By Joanna A. Christodoulou, Ed.D. and Fumiko Hoeft, M.D. Ph.D.
Once the academic year comes to a close, students throughout the US begin a season many associate with relaxation, sunscreen, fireflies, and sprinklers. How students spend their summer vacation can differ widely, a contrast to their experiences during the school year with its focused schedules, curricula, and routines. For willing readers, the summer offers an important opportunity to continue engaging with reading activities. For students with reading disabilities or difficulties, the summer months can offer a break from reading and its struggles. Students with developmental dyslexia—a disorder of reading acquisition and development impacting the ability to read words accurately and/or fluently—may be particularly disinclined to engage in reading activities. However, research shows that the summer months are a critical time for at-risk students to avoid the “summer slump”—the regression of ability levels. The purpose of this article is to examine common misconceptions about summer break, identify potential concerns for our students, and highlight opportunities for readers and their families.
Why do US schools have summer vacation?
Many people believe that summer vacation originally was required so that children could support farming responsibilities in agricultural society. Kenneth Gold (2002) addresses this common myth about summer vacation with the following clarifications. First, schooling held during the summer months was relatively common in the early to mid 1800s. In fact, school was more likely to be held during summer and winter months in rural areas to allow for planting and harvesting in the spring and fall seasons. Furthermore, school often was suspended during poor weather in the winter months when travel was difficult. These conditions made the rural school calendar inconsistent. The school cycle we currently follow came about in an effort to make rural and urban school schedules consistent. Urban students attended school for what now would be considered an extended duration (240 or more days a year). Establishing a consistent school year with a summer vacation also accommodated the increasingly common practice of urban families taking vacations, offered relief to school budgets, and satisfied the idea that both teachers and students needed to recover from the stresses of school. Thus, a shortening of the urban school schedule and a lengthening of the rural school calendars led to the modern school calendar.
What is summer slump?
Following summer vacation, students often start the school year with less competence than they demonstrated the previous spring. This tendency to show skill regression sometimes is termed “summer slump,” “summer slide,” or “summer setback.” One way that researchers have learned about summer slump is by observing the amount of growth on repeated assessments during two time periods, fall to spring (i.e., the school year) and spring to fall (i.e., the summer). There is less growth in the latter. On average, students lose the equivalent of one month during the summer in academic performance (Cooper, Nye, Charlton, Lindsay, & Greathouse, 1996). This estimate varies, however, depending on reading habits and grade levels, with increasing potential for summer slump as students progress through the grades and academic demands increase (Cooper, Nye, et al., 1996; Hill et al., 2007).
What risk factors contribute to summer slump?
The main risk factor for summer slump that has been researched is socioeconomic status (SES). SES indices draw on information about parental education level and current job status, with higher SES scores reflecting more education and higher paying jobs. These factors are used as direct indicators of the types of resources that may be available to children in the home environment (e.g., books in the home, enrichment activities) and indirect indicators of other factors that can affect reading habits (e.g., language spoken in the home, frequency of TV watching). Research consistently highlights the risk for summer slump faced by children from low-SES homes relative to their mid-SES and higher-SES peers. On average, low-SES students tend to regress in reading skill, while mid-SES students maintain their placement, and high-SES students gain skills during this time (Alexander, Entwisle, & Olson, 2007a; Alexander, Entwisle, & Olson, 2007b; Burkam, Ready, Lee, & LoGerfo, 2004; Cooper, Nye, Charlton, Lindsay & Greathouse, 1996; Heyns, 1987; McCoach, O’Connell, Reis, & Levitt, 2006; Mraz & Rasinski, 2007). The implication of this widening gap is most evident when considering that while students across SES groups show largely consistent reading growth during the school year, cumulative gaps based on summer experiences can account for up to 80% of the achievement gap (Alexander, Entwisle, & Olson, 2007). To make this point more concretely, let’s consider that from September to June in grade 1, low-SES and high-SES students make the same gains on reading measures, but from June to September, low-SES students lose skills while their peers gain reading skills, depending on summer experiences. As a result, low-SES students will begin grade 2 behind their peers. Likewise, students gain the same amount of skills in grade 2, but low-SES children begin the following summer with the deficit accumulated during the previous summer. Thus the difference in reading skills is amplified with each summer break. This research indicates that children with limited socioeconomic resources are at a disproportionately higher risk of summer slump relative to their higher-SES peers each summer and of accumulating skill deficits across summer seasons. Low SES is one high-risk factor for summer regression. Are reading disabilities or difficulties also a risk factor for summer slump? Do struggling