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Summer Learning Loss: 3 Ways to Stay Sharp During Vacation

Summer learning loss: Little girl reading a book while laying on the grass

For many students, the school year is long and mentally draining. When the summer months approach and the final day of classes gets out, thoughts of studies are quickly replaced by barbecues, beach trips, and busy days with friends.

Taking a break from school is healthy, but prolonged time off can result in summer learning loss. This can increase the achievement gap and make it harder for students to keep up in their grade level when the new school year starts, especially if they're already struggling.

Here's a look at what summer learning loss is, why it’s especially important in our era, and how to prevent it.

What Is Summer Learning Loss?

Summer learning loss, also called the summer slide, is when students experience a learning setback. Summer vacation creates a prolonged period of time when some students don’t engage with any academic work.

A meta-analytic review by the American Educational Research Foundation found students lose the equivalent of an entire month’s worth of test preparation studying over summer vacation. This meta-analysis is important for understanding how summer learning loss factors into school and state-wide achievement gaps, especially for crucial subjects like math and reading.

Which Students Does the Summer Slide Impact?

Summer learning loss: Grandmother teaching little girl how to ride a bike

Educational research shows that low-income students are more susceptible to the negative impacts of summer learning loss, likely because they have less access to the same summer learning programs and camps as their median and high-income peers.

Such research also shows that test scores among lower-income students reduce between the end of one year and the start of the next. In contrast, peers from higher-earning families showed steady math skills and increased reading skills.

Other findings demonstrate that the effects of summer vacation are greatest on elementary school students. Specifically, researchers Von Hippel, Workman, and Downey suggest in a reading inequality study that this disparity forms before and during kindergarten. Learning loss also increases among black students over time, while that of white students stays more consistent.

This shows that early summer learning loss can contribute to inequalities in learning opportunities later in life.

How Summer Learning Loss Affects Students

Such data suggest that summer vacation is harmful to the learning progress of low-income and black students, while it improves the learning progress of students from wealthier families, who are more often also white.

This phenomenon is one contributor to the achievement gap between low-income and high-income students, and black and white students. It also shows the negative effects of summer education on learning and promotes an opportunity for improvement.

Learning loss over summer break is dangerous because it sets students behind, often in critical areas like math, writing, and reading. From Baltimore to New York, this effect has been shown to decrease students’ college readiness, especially for high school kids.

The Learning Gap and Emotional Distress

Whether they're in elementary school, middle school, or high school, summer learning loss can put a significant damper on a student's interest and enthusiasm for school. The learning gap caused by summer learning loss can also contribute to decreased self-esteem among students who struggle academically.

Without access to academic and emotional support, low-income children often can't get the help they need. This can result in poor grades and shame about academics. All of these make it even harder for students to speak up and ask for help, which in turn puts them even further behind.

COVID-19 and the Summer Slide

Teenager doing schoolwork at home using his laptop

This problem may be further exacerbated by COVID-19, which may increase families' economic struggles. Parents who work more hours or receive fewer earnings may have less time and fewer resources to contribute to summer school programs or support.

Additionally, summer learning loss has been exacerbated by COVID-19-related school closures. In fact, many of these implications have not yet become evident. However, the Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA) suggests the occurrence of a phenomenon called "the COVID-19 slide."

In a recent report, NWEA outlined the projected academic impact of school closures and forced at-home learning environments. They predicted that students would enter the 2020-2021 school year with about 70% of reading gains accumulated during the previous school year. In math, they predicted students would return with below half of their learning gains from the previous year. Some grades, they say, would lose an entire year's worth of learning.

How To Prevent Summer Learning Loss

Summer learning loss is hard to entirely avoid, especially since the United States public school calendar leaves a significant space between academic years. However, acknowledging this problem is the first step toward remedying it. And, teachers and academic experts have suggestions for how to keep kids engaged over the summer.

Voluntary Summer Activities

4 kids playing outdoors

Students who have access to summer camps and clubs can take advantage of these resources to keep their brains sharp. These can highlight students' interests to keep them engaged in the material and encourage them to study.

This makes learning fun, rather than a chore, so students look forward to the process. For example, a student interested in science or math might attend a space camp, where they use math and science skills in a fun, collaborative way. Or, a student interested in art might attend classes at a local theater which promotes creative thinking.

Many local community centers and libraries offer summer camps and classes for free or at a low cost. Parents can look for resources in their locale to see what's available for their students. Such programs might boost test scores while closing the achievement gap.

Moreover, the National Summer Learning Association offers free programs and summer learning challenges for students. These learning initiatives are designed to elevate access to academic improvement outside of the school year, helping students excel no matter their grade level.

Summer Reading Programs

Another way to keep students engaged during the summer is to enroll them in a reading program. Such programs can boost reading achievement by giving students a positive goal to reach by the end of the summer. Whether they're reading mysteries or memoirs, summer reading programs keep students engaged. This can boost their achievement test scores in reading and writing.

This is especially important among poor children — research shows their reading skills fall behind an average of two months over the summer. In elementary school, when reading well is crucial to success later on, a summer reading achievement plan can go a long way.

Summer or Year-Round Tutoring

Lastly, consider a tutor during the summer months and beyond. This is a smart option for students who don't need to attend summer school to boost their grades but want to stay sharp.

A summer tutor can help students review anything they struggled with in the previous year. Tutoring also provides a chance to explore areas of interest that may not be covered in school.

Most importantly, in-person or online tutors can assist students in preparing for the next year. For example, a student entering high school could greatly benefit from an overview of what to expect in ninth grade math.

Whether your student needs help in a specific subject, or they're seeking general academic support, a qualified tutor can reduce summer learning loss. And, working with a tutor year-round ensures they understand what your student needs, where they excel, and how they can show up best to learn.

Prevent Summer Learning Loss and Stay Sharp

Summer learning loss can occur when students take significant time off from learning over summer vacation. It can increase learning disparities among students, widening the achievement gap.

However, a focus on summer learning programs can help reduce the summer slide. Summer camps, reading programs, and tutoring are all effective ways to keep student minds sharp. For more information on how to boost your student’s test scores and find tutors to help year-round, visit TutorMe.

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