Preventing summer learning loss:
© 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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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,
References: Summer learning loss
Bell SR and Carrillo N. 2007. Characteristics of Effective Summer
Learning Programs in Practice. New Directions for Youth Development 114:
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
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