readers, too, lose reading skills during the summer? Although there is a paucity of research on this population, studies of related populations indicate increased risk for summer declines in reading among students eligible for special education (Shaw, 1982) or diagnosed with language impairments (Morgan, Farkas, & Wu, 2011). In the first study to address reading development during the summer in struggling readers, Christodoulou et al. (2015) enrolled young children with reading disabilities or difficulties in early primary grades into a randomized control trial summer-reading intervention study, with half of the students assigned to an intensive reading intervention and half assigned to a waiting control group (i.e., the intervention was available to the control-group families after the 6-week study was completed). Christodoulou et al. found that, on average, students who were not assigned to reading intervention showed significant reading skill decline based on standard scores, while those who participated in reading intervention did not make standard score gains, but maintained their reading skills. Thus, students in this study receiving intensive (100 hours) reading instruction showed positive gains from the intervention by avoiding summer slump, rather than by improving their skills. In contrast, the students who did not participate in the intervention showed a loss in reading skills. This pattern is distinctive because it contrasts with typical intervention study outcomes that show no change in the control group and growth in the intervention group. The work of Christodoulou et al. offers insights for the community by exploring reading disability status as a factor that puts students at elevated risk of summer slump each year, and at risk of cumulative losses over time.
Avoiding summer slump is an important goal
Avoiding summer slump and fostering positive reading growth are important goals for all readers, and particularly for those at-risk due to SES or reading disability status. Many schools, libraries, and community organizations offer summer literacy activities to promote development during this time. Current surveys report that 33% of families enroll children in a summer learning program (Afterschool Alliance, 2014). Research demonstrates the potential of summer reading programs to prevent or reduce summer slump in students with a variety of risk factors:
- Reading or learning disabilities (Christodoulou et al., 2015; Cornelius & Semmel, 1982),
- Low SES (Johnston, Riley, Ryan, & Kelly-Vance, 2014; Kim & Quinn, 2013), or
- Low performance relative to a variety of literacy benchmarks (Zvoch & Stevens, 2011, 2013)
In fact, evidence shows positive gains for many summer programs, including those that are mandatory (for students who would otherwise be retained in the same grade) and voluntary programs that are home-based or school-based (McCombs, 2011).
The summer months are critical for overall reading development, and how children spend this time can have long-term impact on their academic outcomes. While we must consider what is best for each child individually, there is mounting evidence that some children are more likely to lose valuable skills they have established or lose opportunities to improve vulnerable skills during the summer. Two characteristics that can put children at risk for summer slump are low socioeconomic status and having reading disabilities or difficulties. Summer slump can be avoided or reversed by participating in high quality summer learning experiences that can be delivered in academic or home settings. The summer months offer a valuable opportunity for the community to support our struggling readers by helping students improve skillsets and by promoting an identity as a successful reader. Rather than extend the challenges that struggling readers face during the school year into the summer months, it would be critical to consider this period as one that enhances student ownership over literacy and identity as readers. We can also support struggling readers by fostering areas of interest; the motivation to learn about high-interest topics via printed text can help struggling readers overcome some barriers. This is one trait shared by successful adults with dyslexia (Fink, 1998). Several characteristics of summer literacy programs optimize the quality and outcomes for students. These factors, as summarized by a RAND Corporation report (McCombs et al., 2011) on summer interventions, include the following:
- Small class sizes (maximum size of 20 students) (Cooper et al., 2000)
- Individualized instruction (Beckett, 2008; Boss & Railsback, 2002; Cooper et al., 2000)
- High-quality instruction (Bell & Carrillo, 2007; Boss & Railsback, 2002; Denton, 2002; McLaughlin & Pitcock, 2009)
- Curricula consistent with academic goals (Boss & Railsback, 2002; McLaughlin & Pitcock, 2009; Beckett, 2008)
- Engaging and rigorous programming (Bell & Carrillo, 2007; Boss & Railsback, 2002; McLaughlin & Pitcock, 2009; Beckett, 2008)
- Maximized participation and attendance (Borman, Benson, & Overman, 2005; Borman & Dowling, 2006; McCombs, Kirby, & Mariano, 2009)
- Sufficient duration (McLaughlin & Pitcock, 2009)
- Involved parents (Cooper et al., 2000)
- Evaluations of effectiveness (Bell & Carrillo, 2007; Boss & Railsback, 2002; Denton, 2002; McLaughlin & Pitcock, 2009; Beckett, 2008)
Recommendations for summer reading programs for school districts are available from several organizations. The RAND Corporation offers a guide with recommended practices for district leaders to start or modify summer programs (Augustine et al., 2013). The National Summer Learning Association (https://summerlearning.com) offers resources for families and communities, including activity calendars and offers of standards for how to develop and deliver effective summer programs.
