How to Avoid the Summer Slide

How to Avoid the Summer Slide

June 30, 2020

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What is the Summer Slide_

You may have heard or read of it, maybe from a teacher, family friend, or perhaps even from a tutor looking to sign your child up for a summer camp. The dreaded summer slide. What is it? 

Years and years of assessment data across ages, grades, and locations indicates that students “lose” some of their learning over the summer while they are not learning anything at school. How is it possible to lose learning? This won’t happen to my child, right? 

Taking a deeper dive into the data about the summer slide may help provide some insight into what a summer learning loss can look like, and what in means in the long run for students, teachers, and schools.

What does the data say?

Summer Learning Loss Displayed from Spring 2014 to Fall 2014

Summer Learning Loss Displayed from Spring 2014 to Fall 2014

Whether a student is moving from 3rd to 4th grade or 11th to 12th grade, summer loss can and does occur. According to the most recent meta-data research, summer loss increases in severity as a student moves through grade levels. 

From the research, “In the summer following third grade, students lose nearly 20 percent of their school-year gains in reading and 27 percent of their school-year gains in math. By the summer after seventh grade, students lose on average 36 percent of their school-year gains in reading and a whopping 50 percent of their school-year gains in math.” 

Now, put yourself in the shoes of everyone involved. A student who knows they did well in third grade, enters fourth grade and suddenly struggles. A teacher who is prepared to move into challenging and relevant curriculum in the fall now must stop to review material taught the previous spring. Parents, who have never had to worry about their child in school before, now worry theirs may fall behind.

Who is most at risk?

According to James Kim, Ed.D., an assistant professor of education at Harvard University, younger children face a higher risk of the summer slide due to the amount of learning they do, compared to students in higher grades. 

According to Kim, “In general, kids learn a lot more in kindergarten, first grade, and second grade than kids in middle school or high school, because learning follows a curve where it’s accelerated early in life and then plateaus…things like decoding, letter knowledge, and word reading skills are very susceptible to decay without frequent practice, as are math facts like addition and subtraction.” 

You have surely experienced this as a parent. Teaching your child a simple skill and then asking them to repeat it only to find that she may have forgotten how to do it a day, a week, or even a month later. Apply that to letters, numbers, and sight words and you can see why teachers, parents, and schools can find summer slide learning loss so concerning. This group already spends hours upon hours preparing and trying their best to make sure students are successful during the year, only to risk losing that learning on less than 3 months!

How can something that has been learned, be forgotten?

This is more of a complex question than one may think, and requires a deep dive into the learning that is happening in the first place. Unfortunately, true mastery of a skill or a set of skills is not required to pass a class. 

Furthermore, the traditional grading system of A-F does not accurately reflect if students are actually learning. Typically, these grades only show if a student has had good attendance, behavior, or turned work in on time.

Imagine for instance that a student who turned all of his work in on time, came to class every day, and was well-behaved only managed to earn a C grade for the year. What does that actually mean? 

Well, if all of the other variables were held constant, then the C must reflect that students mastery of the material presented. A C grade can mean anywhere from a 70% to 85% in schools. Therefore, a student can move on to the next grade level, and significantly more difficult work, while only mastering 70% of the material that was presented. 

In some cases, that passing grade may be even lower and the student still moves on to the next grade. Forget summer learning loss, the learning may have never occurred in the first place! (To learn more about helping students master concepts, click here)


While the above example is most likely an outlier, there is still concern that students lose knowledge and skills over the summer that they had previously gained while in class the previous year, no matter how much of the material they had actually mastered. They may have even passed an assessment using the knowledge they gained only to forget those skills once the test, and therefore the necessity of the information, was over.

Do you remember what you learned in elementary, middle, or high school? Of course, the basics in elementary are used so often that some are easier to remember than others. However, consider your middle school and high school classes. 

Many of these classes are required yet may have little relevance once a student completes them. What purpose does the information learned serve if it is never required again? Unfortunately, many reading and math skills taught in elementary schools aren’t “required” over the summer, and learning loss occurs.

But why aren’t students retaining information, even only for three short months? The process of retaining information is quite complex. Simply put however, we have short-term and long-term memory. Our short-term memory serves to provide us with important information while in the moment, and then get rid of it. Our long term memory, on the other hand, can hold information for years or perhaps even for a lifetime.

Long-Term Retention

So how does one move a piece of information from their short-term memory to long-term memory? According to Scientific American, “A short-term memory’s conversion to a long-term memory requires changes within the brain that protect the memory from interference from competing stimuli or disruption from injury or disease. This time-dependent process, whereby experiences achieve a permanent record in our memory, is called consolidation.” 

