Curing the Summertime Blues

Donna Lasinski examines why the summer dropoff particularly affects English learners

Summer vacation often evokes childhood memories of lazy days spent relaxing and exploring the outdoors. The romanticism of a long summer break from school, however, has met its match in the realities of the achievement gap and the significant loss of academic skills that occurs every summer for students. Multilingual families, who may have a more difficult time engaging in school functions and homework assistance due to language barriers, can struggle even more over the summer months.

Across academic and popular media, a national discussion is occurring debating the value of the traditional summer break. Time Magazine ran a full issue titled “The Case Against Summer Vacation.” Mission Readiness, a coalition of more than 300 retired generals, admirals and other military leaders, issued a report Lazy Days of Summer: A National Security Threat. Growing out of the Johns Hopkins School of Education, the National Center for Summer Learning has concluded that summer learning loss is a determining factor in our inability as a nation to close the achievement gap that occurs between students of varying income levels and backgrounds.

Unfortunately, research into the impact of summer learning loss on our students, including English language learners (ELLs), has been thin. Joseph Mahoney, professor of education, University of California, Irvine, observes that “while nearly one-quarter of youth development occurs during the summer, it appears that fewer than one in 10,000 published studies on adolescence were concerned with summer in the last half century.”

That does not imply, however, that educators have not understood the negative impact of time away from studies for generations. The very first study done on summer learning loss was in 1906 and reached the same conclusion as a study over 100 years later out of the Johns Hopkins School of Education — summer learning loss impacts students detrimentally in reading and mathematic skills.

On average, reading performance scores decline by an average of one to two months during summer without reading practice. The loss of reading skill is not dependent on a student’s race, gender, or IQ. Reading loss only varies based on a student’s economic status, with low income learners often losing more than two months of reading performance.

Mathematic skills are lost equally across race, gender, IQ, and income levels. Up to two months of skills are lost every summer without active math practice. These losses in reading and math are cumulative. A student who has not actively reviewed skills over the summer will be up to two years behind in verbal skills and one and a half years behind in math skills by fifth grade.

This cumulative effect of summer learning loss is one of the largest root causes of the achievement gap between low-income and middle-income students. In fact, two-thirds of the achievement gap at ninth grade between middle-income and low-income high school students is the result of different summer learning experiences over the elementary years.

The responses to this crisis of summer learning loss are varied. Researchers have been able to point us in the direction of a few effective and affordable solutions that are both community and school based. The most promising study demonstrated the impact of allowing students to select twelve free books to read over the summer every year for three years. These students showed equivalent gains in academic performance compared to students who had attended summer school for three years.

Specifically addressing bilingual Latino families, researchers Kim and Guryan (2010) formatted a study with three groups combining free take-home books, free take-home books plus family literacy sessions, and a control. The families all spoke Spanish in the home and had fourth-grade students. Unfortunately, the participation in the family literacy sessions was so low the researchers could only measure the benefit of the free books versus the control group.

As researchers continue to respond to the needs of multilingual families, a few findings to improve reading over the summer are universal:
• Access to books must be barrier free, inexpensive, and frequent;
• Young readers should choose books of interest vs. mandated reading; and
• Comprehension should be guided by an adult, teacher, or parent.

Interestingly, researchers have not found conclusive, replicable support for eliminating summer vacation. Neither the “balanced calendar” approach of spreading summer vacation across the calendar in smaller increments nor the “extended day” approach of spending more time in the classroom, has proven to eliminate the persistent achievement gap.

The key for summer is to balance academic review with learning fun. For academic review, 20 minutes of choice reading a day, quick bursts of math-fact practice, and journal writing are best.

As educators guide and work with multilingual families, summer must be treated as a continued learning partnership to maintain school-year skills and return students to school confident and prepared to learn new material. Summer learning loss impacts all students but impacts fragile learners the most and must be addressed to close the achievement between learners.

Remember that summer is a glorious time for exploring, enjoying the outdoors, and creative learning. It should not be a time when reading, writing, and math skills slide backwards. Yet many of these skills are lost over summer, and it doesn’t have to be that way.

Donna Lasinski developed the ThinkStretch Summer Learning Program ( to link the school year to home over the summer while she was a parent of students at Haisley Elementary School in Ann Arbor.

The program Lasinski developed for her school in summer 2007 was soon made available to other families and schools in Ann Arbor, across Michigan, and all over the country. Since then, the ThinkStretch Summer Learning Program has been nominated for an Excellence in Summer Learning Award through the John Hopkins Summer Learning Center, has received an Excellence in Education Innovation honor, and has been used successfully by thousands of students and families in 48 states.