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Avoiding the summer learning lag

For students, the long-awaited summer break from school means relaxation and leisure. Unfortunately, the detachment from educational involvement can also cause a learning lag that can extend into the upcoming semester.

Monica Logan, vice president of program quality at the National Summer Learning Association, said that the time off can actually be dangerous for students.

"I think we have traditionally seen summertime as time off, for kids to kind of shut down mentally, to do more relaxing, to use it as a time really to turn off from the rigors of the school year, which makes a lot of sense," she said. "Looking at the research and all the data, there really is a lot of evidence to the fact that, specifically with low-income students or students from under-resourced communities, that summer can be a very dangerous time … danger in terms of academic losses."

Those academic losses, she said, can translate into a disadvantage when students enter the school year.

"If they don't have that active engagement over the summer, they come back to the school year further behind from their peers that did have enrichment and engagement," she said.

The National Summer Learning Association website cites research that shows students generally perform better on standardized tests taken at the beginning of the summer than they do on the same exams taken at the end. In addition, research also shows about a two month loss in grade level equivalency in math computation skills in most students during the summer break.

Kriscine Coston, assistant principal of Deer Park Elementary School in Owings Mills, said this lag is universal to all grade levels, but it can be avoided through continued practice of core concepts and engagement in real-world experiences.

"Sometimes there is a summer lag when students are out for the summer months, however if they continue to read over the summer, practice math facts, and participate in cultural activities — such as visiting museums, attending festivals — that provides the real life activities they can really relate to," she said.

Those real-life activities can come in a variety of forms, and don't necessarily mean enrolling in costly camps.

"It doesn't have to be a rigorous, they don't have to spend a lot of money on expensive overnight camps," Logan said. "There are free tools, they can get access to going to museums, to the library, to the pool … so I would say keep it simple, be intentional."

For many educators, one of the most important activities for children over the summer is reading, and if possible, becoming engaged with the text through conversation with a parent or guardian.

"There are things that parents can do at home with their young person," Logan said. "In a lot of research around, if kids simply get access to three to four books over the summer, that can also have a similar impact to a more rigorous, structured summer opportunity. And the important part of it is not just making sure they get access to the book … the part that really differentiates, really can help a student move, is engaging the student in the process."

One way for parents to encourage their children to read is through the public library.

"The library is a place where kids can explore their own interests," said Elizabeth Rafferty, youth services specialist with the Baltimore County Public Library. "Also of course it's free, so everyone has equal access, and it's an activity for them during the summer months when there's no school."

Rafferty agreed that reading is essential for students to avoid the learning lag characteristic of summer break.

"So [reading is] very important because some studies have shown that if students do not read over the summer they can lose up to one grade level of reading ability over the summer," she said. "It's called summer slide. And so first of all, we want to avoid that, and so we want to encourage kids to read. Second of all, we want to show kids that reading is not just a task that they have to do for school, but that it can be an enjoyable activity and they can use that to learn more about things that they are interested in or just to entertain themselves."

The BCPL also offers a range of programs for children to take advantage of, ranging from reading groups to magic shows and arts and crafts activities.

Beyond library programming, Logan said there are a variety of learning opportunities available for students.

"There's lots of different options that parents can take advantage of over the summer," she said. "There are lots of great offerings in local libraries, there are many incredible community-based organizations such as the YMCA that offer really stellar learning opportunities."

Whatever the activity students become involved in, Logan said the summer can be a chance to expand their horizons and broaden their scope of understanding.

"The most important thing is to keep them engaged mentally, so the summer is not a time off, but a time to be engaged, to explore, to make new connections," she said. "It really can be a wonderful opportunity for young people to enter the fall or the school time even more prepared. So instead of the issue of summer learning loss, it really could be an opportunity for acceleration."

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