How Can You Promote Summer Learning? Experts Give Their Ideas

By Joetta Sack-Min

Summer break is often seen as an idyllic time for teachers, parents and students to take vacations, have fun, and forget about the stress of school.

But for the growing number of students living in poverty, summer vacations can be a significant setback to their learning, researchers say.

“Summer learning loss is a significant contributor to the achievement gap,” says Sarah Pitcock, CEO of the National Summer Learning Association. “Every summer, low-income youth lose two to three months in reading achievement while their higher-income peers make slight gains."

According to NSLA, these losses accrue each year, and by fifth grade, cumulative years of summer learning loss in reading and math skills can leave low-income students two-and-a-half to three years behind their peers. Further, disadvantaged students may also deal with food insecurities and safety issues when they are out of school.

Educators agree on the importance of keeping students engaged throughout the summer, but once the final school bell rings, it’s hard to keep in touch with students and parents. With that in mind, the National Association of Elementary School Principals has a “Report to Parents” with summer learning ideas that teachers and administrators can hand out. (A Spanish version is also available). 

“It is important that educators provide families with information about what they can do at home during summer break to support what their children have been learning in school,” says Laura Bay, president of the National PTA. “It is also important that educators empower families with tools and resources they can use during the summer months to keep students engaged and support their learning.”

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools are using digital summer learning programs and are training parents, summer-care providers and faith-based partners to help students use the online lessons. 

LFA asked several of its members and experts in the field to give their thoughts and ideas for how educators and parents can keep students engaged:

What's the most important thing a teacher or administrator can do to keep students engaged in learning over the summer?

“First, we need to make sure that students see the merit in engaging in ‘school stuff’ over the summer. While learning should always be interesting and engaging, that’s especially the case in the summer, because the distractions are definitely interesting and engaging! Summer is not likely a time for remediation or drudgery, but it is a time to read for fun and maybe build that science project that can’t be done when homework beckons.” –Thomas Hoerr, Emeritus Head of School, New City School, St. Louis

"The most important thing a teacher or administrator can do to keep students engaged is to encourage parents to 'unplug' and spend time together. It’s important to spend time together in conversation, outdoor activities, reading and sharing stories, playing board games, writing letters to family and friends, cooking together, and/or creating a summer photo journal. All of these activities are family oriented, encourage building relationships, reinforce reading, writing, math and science, and they are free!" --Robyn Conrad Hansen, president of NAESP

“The best thing that teachers can encourage their students--and their parents--to do over the summer is to simply read and write. Kids can read anything of interest, preferably at an instructional level, which necessitates teachers sharing reading level information with parents, and then encourage parents to have a daily habit or every other day reading habit.” –Mike Fisher, author and instructional coach

“Keep in mind that summer learning can happen anywhere and can make a difference. For example, educational technology like MyON provides children online books at the appropriate reading level and tracks their reading gains during the summer. Students using MyON in Minneapolis showed an average 12 percent increase in their reading level.” –Sarah Pitcock

What should parents do to keep their children learning though the summer?

“The key is to make learning a fun part of the summer routine. Research shows students can lose months of hard-earned progress between the last day of school and the first, and parents have an important role in making sure this doesn’t happen. One idea is to start a family summer book club, giving your children a few books on topics they like from which to choose. Set weekly and summer goals, and come up with a reward together for the end of the summer when the books have been read. You can ask your child different questions, such as, “What surprised you most about the book?” Activities like this help your children advance their reading abilities, set them up for success in their next grade, and make reading a fun part of your family life, even in the dog days.” --Bibb Hubbard, president and founder of Learning Heroes

“Summer activities provide fun, teachable moments—connecting what children have been learning in school to real-life activities reinforces those skills. These moments also provide great opportunities to expose children to new ideas and information and encourage creativity. The work families do at home that’s connected to what kids do in school has the biggest academic impact. Studies also show that reading daily during summer break is the most important activity families can do to prevent learning loss. Take your kids to the local library and borrow books to read over the break and join your library’s summer reading club. And spend time reading together as a family—it helps children develop their literacy skills and excel academically.” --Laura Bay

Summer is a GREAT time to start co-reading events where the parent(s) and the child read the same book and have discussions about happenings and inferences, as well as "post mortems" where everybody talks about the book in general… They can also support mathematical and scientific thinking by asking kids why and giving them discovery level events to keep them learning over the summer: trips to museums, zoos, an aquarium, or even the creek down the street, rocky outcrops at the beach, flora and fauna in a forest, angles and measurements at the local park--everything counts!” –Mike Fisher

Given that students from low-income families are most likely to experience 'summer slide,' what strategies are most helpful for their parents and teachers to combat any regression in learning?

“It is important for families to set a routine for the summer months and stick to it. It is also important to monitor children’s screen time and ensure they have ongoing opportunities to learn and practice essential skills. And reading daily during summer break is the most important activity families can do to prevent learning loss. Many communities offer free activities for children and families during the summer months, which can be great occasions for learning and reinforcing skills. Local libraries also are a great resource for summer learning.” --Laura Bay

How should communities address students’ needs?

“Communities must coordinate to use resources efficiently and expand access to high-quality summer learning opportunities so all children can have memorable, enriching summer experiences. Policymakers and education leaders must understand where young people are and what they are doing in their communities during the summer in order to address gaps and expand what is working. Ultimately, we need more opportunities for children to participate in high-quality summer learning.” –Sarah Pitcock

RESOURCES:

National PTA: www.pta.org

National Education Association's Summer reading program: http://www.nea.org/home/63013.htm

NEA Healthy Futures also has information on summer nutrition programs for students, including USDA’s summer meals finder map

USDA also operates a hotline that can be reached at from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. EDT Monday through Friday. The hotline number is (866) 3-HUNGRY or (877) 8-HAMBRE (for Spanish).

The American School Counselors Association has positive summer parenting tips.