Preventing summer learning loss:

Evidence-based tips

© 2011 - 2013 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved

It's called summer learning loss and it’s been measured in a variety of studies. Kids forget their lessons when they take long breaks from school. How much do they forget?

When Harris Cooper and his colleagues (1996) analyzed the published research, they found that the average student lost more than two months’ worth of knowledge of mathematics.

Reading skills suffered too, but only for kids of lower socioeconomic status.

Kids from middle income families generally returned to school with slight improvements in reading achievement levels.

Results like that suggest it’s all about practice. During the summer, middle class kids continue to read. But they might not do much math. So they maintain their reading levels and fall behind in math.

What’s the best way to get kids to practice? Researchers like Harris Cooper suggest we make major changes to our schools—lengthening the school year or replacing the long summer hiatus with several shorter breaks distributed throughout the year.

But such proposals don’t appeal to everyone, and they don’t help families who are currently coping with an old-fashioned summer break.

So here are a few tips for fighting summer learning loss.

Assess your child's learning needs

What concepts have your child already mastered? What skills does she need to develop next? Teacher feedback and report cards provide some answers, but so do personal, one-on-one sessions with your child.

For instance, try listening to your child while he reads aloud. Would he benefit from more work in phonics? Does he need to memorize hard-to-sound-out, high frequency words? Does he need to be encouraged to guess the meaning of unfamiliar words by considering their context? If he's a more experienced reader, might he enjoy learning about Greek and Latin word roots?

Identifying your child's specific needs will help you find the most stimulating and efficient learning activities. And that seems sure to help. In an experimental study tracking elementary school students from the first through third grades, researchers found that kids assigned to receive long-term individualized instruction became the most proficient readers (Connor et al 2013).

Make sure your child is reading books that challenge him

For many kids, this isn’t a problem. But some kids--particularly kids from lower-income families--aren’t reading the right books. In one study, a summer reading program failed to improve the skills of struggling readers. And researchers think they know why: The kids in the study got to choose their own books, and they consistently chose books that were too easy for them (Kim and Guryan, 2010).

Introduce flexible, unstructured learning activities

This advice comes from Susanne Bell and Natalie Carrillo (2007), who reviewed a set of organized summer learning programs--like summer camps--in the United States.

The researchers believe the most effective programs had certain things in common. They set clear learning goals, but they avoided teaching kids in a traditional, institutionalized way. Instead, these programs maintained flexible schedules, featured lots of field trips, and taught kids interesting new skills. Academic lessons woven into these experiences.

If you are wondering what the implications are for the regular school year, I am too.

Set aside some time to review math concepts and practice computational skills

Free, unstructured learning is very important. But it’s unlikely that most kids will spontaneously practice the sorts of skills that will prevent learning loss in mathematics. So it makes sense to hold several review sessions throughout the summer.

How many? I suppose that depends on your goal. If you’re just trying to keep certain math facts fresh over the summer break, daily review sessions are probably unnecessary.

In recent experiments on adults, people who were asked to recall a set of facts for 35 days benefited most when they held review sessions every 11 days (Cepeda et al 2008).

This doesn’t mean that kids shouldn’t practice their math skills more frequently. But it suggests that kids can retain specific math facts over the summer without daily drills.

To maintain and improve their problem-solving skills, kids will benefit from more frequent practice sessions. What activities make for good practice? Worksheets are useful, but computer-based games can also be effective.

Math missions is a relatively inexpensive math tutorial video game. It was introduced more than a decade ago, but it still stands out as a high-quality educational game. It comes in two volumes— Math Missions: The Race to Spectacle City Arcade Grades K-2 and Math Missions: The Amazing Arcade Adventure Grades 3-5—and presents kids with real-world math problems to solve. You can buy the software from Amazon—but check to see that it’s compatible with your computer.

Boost math skills with spatial games and toys

Spatial skills predict achievement in the "STEM" fields -- science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. And new research suggests that honing spatial skills might boost a child's performance in mathematics.

When young school children were asked to practice mental rotation tasks – tasks that required them to predict how two geometrical shapes would look when stuck together – these kids went on to show improvements in their ability to solve basic algebra problems (Cheng and Mix 2012).

Such research suggests that kids will benefit from toys and games that stimulate spatial thinking. For ideas on how to encourage spatial play, see these evidence-based articles about tangrams, blocks, and other activities for boosting a child's spatial skills.

