learning later in life.
Proportionally speaking, children younger than 5 gain more knowledge during any given period than their older counterparts. Furthermore, much of the information they acquire at this age (like the ability to read and write and do basic arithmetic) is fundamental to their ability to master more complex concepts as they grow older.
The other notable contributing element is socio-economic status (although its noteworthiness has been disputed by some experts in recent years). Research by the University of Colorado Boulder has shown that learners from lower-income families are more significantly impacted by learning loss. There are many explanations for this. Firstly, it’s argued that low income students don’t have the same access to learning resources as wealthier peers over the summer period.
For instance, less wealthy learners aren’t able to access books and other learning materials that they usually get at school or college. Secondly, impoverished parents of younger children are less likely to have the luxury of spending time with them during the summer and, therefore, these children don’t have exposure to what’s called “parental education.”
What’s more, poorer students have less exposure to other enriching activities or experiences that contribute to learning away from the school environment, such as traveling and hobbies that require potentially expensive materials.
By contrast, young learners from wealthier backgrounds sometimes experienced an improvement in their reading skills over the summer, presumably because their parents can take some time off work for vacations and can help assist their children with reading.
It’s paramount not to ignore the link between socioeconomic status and race or ethnicity. According to research conducted by Dr. Regina Baker, people of color are still more likely to be more financially disadvantaged than white people, particularly in the South. Therefore, it’s more probable that students of color experience greater degrees of learning loss when compared to white learners.
This ultimately results in the achievement gap, which the National Assessment of Educational Progress defines as when “one group of students (e.g., students grouped by race/ethnicity, gender) outperforms another group, and the difference in average scores for the two groups is statistically significant.”
How Is Learning Loss Prevented in the Summer?
Preventing learning loss is essential to keeping students on track. Can the summer slide be prevented? Fortunately, the answer is yes.
There are multiple steps that educators, parents, and older, independent students can take to ensure they don’t lose critical knowledge they acquired prior to the summer break. Firstly, experts suggest that school teachers should establish strong connections with their learners’ parents, guardians, or caregivers. This is because keeping the channels of communication open will help families understand why it’s important to motivate their child to read at home and how to facilitate educational activities.
Secondly, continuous reading is fundamental. This is especially true for younger children who are just starting to read or cementing their reading skills. However, research by Scholastic shows that only one in five children under 17 read any books at all during the summer break. To combat this, educators can compile lists of required summer reading, which is particularly useful for learners who might not necessarily enjoy reading and, therefore, won’t seek out titles themselves.
That said, it’s often enough for students to consume reading material of any genre they enjoy, as long as they are reading. Send a catalog of public libraries, websites and online platforms that have free digital resources to accommodate learners who can’t afford to purchase books or magazines. Students who need more structure can also be enrolled in summer programs (sometimes known as summer school) designed to encourage reading and learning.
Is there a specific number of books students should read? Research from Scholastic indicates that six books is the optimal number, which works out to a very doable two books a month if the summer vacation is three months long.
Thirdly, educators can assign summer homework or assignments. This doesn’t need to be as formal as work given during the academic year, though. It can be as simple as providing some online learning activities like fun, educational games, puzzles, and quizzes that can count for extra credit in the new year.
Lastly (although this is by no means an exhaustive list), learners of all ages should get out of the house and participate in as many extracurricular activities and hobbies as possible. That can take the form of almost anything, like going for a walk in a local park or visiting a museum — any sort of recreation that keeps the cogs turning.
The summer slide is characterized by mild to severe learning loss over the summer break period. While some loss is acceptable, more serious cases can set students back up to three months, which has significant implications for future studies. Learning loss has greater consequences for children under the age of 5, people of color, and impoverished learners. Luckily, the summer slide can be mitigated by continuous reading, summer learning programs, and other activities that encourage learning during the summer period.
Educators can ensure their students stay on track with the right tools and resources from third-party providers and vendors. Contact us to learn more about how to reach educators with your products or services, and sign up to our newsletter for more industry insights.