Summer Learning Loss: Is It Real?

11 May

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.

6 Responses to “Summer Learning Loss: Is It Real?”

  1. lisamnoble May 11, 2013 at 2:05 pm #

    As a Core French teacher, I have to say that I believe deeply in summer learning loss, because, unless there’s a family trip planned to a French-speaking area, or someone in the family speaks French, kids are not exposed to my curriculum area at all over the summer months. It’s part of why I’d love to attempt to teach the program in a year-round schooling context. The other big gap is for my students coming out of Grade 8 French, and not having Grade 9 until February. I can only hope I’ve taught them deeply enough that they can access what they’ve learned.

  2. Fred Galang (@NomadCreatives) May 12, 2013 at 10:21 am #

    So let’s say that SLL does exist and the Ministry found an innovative and cost-effective way to address it (yes, very rhetorical indeed), then what? What’s the end-result? Smarter kids? Kids that are ready for industry? What is the point of cramming “knowledge” in young people? The last time I checked, our pursuit as educators is the whole child. Summer is a perfect opportunity to keep their minds fresh and ready for the coming year. Engaging them in a meaningful way happens outside of the classroom as well. I understand that in languages, frequency and environment is key. However, the measures above strictly focuses on the so-called academic areas and such. It’s overkill. School’s out, enjoy the sun and mother nature.

    • lisamnoble May 12, 2013 at 5:07 pm #

      Great q’s. I, too, love the summer recharge, and outdoor time, and I know a ton of deep learning happens then….especially in a supportive family context. I am also bringing baggage to the discussion around the kids I teach who start to ramp up their behaviour at this time of year, because they’re not looking forward, at all, to losing their structure and safe place, and spending the summer being primary caregiver for younger siblings or just being alone. I sometimes think that the option of year-round schooling might help us create more stability for those kids, and maybe help with some of the amazing inequity I see on the return in September.

  3. SStewart May 14, 2013 at 3:19 pm #

    Thanks for covering many of the questions, complexities, and subtleties regarding this, Andrew. I was quite startled by the last statement in the video, “No matter how much high quality learning goes on from Sept. – June, every year the gap widens”. That leads me to many questions. I have also questioned this in the past, “What is summer learning loss, really?”

    I too worry about the “solutions” not really being solutions to the real issues. I also worry about parent confusion and uncertainty about what to do. Thanks for providing some clear ideas that would not be too difficult, and reminding about the value of other experiences.

    There may be pros and cons to an adjusted school year calendar, as I tried to consider in this post:

    But as I said then, for me personally, “I need to hear how such adjustments to the school year are going to be good for kids — their development; their well-being; their learning and growing as citizens.”

  4. lisamnoble May 14, 2013 at 3:47 pm #

    I, too, was struck by that line about the widening of the gap. I teach in a school with fairly high-income kids, and very low-income kids, and not a whole lot in-between. The difference in September is marked….we have kids who come in who have spent their summers at canoe camp, in Europe, at the family cottage, on a long roadtrip; and we have those who, if they’re lucky, have sat with their feet in an inflatable pool, keeping an eye on the neighbourhood kids, or spent some quality time with their Xbox. They might have been really lucky and accessed a week at a city-run day camp, which are awesome, but their parents have to be on-the-ball enough to find out about those, and how to ge the subsidies (or a teacher has to be on the ball enough to help them with that process). I deal with have and have-not issues every day, and I think this is one of them.

    Realistically, do we need 9 weeks off in the summer? Should everybody have to take that long break? What about being able to take a long winter vacation, and do a winter camping trip, like your family canoe trip? What might the alternatives look like? I’m not a hot-weather fan….would I rather have my longer breaks in more temperate seasons? You bet. The more I talk to teachers in ohter parts of the world, the more I think that year-round is the way to go…but it would be a huge shift here, and I’m not sure the “haves” would go for it.

  5. Prodigy Game (@TheProdigyGame) June 20, 2013 at 5:07 pm #

    Hi Andrew,

    Thanks for the valuable post. The key component for us is the widening achievement gap, and how you keep students from lower-income neighbourhoods engaged and learning over the summer. This is especially true where parents cannot be overly involved, and it’s therefore up to the child to explore their own learning opportunities.

    While obviously standardized tests have their deficiencies, the sheer volume of studies that corroborate the idea that students lose progress over summer should be impossible to ignore. A year-round school year may be the right answer long-term, but it’s going to a long time before such a large-scale shift is implemented. You need a strong catalyst to change such an engrained routine, and I feel like too many people are pointing at other more “solvable” problems in the interim that a massive change in school scheduling will stay at the bottom of the priority list for many years to come.

    Recently, I was talking about how free, online tools such as Khan Academy can be a way to combat learning loss. What are your thoughts on using a software-based approach to tackle this problem, Andrew?

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