Encourage other math play

If you your child’s math experiences have been a bit boring or humdrum, you need to introduce her to real math—the kinds of problems and questions that inspire kids to experiment and explore.

Start with the basics.

Many kids never learn an intuitive sense of number, that feeling for “how many" or “how much" a particular number represents. As a result, these kids continue to make very basic errors as they struggle through school (Mazzocco et al 2011). So games and experiences that make kids count, measure, and compare quantities are very helpful. (For preschoolers, check out these number activities and mathematical board games ).

Introduce older kids—who can add, multiply, and divide—to playful, intellectual problems and puzzles. For inspiration, I highly recommend Johnny Ball’s Go Figure!: A Totally Cool Book About Numbers. This lively, colorful, oversized book is a collection of puzzles, questions, activities, and thought experiments. Ball talks about the cultural origins of counting systems and numbers, magic numbers (like pi, primes, and the golden ratio), geometry, logic, topology, and chaos theory.

Let kids explore interests that don’t fit into the standard school curriculum

This is a personal suggestion, but it’s consistent with popular experience.

How many students have been bored by school, and then--one lucky day--discovered an academic subject they were really passionate about? Such discoveries can change lives, but many people never make them. When I was a kid, the extended summer break was a chance to indulge my curiosity about all sorts of things that never made it into the standard school curriculum--paleontology, astronomy, rock collecting, the geology of Mars, the search for extraterrestrial life, ancient history.

How would I have turned out without these opportunities? I don’t know, but I’m sure I would have been worse off. And for some kids, these extracurricular investigations lead to big things. Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson traces the beginnings of his career to childhood experiences with a telescope.

Looking for some interesting topics? Here are some suggestions:

Dinosaurs. See this guide to resources about paleontology and dinosaurs for kids.

Animal behavior. David Attenborough has produced many outstanding educational programs about animals. These, combined with reading and hands-on activities can help your child develop a lifelong interest in biology. Animal tracking activities can teach kids to pay close attention to clues. Digital photography gives kids a way to document their outdoor activities—and encourages them to learn stealth and patience.

Architecture and engineering. Bridges: Amazing Structures to Design, Build & Test (Kaleidoscope Kids)by Carol A. Johmann, an engaging, well-written “how-to" book that stimulates creative thinking and experimentation in older kids (ages 8 and up). As they build their own bridges, kids will learn about architecture and mechanics.

Space exploration. In additional to finding books on the subject, check out the local planetarium and Voyage to the Planets and Beyond (2004) , a fun BBC production that presents realistic (but imaginary) imaginary missions to Mars and other destinations. If you’ve seen Walking with Dinosaurs, the approach is similar. In addition, don’t miss NASA’s interactive website for kids, including their pages about Mars.

More ideas. Check out my recommended children’s books about history, zoology, and the physical sciences.

References: Summer learning loss

Bell SR and Carrillo N. 2007. Characteristics of Effective Summer Learning Programs in Practice. New Directions for Youth Development 114: 45-63.

Cepeda NJ, Vul E, Rohrer D, Wixted JT, and Pashler H. 2008. Spacing effects in learning: a temporal ridgeline of optimal retention. Psychol Science 19(11):1095-102.

Cheng Y-L and Mix KS. 2012. Spatial training improves children's mathematics ability. Journal of Cognition and Development. Published online ahead of print doi:10.1080/15248372.2012.725186.

Connor CM, Morrison FJ, Fishman B, Crowe EC, Al Otaiba S, and Schatschneider C. 2013. A Longitudinal Cluster-Randomized Controlled Study on the Accumulating Effects of Individualized Literacy Instruction on Students' Reading From First Through Third Grade. Psychology Science. 2013 Jun 19. [Epub ahead of print].

Cooper H, Nye B, Charlton K, Lindsay J, and Greathouse S. 1996. The effects of summer vacation on achievement test scores: A narrative and metaanalytic review. Review of Educational Research 66: 227–268.

Kim JS and Guryan J. 2010. The efficacy of a voluntary summer book reading intervention for low-income Latino children from language minority families. Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol 102(1): 20-31.

Mazzocco MM, Feigenson L, Halberda J. 2011. Impaired Acuity of the Approximate Number System Underlies Mathematical Learning Disability (Dyscalculia). Child Dev. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8624.2011.01608.x. [Epub ahead of print]

Content of "Preventing Summer Learning Loss" last modified 6/13

Image of boy by Sandylion

© Copyright 2017