Preventing the Summer Slide
Originally published in TEACH Magazine, May/June 2018 Issue
By Meagan Gillmore
Summer vacation brings a certain amount of relief and anxiety. Everyone looks forward to the break, but the absence of classes can create the possibility that students will forget what they learned throughout the school year. Perhaps some learning loss is to be expected, but there are reasonable concerns about how summer vacation may weaken students’ reading and math skills. Teachers can, however, encourage students to continue building those fundamental skills after the final bell of the year rings.
Work with Parents and Other Teachers
Teachers need to reach out to those most involved in their students’ learning—parents. If students see their parents reading, or explaining how math relates to everyday activities, they’re more likely to want to read, or believe they can do well in math. This can be difficult if parents don’t have the appropriate resources to encourage learning outside of the classroom. Library programs and educational apps can supplement learning. Sometimes, teachers supply materials for parents themselves.
Kevin McBean teaches English at M.E. LaZerte High School in Edmonton, AB. While he’s always been an avid reader, he knows many students struggle to read. It can be difficult for students to read for pleasure if they don’t see their parents doing the same. For example, some parents work multiple jobs or are learning English. McBean tells parents that they don’t need to be fluent in English to encourage their children to read. They may still engage with what their children are reading, even if they can’t read the books themselves. He encourages parents to talk about the books. The books might be written in English, but parents can use any language to discuss them.
Many teachers are quick to recommend summer library reading programs, but that can be difficult in neighbourhoods where there isn’t a public library. Students at Lavallee School, an elementary school in Winnipeg, MB, built a little free library so students can have books to read during the summer. Students or their families borrow books from the three-shelf library set up outside the school, and then replace the books they take with their own. Meagan Chopek who worked as the school’s teacher-librarian when they started the project, says this library is particularly important because there is no public library close to the school. Chopek teaches at another school now, but says the little free library was very popular after it opened.
“For a lot of kids, if they don’t have books on their shelves at home, they’re not going to be reading,” Chopek says, adding this is a particularly difficult situation for younger students who are still learning to read. “If they’re not seeing books, they’re not going to progress.”
Teachers in the same school may also work together to encourage students to keep reading throughout the summer. Kirk Langford, operations manager for Scholars Education Centre, a company that provides tutoring for students in Ontario and Alberta, including during the summer, has seen some teachers promote literacy through summer reading contests. Some students thrive on competition, and the challenge motivates them to read. Teachers, however, need to run these contests strategically. Students will likely not have the same teacher in September who introduced the contest at the end of the previous school year. Langford says contests have been effective when teachers coordinate with future teachers that their current students will likely have in September, so they can follow up about the contests. “It works really well because the kids see continuity,” he says.
Make Reading Fun
If schools foster a love of reading for pleasure, it will be easier for students to continue reading for fun when classes are done.
Students need to be taught how to read for pleasure. McBean says teachers can’t assume students know how to pick a book to read for fun. Students need to learn the habits of reading book descriptions to see if the content interests them, and then to flip through the book to see if the writing style engages them or if chapters are manageable. Teachers should discover what their students’ reading ability and interests are and help them find appropriate books.
“If a student doesn’t like something, they’re never going to really latch onto it and become engaged with it,” says Langford. What’s most important is that children are reading books that they enjoy, not that students are necessarily picking up a classic novel. “We are better off getting (students) to feel a sense of accomplishment in that thing they previously didn’t like,” he says.
“If we can find something that’s their little niche and they’re reading it because they want to read it, then their skills are going to continue to improve even over the summer because they are going to take that on,” says Kim Keating, a Grade 4 teacher at Holy Trinity Elementary School in Torbay, NL.
Summertime can make reading more enjoyable because it gives students opportunities to read books that aren’t assigned for school, and to read in places other than school. Students can read outside: in a park, the backyard, or while on a camping trip. They can spend long car rides listening to audiobooks or reading silently.
Students who are learning other languages can also use the summer to work on these skills in a fun way. Langford, who has worked in developing French curriculum, says grammar workbooks aren’t the way to boost a student’s skills in a second language. Instead, they need to hear how those languages are being used. They can listen to popular songs from other countries, or watch familiar TV shows and movies with subtitles on or audio from another language.
Connect Math to Everyday Tasks
Inspiring students to practise math skills throughout the summer may be more challenging—not because it’s hard to find ways to do this, but because many parents are afraid of math themselves.
Kids need to be shown that math is a language that everyone can learn, says Alicia Burdess a high school math teacher in Grand Prairie, AB. She encourages students to play dice and card games during the summer because that helps them practise their number sense. “Make it joyful. Make it fun. Do not practice for the sake of practice,” says Burdess.
Tools like flashcards can actually hinder students’ learning if they reinforce the idea that being good at math means being the first to know the answer, says Burdess. Techniques like these can frustrate students who may have difficulty memorizing and make some of them decide they’re not good at math altogether.
Students need to learn to see how math is part of their everyday lives. Chores like sorting laundry reinforce geometrical principles like distinguishing shapes based on their characteristics, says Judy Mendaglio, a retired high school English teacher in Ontario who now volunteers with several organizations that focus on math education. Math, however, is also part of play. Figuring out how to get to a friend’s house requires using directions and determining how long it takes to travel certain distances. All these are math skills.
Teachers can’t be with students during the summer, but their teaching during the school year can inspire students to see how math is part of things they enjoy. When students discuss how high they’ve swung on swings, they’re discussing math, Mendaglio says. Filling buckets with sand to build sand castles requires knowing what a bucket’s capacity is and using that knowledge to build a structure—more math skills.
Summer activities give students many opportunities to see math is more than just memorizing formulas, and that being good at math isn’t necessarily the same as getting the right answers on worksheets full of math problems. Math is like music, says Mendaglio. If students are only taught about music by learning about scales, they likely won’t enjoy listening to it, she says. If they’re taught that math is all about worksheets, they won’t like it, either. “Mathematics is no more worksheet-driven than music is worksheet-driven,” Mendaglio says.
Prepare for the Return
Fostering enjoyment and teaching students to make connections outside the classroom is particularly important when students return to school in September, or encounter a subject they haven’t taken for a long time. Asking a good question or putting students in teams to solve practical problems can help them re-integrate into math. Having them write about their summer vacation can demonstrate their level of writing skills—and if they continued reading and writing during the break.
Teachers should share about their summer vacations too, and how they also encountered math and reading during the break. That may be the best way to encourage summer learning in students.
Meagan Gillmore is a freelance writer in Toronto, ON.