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The So-Called "Summer Slide" -A Reconsidering

Updated: Jul 19, 2022

The Summer Slide. Have you been affected by it? Have your kids? Believe me when I tell you, that you most certainly have not, at least not in the way you might imagine! In fact, the “summer slide”, as you know it, does not exist. Let me explain.

Let’s start by defining “summer slide”, or summer learning loss. This term is used to describe how a child “slides’ backwards when not attending school and not being in a constant state of academic consumption. In other words, kids forget what they have learned if they are not in a school environment.

This idea began to be widely accepted after a study regarding summer learning loss called the “Beginning School Study”, which started in the fall of 1982 with 838 first graders in the Baltimore City Public Schools was published. The students in the study were tested twice a year, in fall and spring, so researchers could tell how quickly they were learning during the school year and during summer vacation. The students ranged from the beginning of first grade to the end of eighth grade, with the learning gap growing more each year, primarily through the summer months.

The test scores seemed to be clear evidence; student academics suffered by ninth grade due to summer learning loss. The United States education system took the results as gospel and structured summer schools and the beginning of each new school year to reflect said loss.

The thing is, they were wrong.

In the 40 years since the “Beginning School Study” was conducted, many more studies have been tried to replicate the findings. They have not been successful. What the modern tests have shown us is that learning is complicated and there are so many variables that a blanket term like “summer slide” is erroneous and dangerous for those students who base their abilities on the results. If a child believes they are unintelligent, and standardized tests say they become even less intelligent during the summer, how well will they likely perform in school the following year?

According to Paul von Hippel, a prominent Summer Learning Loss scholar, what has been made very clear is that true academic gaps, or loss, likely happens by the age of three, with modern tests indicating that most of the eighth-grade achievement gap is already present at the start of Kindergarten.

In fact, the public policy think tank, American Enterprise Institute states,

“School can’t give children an equal opportunity at the starting gate because children’s start doesn’t occur in school. Indeed, a substantial body of science strongly suggests that the foundation for educational opportunity is laid not at age five — or four or three — but beginning at birth.”

So, if it isn’t the loss of time in school that accounts for the achievement gaps seen by ninth grade, what is it? It appears that being successful in an academic setting, like school, boils down to one thing; reading.

Yep, the very thing that you are doing right now is what will determine how successful a person will be throughout their academic career. New research shows the difference between reading to kids at home and not is more than a million words by kindergarten!

Studies show that families who actively read and engage with books from birth through third grade, have children who score higher on tests and are able to lessen the achievement gap by the beginning of ninth grade. Reading aloud to and with, young children not only helps them to be successful at school, it also helps with their social and emotional development.

In “The Enchanted Hour: The Miraculous Power of Reading Aloud in the Age of Distraction” (HarperCollins, 2019), Meghan Cox Gurdon discusses the latest neuroscience and behavioral research linking reading aloud to cognitive and social-emotional benefits for young children.

“That is all well and good”, you say, “but what if my child is now in third grade, not a newborn? What can I do to help?”

My answer to you is this:

Read to, and with, your child. Take them to the library and help them find books based on their interests. Fairy tales, biographies, how-to books, graphic novels, gardening books, it just doesn’t matter. As long as they have an interest and they chose it, reading that book is what will help them be more successful in the coming school years.

Certainly, if your child attends school, academic success is likely important to you, but it is prudent to remember that engaging with books and applying what was learned from the reading, also helps them to be happier and more successful human beings.


- Work through emotional situations

- Build structures

- Plant food

- Invent contraptions

Reading how characters work through emotional situations may assist your children in creating a toolbox on which they can rely if they find themselves in a similar situation. Reading how characters build structures, plant food, or invent contraptions, allows them to see how they might do those things themselves. Reading doesn’t just allow us to have far-flung adventures, it helps us to imagine a better world for all of its inhabitants.

So, this summer, spend some time as a family at your local library. I have yet to find a library system in the US which doesn’t offer summer reading programs with prizes and activities. Why, right here in Pierce County the library system is offering their program called “Read Beyond the Beaten Path”.

Their website states,

“Reading is an important way to stay engaged during the summer. The library provides reading experiences for all ages to find enrichment and enjoyment in reading, minimize the summer slide, and maintain academic skills. Interest-based reading has been proven to improve school success and it’s also a lot of fun!

Research done by US libraries found that reading just 4 to 6 books over the summer has the potential to prevent a decline in reading achievement scores from the spring to the fall, so even small steps are very beneficial.

Yes, reading to and with your child may close academic achievement gaps and prevent the “summer slide”, but, more importantly, it may be the very thing that ushers in a future where gaps no longer hold anyone back from achievement.

Reading is much more important than negating a “summer slide” or academic achievement gaps. Reading is the doorway by which every person passes through to find themselves listening to voices from the past and viewing images of the future.

A child who reads is a child who holds the reins of their future confidently and with purpose.

When a child learns to read, the world becomes a place that belongs to them and one which they are able to fashion into a more just home for all. A reader becomes an orator and an orator can soften the hearts of humans and create a space of love and understanding.

So, dear readers, I will leave you with these words from one of the most prominent literary women of the 19th century, Margaret Fuller,

“Today a reader, tomorrow a leader.”

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