Ann Miller of Bloomington was surprised when her son Kyle struggled with math in fourth grade. "Kyle had learned his times tables and really mastered them the year before," Ann says. "I couldn't understand while he was suddenly having trouble." There were even more surprises in store for Ann when she called Kyle's teacher and learned that her son wasn't alone in having problems with math. "He told me that it's common for kids to forget big chunks of knowledge over the summer months, and that a lot of kids who learned their times tables in the third grade had to relearn some of them in the fourth grade. He said that some kids were having reading problems, too - at least Kyle didn't have that issue."
One reason Kyle Miller's reading skills didn't suffer over summer break is that they were strong before summer break - and Kyle continued to strengthen them through his involvement in a summer reading program through the Millers' local library. Also, the Millers have lots of books in their home, and the Miller kids grew up being read to. "Kyle and his sister Emily were competing to see who could read the most books over the summer. Now that kind of rivalry I can handle," laughs Ann.
"Summer slip" is common Losing ground on math and reading during summer vacation is so widespread that there is a name for the phenomenon - summer learning loss. According to a study by Johns Hopkins University:
All children who do not participate in learning activities experience some summer loss. Researchers base this finding on the results of standardized tests given at the end of one school year and the beginning of the next. The amount of this loss varies from child to child.
Lower-income children tend to lose ground in reading, while middle-and upper-income students gain ground. Researchers think this may be because lower-income families often don't have access to books at home.
The average student loses more than two and a half months of math skills over the summer months. Unlike reading, math skill loss isn't tied to family income. Most often kids have a hard time retaining facts and formulas; researchers speculate that this loss is due to kids not using their math skills in everyday life.
Connecting learning with passion
Carla Jackson experienced summer learning loss as a child - "I had a lot of problems remembering math formulas from one year to the next," - but she'd forgotten about it until she became a mom with school age children. When her daughter Sarah, who struggled with reading, was diagnosed with dyslexia, Carla immediately worried about how Sarah would do after a long summer break with no structured reading program.
It didn't help that Sarah was resistant to the idea of attending a summer program. "I didn't think forcing her to go would send the right message," says Carla, "Especially since the program conflicted with a dance camp Sarah had looked forward to all year." Carla hit on the answer by accident: one day after school Sarah mentioned a dance book that a friend had. Carla took Sarah to a local bookstore to pick out a couple of dance books. One book was too advanced for Sarah to read, so Carla read it to her. Soon Sarah was asking to go to the library and the bookstore. The formerly reluctant reader now had a reason to read - she needed to learn more about dance. Carla also subscribed Sarah to a dance magazine and let her read dance sites on line. "Sarah's love of dance also brought us closer," says Carla, "when I helped her with reading, reinforcing how talented a dancer she was when she struggled with reading." The result: Sarah's reading skills actually improved over the summer - and she became a more confident reader.
Julie Miles Vang, MAT, approves of Carla's "accidental" method of getting Sarah to read. "Summers should be devoted to kids' passions," says Vang, the lower school associate director of the Highcroft campus of the Blake School. "What do they love? Passions become their primary way of organizing information." Vang uses horses as an example: A child who's passionate about them will want to read about them, attend horse shows, learn about the evolution of horses at the Science Museum. Everything can be about horses: going to the State Fair, they can write down the names of all of the horses in the horse barn and their owners. Later on, they may want to learn about horse nutrition and what's in horse feed." In other words, a child learns best when his or her passions are engaged. Vang advises, "It's the parent's job to feed the passion of any child up until about fourth grade, when they can do it on their own."
ang points out that there are two kinds of memory: rote (also called taxon) and spatial (or geographical) memory. Rote memory is used to memorize facts and procedures, and if it isn't used consistently, the information is easily forgotten, she says - hence Kyle's problems retaining his multiplication tables over the summer.
The best way to remember facts and procedures? Vang says to "embed them in geographic memory." In other words, Ann can have Kyle figure out how many lawns he has to mow at $20 apiece to save up for that racing bike he wants. She can vary the equation by adding in his allowance, subtracting what he must put away for savings, putting in a parental contribution in varying amounts. If she can help Kyle use his math skills in a way that interests him (buying that pricey bike) - like Sarah Miller's love for dance enhanced her reading skills - he is more likely to sharpen his memory of those skills. "You have to keep feeding them stuff," Vang says.
"Kids need to be defined by their passions and gifts," Vang advises, "Not their limits. We can help them get around those with drive, passion, and stamina."