More of Dr. Fumiko’s Science of Dyslexia March 2014 New Scientific Evidence Sheds Light on the Phoneme Debate, by Fumiko Hoeft, M.D., Ph.D. July 2014 The Emerging Field of Neuroscience Is Changing the Landscape of Dyslexia Research and Practice, by Fumiko Hoeft, M.D. Ph.D., UCSF and Chelsea Myers, BSC, UCSF September 2014 Meet Fumiko Hoeft, M.D., Ph.D., Q&A with Geschwind Memorial Lecturer December 2014 Many Layers of Dyslexia: Gene Discovery Is Just the Beginning, by Fumiko Hoeft, M.D., Ph.D. and Albert Galaburda, M.D. March 2015 The Myths and Truths of Dyslexia in Different Writing Systems, by Fumiko Hoeft, M.D., Ph.D., Peggy McCardle, Ph.D., M.P.H., and Kenneth Pugh, Ph.D.
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Fumiko Hoeft, MD Ph.D. is Associate Professor in the Department of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, member of the Scientific Leadership Team for the Dyslexia Center, and Director of the UCSF Hoeft Laboratory for Educational Neurosciences (brainLENS.org) at the University of California-San Francisco. In addition, she is a Research Scientist at Haskins Laboratories and Scientific Advisor at the Center for Childhood Creativity. Dr. Hoeft’s current research program in collaboration with Yale, Vanderbilt, and other institutions in the UK, Finland, Spain, Taiwan and Israel, primarily focuses on using brain imaging and genetics to understand the mechanisms of brain development, and dyslexia—and educationally relevant concepts such as motivation, resilience, and stereotype threat. Recent honors include IDA’s Norman Geschwind Memorial Lectureship (2014) and the Transforming Education through Neuroscience Award from Learning and the Brain Foundation and International Mind Brain and Education Society (IMBES) (2015). She has published over 100 articles in journals such as Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) and Journal of Neuroscience, and has delivered over 120 keynotes, lectures (including remarks at the White House, Dept of Ed, UNESCO, and IMBES). Her work has been covered in media such as The New York Times, NPR, CNN and The New Yorker.
Joanna A. Christodoulou, Ed.D. is Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders at the MGH Institute of Health Professions in Boston, MA. Her research group, the Brain, Education, and Mind (BEAM) Team, merges clinical, cognitive neuroscience and education perspectives. Current topics that the BEAM Team investigates include summer reading development and effective interventions for struggling readers (http://bit.ly/BEAMteam_FB). Her research has been supported by organizations including the Fulbright Foundation, National Institutes of Health (NIH), Spencer Foundation, and Mind, Brain, Behavior Initiative at Harvard University. She is also on faculty at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) and holds a Research Affiliate position at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). She has taught reading in school settings to struggling readers, helped develop reading curricula and assessments, and led professional development sessions internationally for a range of audiences on topics related to educational neuroscience. She was the 2014 recipient of the Transforming Education through Neuroscience Award given by the International Mind, Brain, and Education Society (IMBES) and the Learning and the Brain Foundation. Her publications include a co-authored overview of reading research in the book Mind, Brain, and Education: Neuroscience Implications for the Classroom (2010) and a co-edited series in the Mind, Brain, and Education Journal (2009) titled “Usable knowledge in Mind, Brain, and Education.”
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