Does A 'Summer Slide' Cause Kids To Forget What They've Learned?

With summer vacation in full swing, parents are doing everything they can to help prevent the dreaded 'summer slide.' We've been told for decades that children who don't participate in brain-boosting and learning activities over the summer are at risk of losing many of the math, reading, and other academic skills they learned over the school year. Parents have been told that if they allow their kids to sleep in and play video games, go swimming or simply hang out with their friends all summer long without working on their summer math packet or adding books to their reading log, they're going to lose some of the knowledge they worked so hard to obtain during the school year.

Although there is research to support the theory that children who don't participate in learning activities over the summer will lose some of the skills they learned throughout the school year, University of Texas professor and researcher Paul T. von Hippel thinks we may be overexaggerating the loss. Hippel explains in an article for EducationNext that while he used to be a big believer in summer learning, his "belief has been shaken."

"I’m no longer sure that the average child loses months of skills each year, and I doubt that summer learning loss contributes much to the achievement gap in ninth grade," Hippel writes. He points out that one of the most famous studies to indicate the loss of knowledge over summer vacation — the Beginning School Study — is now over thirty years old. He criticizes the use of the study as a research model in more recent publications, questioning why more current studies, like the federal Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, aren't being referenced more. That study looked at a nationally represented sample of kindergarten students in both public and private schools across the United States for the class of 2010–11. The study was asked to estimate the gap in reading skills between those in low-income schools and those in higher income schools. "The gap barely changed between the start of kindergarten and the end of second grade. There is no sign of the gap growing during summer vacations."

Hippel believes that the reason for the discrepancy in the results of the studies is more about how the studies are conducted than how the behavior of children has changed. "Many of us—parents, teachers, politicians, even most researchers—take standardized test scores at face value; we interpret scores as though they reflected children’s skills neutrally, like a mirror. But in the 1980s, some scores could give a misleading reflection, like a fun-house mirror. Scores from the 1980s got children in more or less the right order, with more-advanced students ahead of less-advanced kids. But they distorted the distances between children, making some gaps look larger or smaller than they were."

So, while Hippel suggests that parents need not worry so much about the dreaded 'summer slide,' summer does give kids who are a bit behind on their studies the perfect opportunity to catch up. "There is one result that replicates consistently across every test that I’ve ever looked at," Hippel writes. "It’s so obvious that it’s easy to overlook, but it’s still important: nearly all children, no matter how advantaged, learn much more slowly during summer vacations than they do during the school years. That means that every summer offers children who are behind a chance to catch up. In other words, even if gaps don’t grow much during summer vacations, summer vacations still offer a chance to shrink them."

It seems that summer vacation is the perfect time to give your kids the much-needed break they deserve, but it wouldn't hurt to throw in a few educational opportunities and day trips every now and then either.

Read NextHow You Can Really Boost Your Kid’s Brain Power This Summer

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