Want to slow the summer learning slide? Read read read.

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After the graduation caps have been thrown in the air, school picnics held, and final report cards mailed, families greet the summer months with a similar question: what do we do with our kids?

Many are eager for the unstructured time and play that summer provides. Others worry about how to fill the gaps in care that school leaves behind and scramble to find a high quality substitute. Still others eagerly cram in academic experiences, hoping to give their children a leg up in the next school year.

While popsicles, pool parties, and barbeques dominate summer advertising summer is also a time of academic gains or losses. The research is clear that all kids experience learning losses when they do not engage in learning activities during the summer. This is no small problem. Learning losses over the summer are cumulative, meaning that by the time a struggling reader is in middle school, all those summers slides can result in up to a three-year lag in reading achievement. In fact, evidence shows that two-thirds of the 9th grade reading achievement gap can be explained by unequal access to summer learning opportunities during elementary school.

The good news? One of the key ways to stem the summer reading slide can be found for free at your local library and fits in the beach bag: books. Research demonstrates that giving access to self-selected books for summer reading is a powerful strategy to curb a summer learning setback. Nearly 40 years ago, lead researcher Barbara Heyns concluded that, “The single summer activity that is most strongly and consistently related to summer learning is reading." Indeed, she argued that going to the public library during the summer was more predictive of vocabulary gains than attending summer school. More recent research has supported her claims.

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While the strategy of "Read, Read, Read," sounds simple its implementation isn't always smooth. Race and class significantly shape children's access to reading materials in this country. There are also a lot of "attention magnets" in the summer months that make it easy for reluctant readers to avoid cracking open a book. So how can you make sure that reading is a part of your summer?

  • Have books around. The presence of books in your home has a huge impact on academic achievement. If cost is a barrier, borrow books from the library or look for free book give away programs in your area.
  • Check in with school. Many schools offer free access to summer reading resources including access to e-books and online reading.
  • Take advantage of the library. The vast majority of public libraries host summer reading programs designed to keep your child engaged and reading all summer long.
  • Match the books with your child's level. Books that are too easy or too difficult are quickly cast aside. How do you tell what is in your child's sweet spot? Try the "5 Finger Test" - ask your child to hold up a finger every time they encounter a word they don't know on a page. After a few pages, follow this guide:
    • 0-1 fingers = Independent reading material!
    • 2-3 fingers = Provide support for your child as they work through the material.
    • 4-5 fingers = Offer to read the book to your child or choose a different book.
  • Match the books with your child's passions. Children are more likely to read about things they are interested in! Follow your child's lead as they select books that they are drawn to.
  • Model it. Your own reading habits are a huge influence on your child. Read in front of your children and talk to them about your favorite books.
  • Access alone isn't enough. Especially as children are still learning how to read, reading with children ensures comprehension and helps them puzzle through tough words or concepts.
  • Practice ways to read aloud that boost literacy. Check out these tips for reading aloud to children from the MN Literacy Council.
  • Encourage reading where reading happens. While books are a strong predictor of achievement, encourage reading wherever your child finds pleasure in it. Blogs, magazines, comic books, instruction manuals... sky is the limit!
  • Talk to your child's care/camp/summer school providers: Is reading a part of the curriculum? Do children get to choose their own books? Are there staff available to help children with reading and comprehension?
  • Going the e-reader route? Get the most out of these tools. Check out this post Raising (e)Readers to make sure that young children and emerging readers benefit from these resources.
  • More tips for teens: There is often a steep drop in reading for fun among adolescents. Read our post Books, Blogs, and Teens for more tips on keeping young people engaged.
  • Pay attention to what is in your library. Make sure that your children can see themselves and others in the pages of the stories they read. Put more books featuring diverse characters, families, and communities in the hands of children. Check out We Need Diverse Books for summer readings lists.