The summer reading slide and how to prevent it

The summer reading slide and how to prevent it

For most adults, long, uninterrupted summer holidays are associated with joyful memories of a more carefree time – after all, for most, the possibility of a two-month summer break ends with school. Others have different associations - parents, teachers, and researchers report that a long summer break causes children to forget a substantial amount of what they’ve learned during the school year – a phenomenon also known as ‘summer slide’. So is it possible to keep kids’ brains engaged over the summer, without compromising on the blissful summer fun?

A big part of the research that deals with the effects of the summer slide focuses on the learning gap observed between children from low socio-economic backgrounds as compared to children from higher socio-economic backgrounds. What these studies report is that during school term, the learning gap between children from different backgrounds closes, but it widens again during the summer. [1] The interpretation that many experts give for these data suggests that what causes this gap is the difference in the number of resources and learning opportunities that children from these two groups have access to when they are not at school. [2], [3]

A study found that not all children from low socio-economic background suffer from a summer setback. [4] The tendency they observe is that children that don’t show the summer setback are those that have more access to resources, independently of socioeconomic class. This means that the more importance parents give to learning, and the more they engage their children in learning activities -- be it reading to them, taking them to public libraries, etc. -- the less likely it is that their children will be affected by a summer setback. Indeed, several studies have found that children who read more books in the summer are less prone to summer slide. [5], [6]

Since it’s the long absence of learning opportunities during the summer that causes the learning decline, the remedy is simple: children need to be given the opportunity to engage in learning activities during the vacation months. Of course, no child wants to do homework during the summer holidays and no parent wants to force them to. But the good news is that young children learn very effectively through play and exploration [7] -- activities that the summer months are ideal for.

Learning through play is so effective because it is an active engagement with new information, making the new information more memorable. Playing is fun and having fun triggers the formation of habits [8] -- after all, we all want to repeat things that we have enjoyed; if these things happen to have educational benefits, doing them again and again means learning more and more. So parents and caregivers who want to promote learning over the summer just need a few ideas for fun activities. Here are some tips from us:

  • Shared reading

Read quality books full of rich vocabulary and talk about the narrative, the characters, the words, and any illustrations in them.

    • Ask children about any unfamiliar words and help them understand what they mean. Research suggests that up to the age of ten, 80% of words children learn are acquired as a result of direct explanation. [9]

    • Foster their imagination and creative thinking by encouraging them to imagine alternative scenarios to the one you are reading. Start with ‘What would happen if…’. [10] By communicating with adults in this way, a child’s brain becomes better wired for complex thinking. [7]

  •  Talk about words

You don’t need to have books in front of you to talk about words. Words are everywhere, from the back of cereal boxes to street signs, from dialogues in movies to everyday oral exchanges. Draw attention to interesting words that you come across while doing other things, or use the most accurate word you can think of to describe any situation; whether it’s a challenge, havoc or something that makes you feel frustrated, elated, or obsessed, say it. Nothing makes a new word more memorable than associating it with the right context.   

  • Play games that increase awareness of the relationships between words (word consciousness)

In the car, on the beach, or at the dinner table, challenge each other to come up with as many synonyms (words with almost the same meaning), or as many antonyms (words with the opposite meaning) as you can for a word. If you want to challenge kids even more, ask them if they can see any subtle differences between two synonyms. For example, the difference between funny and hysterical is one of degree; the difference between unique and peculiar is the positive and negative connotation they have, respectively.

  • Category game

Come up with a category such as animals, wild animals, or wild animals that start with an ‘a’ -- the category can be as narrow or as broad as you like. Then, take turns coming up with words that belong to this category. The first player who can no longer find a new word to add, loses the round.

  • Drawing or acting out the meaning of words

Challenge kids to draw the meaning of a word on a piece of paper, or to act it out until the other members of the group guess what it is. Take turns drawing/acting out and guessing.




[1] Heyns, B. (1978). Summer learning and the effects of schooling. New York: Academic Press.

[2] Alexander, K., Entwisle, D., & Olson, L. (2007). Lasting consequences of the summer learning gap. American Sociological Review, 72 (2), 167–180.

[3] 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.

[4] Slates, S.; Alexander, K.; Entwisle D., & Olson, L. (2012). Counteracting summer slide: Social capital resources within socioeconomically disadvantaged families. Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk, 17(3), 165-185.

[5] Entwisle, D. R., Alexander, K. L., & Olson, L. S. (1997). Children, schools, and inequality. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

[6] Kim, J. (2004). Summer reading and the ethnic achievement gap. Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk, 9(2), 169–188.

[7] Rood, E. E. Hadani, B. Liberman, A. Whiteside (2016). Reimagining School Readiness: A Position Paper with Key Findings. Center for Childhood Creativity. Sausalito, CA.

[8] Wise, R. (2004) Dopamine, learning and motivation. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 5, 483-494.

[9] Beck, I., McKeown, M. and Kucan, L. (2002) Bringing words to life: Robust vocabulary instruction. New York: Guildford Press.

[10] Hadani, H., G. Jaeger, K. Kennedy, E. Rood, S. Russ (2017). Creativity Trend Report. Vol 2. Center for Childhood Creativity. Sausalito, CA.

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