Most people have never heard the term “summer learning loss,” but it is an easy phrase to understand. Summer learning loss refers to a loss of academic knowledge during the summer vacation months. At the beginning of a new school year, many students have forgotten what they learned last year, so they fall behind when classes build on the previous year’s knowledge. Fortunately, psychologists have studied how to prevent summer learning loss, and families can implement these three suggestions at home.
Students who attend a summer program, such as a day camp at a school or college, are more likely to keep their academic skills over the summer. But how can parents choose the best summer program for their children? Researchers at Johns Hopkins University say that summer camps “are most effective when academic learning is woven into enrichment activities like field trips or learning a new skill” (Bell & Carrillo, 2007, 46). In other words, students learn best when they engage in hands-on activities such as conducting their own science experiments or building rockets. Choose a summer program that challenges students instead of just reviewing material at a very easy level.
Of course, not everyone has the money or time to attend a summer camp. Many students wish to spend their summers volunteering, playing sports, or starting their college search. Students who are too busy for a summer program may instead benefit from reading books in their spare time. Summer reading helps students retain the vocabulary they have learned during the school year. This is vital for students whose families speak a language other than English at home, because these students lose more English vocabulary words over the summer than their English-speaking peers (Lawrence, 2012).
How much should a student read in order to benefit? One researcher found that students who read just four or five books over the summer significantly increased their achievement scores in the fall (Kim, 2004). Students can benefit even more when they write a book report about their summer reading, talk to their parents about what they have recently read, or participate in summer activities at the library (Kim, 2004; Mitchell & Begeny, 2014; Roman & Fiore, 2010).
Students tend to lose more math knowledge than reading knowledge over the summer (Cooper et al., 1996). Research indicates that math tutoring may prevent loss of these math skills (Bianco-Sheldon, 2007). Besides in class tutoring, there are also many online programs that can function as a virtual math tutor, giving students a chance to solve math problems and receive feedback on their performance. Examples include the Cognitive Tutor (which was developed by Carnegie Mellon University) or GiftedandTalented.com (which is operated by Stanford University). Students can practice with these programs a little bit every day, which is a study strategy proven to work better than cramming in a lot of study time at the end of the summer.
Summer vacation, while enjoyable, should not be an excuse for students to turn off their brains. Certain species of sharks must keep swimming in order to breathe; so too must students keep learning and thinking in order to keep their brains active. Students can avoid summer learning loss by attending a good summer program, reading books, or practicing with a math tutor. And, of course, they will be most successful in these activities when they have the support and guidance of their parents.
Bell, S. R., & Carrillo, N. (2007). Characteristics of effective summer learning programs in practice. New Directions for Youth Development, 114, 45-63.
Bianco-Sheldon, D. (2007). The effectiveness of math tutoring to prevent learning loss over the summer. (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from ProQuest Database.
Cooper, H., Nye, B., Charlton, K., Lindsay, J., & Greathouse, S. (1996). The effects of summer vacation on achievement test scores: A narrative and meta-analytic review. Review of Educational Research, 66 (3), 227-268.
Kim, J. (2004). Summer reading and ethnic achievement gap. Journal of Education for Students Placed At-Risk, 9(2), 169-188.
Lawrence, J.F. (2012). English vocabulary trajectories of students who parents speak a language other than English: Steep trajectories and sharp summer setback. Reading and Writing, 5(25), 1113-1141.
Mitchell, C. and Begeny, J. (2014) Improving student reading through parents’ implementation of a structured reading program. School Psychology Review, 1(43), 41-58.
Roman, S., & Fiore, C. D. (2010). Do public library summer reading programs close the achievement gap? Children and Libraries, 8, 27-31.
By Christopher Diehl, Instructor at ThinkTank Learning