Obviously, the process is much more detailed, but the simple fact is that for a piece of information to be retained, it must be processed by the brain in a relevant manner, without the brain receiving too much other stimulation. Now, imagine a typical classroom, how much stimuli do you see, hear, or even smell?

Considering the typical environment in an elementary school, it becomes even more clear that much of what is being taught, most likely isn’t being retained for the long term. Full classrooms of 20 to 30 students, classroom management issues, attendance taking, snack time, and the crushing amount of curriculum needing to be taught all contribute to teachers struggling to teach it all and make sure all of their students are ready to move on after having mastered the material at a level where they will retain it. This is no fault of the teachers mind you, this is a product of the system. Something you can read more about here.

Considering all of these factors, what can students, parents, and teachers do to help? Thankfully, research does indicate that the summer slide can be prevented or in the very least, avoided and in some cases, growth in core subjects can even take place.

Preventing The Summer Slide

Whether it’s during the academic year or summer break, learning loss can be prevented and in some cases, learning growth can even occur. During the year, teachers can take extra steps to make sure students retain information more easily. According to the Loma Linda University School of Medicine, specific teaching methods can help students retain information including;

  • learning the information in multiple ways
  • teaching what they have learned to someone else
  • utilizing previous learning to promote new learning
  • gaining practical experience
  • looking up answers instead of struggling to answer
  • understanding how they learn best
  • using testing to boost learning
  • putting an end to multi-tasking while learning new information

Now ask yourself, when is the last time your student came home raving about a lesson? Most likely, his teacher put one of the above strategies to good use. That, however, took a lot of effort and most likely can’t be recreated day after day and lesson after lesson. Teaching is not easy and being a great teacher, the type that gets students to retain most of the information that’s taught to them, is even more difficult.

So what are parents to do in the summer? How can summer learning loss and aggravation over a struggling student in the fall be avoided? Fortunately, there are steps that parents and students can take to make sure that they are prepared for school following a well deserved summer break.

What You Can Do

Depending on your child’s age, most parents can rest assured that a variety of activities exist that can help prevent the summer slide. According to, 6-8 year old learners can benefit from;

  • a daily schedule
  • a dedicated space for learning
  • appropriate supplies for learning
  • reading every day
  • practicing sight words
  • practicing math facts
  • writing

All put together, this may seem like a daunting to a parent of a energetic 6 year old. Have no fear however, this isn’t something that should take 8 hours. Rather, many experts believe that even a few minutes of one of the above activities each day will help prevent your young learner from suffering from learning loss.

Older Students

What about older students? Should parents expectations be higher for the time dedicated to a learning activity each day? Yes and no as so much depends on each individual student. Two of the most important components of summer learning activities for older students are relevance and choice. Sure, you could tell your 7th grader to work on math for one hour and then read for forty-five minutes. Then, of course, you would surely get an eye-roll, slumped shoulders, and maybe even a sigh. In addition, the reading and math that would take place probably wouldn’t result in much learning.

What’s are parents of older students to do? For a middle school or high school student, hearing “Go read this book.” and “Go read something you like” make a world of difference. According to this research, giving a student choice can help overcome to common learning challenges, differentiation and apathy.

Differentiation and Apathy

Differentiation, making sure the instruction is at the appropriate level for each student, is an extremely challenging task for teachers during the school year. However, given choice while on break, students will most likely choose something that is not too challenging but also no so easy that it would create boredom. We are all excited by a challenge. 

Think about a board game with family, your favorite video game as a child, or playing on a sports team. Why were these activities so fun? The challenge they provided. Now, consider a student on summer break choosing between an assigned worksheet, picking a book to read, or completing a fun hands on project. The choice is most likely clear and will provide that student with a challenge that will keep her entertained and learning.

Another concern that student choice addresses is apathy, meaning a lack of interest in the assigned task. Go into any classroom and it’s not hard to find at least one or two students who are dreading the task being assigned by the teacher. Not because it will be too difficult, but because it’s not fun, engaging, or interesting at all. 

Give those same students choices however, and immediately student interest will spike. In fact, one of the most common ways to give a learner choices, is to provide a learning menu filled with fun, relevant, and interesting activities. Imagine being able to choose from twelve different activities that all seem fun! There is little to no chance that a learner would be disengaged and learning will follow, without him even knowing it!

Summer Slide Learning Loss Can be Beat!

No matter your child’s grades during the school year, the summer slide can have an impact of their success during the upcoming year. However, with the above tools and resources at your disposal, you can be sure to make sure your child continues learning during the summer, has fun doing it, and is a rock-star when school starts again in the fall!

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