The temperature is creeping up, more skin is showing, garden centres are buzzing and sunscreen sales are rising. The signs of approaching summer are unmistakable, and with this comes the annual hand wringing over Summer Learning Loss.
Summer Learning Loss is something people complain about but little changes. It’s been an issue for over 30 years and along the way developed it’s own cottage industry with research, books, experts, a National Summer Learning Association and even a Summer Learning Day (It’s June 21st this year. Have you bought your card yet?). Each June parents are targeted with ads and articles warning them not to let their children ‘waste’ their summer. Some schools get in on the act as they send students off with summer reading lists to prepare them for next year’s curriculum.
What Is Summer Learning Loss?
Summer Learning Loss is the loss of academic skills and knowledge over summer vacation. It’s measured by testing students in math and reading before they leave for summer vacation, retesting them after vacation and comparing the scores.
Thirty-nine independent studies found that, on average, students lose about a month of learning skills and knowledge each summer. By graduation an average student has lost about a year of progress due to Summer Learning Loss.
The amount of Summer Learning Loss varies by subject matter. Math loss is greatest, with an equivalent of 2.6 months of math progress lost each summer or two and a half years by graduation. Loss in reading scores varies by socioeconomic status as students from low-income families lose about 2 months of reading progress each summer, while students from middle-income families actually gain.
The cumulative effect of the difference between low and middle-income families is a major contributor to the achievement gap between students of different socioeconomic status. How Summer Learning Loss affects the achievement gap is explained here:
It’s a complex problem and the subtleties are often glossed over in discussions of how to address Summer Learning Loss. Businesses drive revenues by fanning parents’ fears that children are falling behind in their learning while failing to explain the complex nature of the issue.
The most commonly suggested solution is more school. Middle-income parents enrol children in academically focussed summer programs and communities and school boards provide learning programs for low-income students.
Others suggest eliminating summer vacation. The long summer vacation is a leftover practice from the past when children were an important source of labour for the family farm. A balanced school year, with shorter breaks, may lead to better student learning.
McMaster University Professor Scott Davies’ research uncovered that high cost summer camps or family excursion aren’t what causes the difference in summer learning between middle and low-income students. Middle income students spend the summer with adults who read to them and use adult vocabulary in conversations. “It’s the daily conversations that are sophisticated and expand children’s vocabularies, and being read to regularly by seasoned readers, one-on-one. This informal role-modeling is available to affluent children seven days per week. Less advantaged children, in contrast, have less constant exposure to those quality resources.”
Dr. Davies lead a pilot project that targeted struggling low-income readers in Ontario with summer literacy camps. These 2-3 week camps provided the exposure these students were previously missing and in response, rather than losing reading skills they improved by one and a half months.
Dr. Richard Allington at the University of Tennessee addressed summer reading loss in low-income students in another way. His team gave elementary students attending ‘high poverty schools’ in seven US states twelve student selected books at the start of summer vacation. Dr. Allington found that simply giving students books at the start of summer vacation lead to significantly higher reading scores, less Summer Learning Loss and more independent readers.
Is Summer Learning Loss Real?
There are critics who question whether, in spite of the research, Summer Learning Loss exists at all.
Standardized testing can be unreliable and biased predictors of learning. These tests measure content knowledge rather than skills. When considering Summer Learning Loss some question how much we should trust standardized tests to measure learning.
Further, if learning can simply be lost over a two month summer vacation, was it really learned in the first place? Most adults have ‘learned’ material for tests that left their heads as soon as the test was over. Yet there are some books or lessons that can be recalled in detail and referred to instantly. Isn’t this the sort of deep learning we want in schools, not superficial fact based learning that evaporates in two months?
There are many opportunities for informal learning over a summer vacation. Not all valuable learning happens inside a school or needs a teacher, a notebook and a pencil. During summer vacation students can engage in their passions, connect with friends and extended family and learn in ways not favoured by formal education. There’s important learning happening when children play in a stream, ride their bikes all day, meet their long-lost cousins or just spend a day hanging out with their friends. Discussions of summer learning loss ignore this.
Summer vacation is a golden sun-kissed opportunity for students to engage in self-directed learning and spend extended time with family and friends. For most students simply doing this and reading whatever books they choose once in a while, on a blanket or in a hammock, prevents Summer Learning Loss. Schools that serve ‘low-income struggling readers” can assist them by providing student selected books and opportunities for them to engage with adults who expand their vocabulary. Keeping some school libraries open in the summer would be an easy and cheap way to do this.