To stem dreaded summer learning loss, experts say read to kids

File photo: Lazy summer days can set back children's learning, but reading can help limit their losses, experts say.
File photo: Lazy summer days can set back children's learning, but reading can help limit their losses, experts say.
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Summer vacation means beach days, visits to the mall and probably lots of TV and iPad time. But for all the pleasure this brings, educators worry that kids may return to school having forgotten what they learned in class.

Catherine Augustine, senior policy researcher with the RAND Corp., has studied what she calls summer learning loss, and research shows the concerns are real.

“On average, students come back to school in the fall about a month behind where they left off in the spring,” she said. “We see more loss in math than in reading.”

Augustine said math skills learned are often technical and precise. Not practicing it for a few months leads to forgetfulness. She said it happens across the socio-economic spectrum and all students show some loss of math skills when the new school year starts.

However, she said, teachers do factor in that students regress and they usually spend the first month of school revisiting math concepts.

Reading loss is harder to make up — and income matters.

“Lower-income students are more likely to lose ground over the summer in reading and come back to school on average about two months behind where they were in the spring,” Augustine said.

This loss is particularly acute in the areas of reading comprehension and vocabulary acquisition, she said.

Children from middle and upper-income families may get involved in summer activities that involve literacy, she said, so their reading loss is not so great. In theater camp, for example, children read scripts. Many summer camps schedule some time for reading or trips to the library. 

Augustine advises all parents to set aside time during the summer for reading or activities that involve literacy.  (See some resources below.)

New research by Dominic Massarro, University of California, Santa Cruz, psychology professor emeritus, points to the benefits of reading for children’s literacy over listening and talking.

Massaro analyzed databases of both written and spoken language uses to determine if there were differences in their vocabulary and grammar. He found the vocabulary in written forms was much more extensive than in the spoken language.

“This is important, because we know from other research that the earlier you acquire a word, the more easily it is mastered,” Massaro said. “So acquiring vocabulary late in life is not ideal. It should be acquired as early as possible."

Massaro’s research comes as experts stress the importance of parents talking often to children to help their language acquisition. 

And that's helpful, Massaro said. But reading a book offers potentially richer language for a child.

“If parents are reading to their children, they are exposing them to a great range and breadth of vocabulary that they don’t have in typical spoken language.”

Massaro’s research will be published later this year in the Journal of Literacy Research.


Here are a few websites for ideas on keeping students from losing academic ground during the summer:

Preschool to 2nd grade — reading, math, phonics for the young set. Some of the resources are free, others available with paid membership.

8th grade on up — fun math games, brain benders, science games.

Science for all — how life jackets work, facts about lobsters, other weird science.

Reading for all — find a good book to read for all family members, including that high schooler.