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The Summer Slide: How to Stop Kids From Falling Behind During Summer Vacation

How parents can avoid the summer slide and keep their children learning all summer long


Many issues in education are controversial, like standardized PARCC assessments, Common Core and charter school expansion. There’s one fact, however, that most parents, educators, researchers and politicians agree on: Students suffer a learning loss, also known as the “summer slide,” during the two-and-a-half months of summer recess. While low-income children, English-as-a- second-language (ESL) kids and students with disabilities tend to fall behind more than others, almost all children demonstrate less academic proficiency in September than they did the previous June, according to several studies by The Rand Corporation, The National Summer Learning Association and Johns Hopkins, among others. Some experts even believe this learning loss is cumulative and is responsible for much of the socio- economic achievement gap.

Summer break: A history

When formal public education got under way in the late 1800s, schools tended to adjust their calendars to suit their communities’ needs—rural schools scheduled breaks in the spring so kids could help with harvesting, while urban schools ran year-round. In the South, schools let out for the summer because there was no air- conditioning, and Northern schools recessed during the coldest months. In the 1900s, as more people moved to urban areas, school calendars were standardized and the nine-month school year became part of our culture, despite the prevalence of sophisticated heating and cooling systems and the decline in the number of families tied to agricultural calendars. So why are we focusing on the negative effects of summer break now? Our standards are much, much higher now—as many parents know firsthand.

How much learning does the slide cost kids?

Teachers report they spend much of September re-teaching material students have forgotten from the previous June. Sixty-six percent of teachers said they spent three to four weeks on material from the previous school year, and 24 percent reported spending five to six weeks, according to a May 2013 survey from The National Summer Learning Association.

Students from low-income families typically forget more—in excess of two months of reading achievement, according to a Johns Hopkins study that began in the early ‘80s. Higher-income kids either maintain reading levels or show slight increases in proficiency, but nearly everyone slides back in math, as much as “two months of grade-level equivalency,” according to a comprehensive 2011 study of summer learning loss by The Rand Corporation. “Whether you are a low-income child or a high-income child, you lose math knowledge and skills at the same rate over the summer,” noted senior policy researcher Catherine Augustine, one of the Rand study authors.

Reversing the slide

If you are a low-income parent or have a child with disabilities, you may qualify for free summer school programs specifically geared toward preventing the summer slide. For example, Hamilton Township in Mercer County runs free summer programs for Title I students, or those who attend schools where at least 35 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch under federal guidelines. But if you don’t meet the criteria for those, there are other ways to help your child retain or grow their skills over the summer in reading and math.


Reading is typically easier to incorporate into casual summer activities than math, which partially explains why the dip in reading isn’t as severe, but summer upkeep is important. “Encouraging your child to continue flexing his or her reading muscles over summer vacation is the single most important thing you can do to help develop literacy learning,” says literacy expert, educational consultant and PBS reading advisor Julie M. Wood, Ed.D. Here are a few ideas for things to do to help your kids keep their reading skills sharp:

  • Take regular trips to the library; many local libraries have free summer reading programs.
  • Play word games with the kids like word association and crossword puzzles.
  • Encourage children to decode atlases and maps while on family vacations.
  • Hit the bookstore. Children’s sections of bookstores often offer free events.
  • Read stories to kids out loud and take books on trips and to appointments. Talk about the stories with your children. PBS has several “reading challenges” and sites for kids of various ages that can help.
  • Make sure your kids are reading the books on their school’s summer reading list.


  • Use recipes and dinner prep as a fun way to review fractions and practice measurements.
  • Find internet and iPad games that encourage math skills.
  • Teach your children about money; let them help calculate tips in restaurants.
  • Take them to the grocery store and have them compare prices, add up how much things will cost and figure out the tax.
  • Be proactive and chat with your child’s teacher about fun math games to play. 

More Like This: 
Summertime is Reading Time
Should New Jersey Lengthen the School Year? 
Advocating for Your Special Needs Kid in School

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