Here’s how to help your child keep learning all summer long

The summer slide is a slippery thing to grasp. What causes it? Who does it affect? Should we cower in fear at the mere mention of it?

If you’re asking yourself any of these questions as the school year winds down, I encourage you to read “Summer learning loss: What we know and what we’re learning” by two NWEA researchers, Megan Kuhfeld and Andrew McEachin. It’ll make it easy for you to eyeball the ongoing studies and data. I can also sum it up for you: summer, like learning itself, is different for everyone.

In my exploration about the summer slide, I realized that the research is inconsistent, to say the least. What I took for granted may be incorrect, and what I thought was “bad” might not be so. It turns out the summer slide isn’t a worthy boogeyman.

A list of what I previously assumed about the summer slide

Before beginning research for this blog post, I thought:

  • Summer slide occurs for everyone
  • The slide disproportionately affects kids of lower socioeconomic status
  • Racial inequity is an indicator for summer learning loss
  • Students’ rate of loss is consistent, year over year

As it turns out, nearly every single one of these assumptions can be challenged. The only constant in the body of research seems to be that, yes, students from poorer families seem to lose more learning over the summer. But when we ask why, there are several possible responses.

This much I know is true

When I realized how wrong I was about summer slide, I fell headfirst into a rabbit hole of questions, each one birthing two more. On testing: Is the assessment I give my kids at the start and end of the year reliable? (If it’s MAP® Growth™, the answer is yes. Read “Not all assessment data is equal: Why validity and reliability matter” to learn more.) On the science of learning loss: Is it natural for humans to lose learning? (Answer: Yes, and it’s actually how our brains make space for new concepts and the resurgence of old.) On demographics: Do middle class students retain more learning because they have access to summer programs? Or because they have more support at home? Or because they have more practice with test taking? (Answer: It’s hard to know.)

It can feel like there are more questions than answers about the summer slide, but here’s what we know for sure:

  • Inequities exist in our schools, year-round. Students receive variable schooling, depending on many factors. Some don’t have access to school supplies, reliable transportation, internet, or after-school support, among other things. Inequity is not a summer phenomenon and shouldn’t be treated as one.
  • Fixating on the summer slide doesn’t serve our teachers and serves our students even less. Yes, learning loss occurs. It occurs in adults as well! Losing learning is a neurological and cognitive reality. Belaboring loss can prohibit seeking gains.
  • Learners deserve opportunities to learn, always. Let’s focus less on fear about the summer slide and more on supporting efforts to provide plentiful and engaging resources for students to prolong their learning over the summer.

What can you do?

Prolong learning! But how? What can families do that they haven’t already tried every summer before? The key is understanding the difference between conceptual and procedural learning.

Experts disagree on the complexities of the types of learning (why isn’t anything ever simple?). A Harvard study explores that lack of agreement. To save you from reading it—juicy as it may be—I’ll try to break it down. The study explores what we are really talking about when we discuss conceptual versus procedural learning. Are we talking about a type of knowledge or a quality of knowledge?

Let’s take a baking example to illustrate this. Say you just aced an exam where you had to bake a sourdough bread loaf (congrats!) but four different judges disagree on how you held onto the knowledge you have about baking bread to succeed.

In the second row—the learner’s relationship to the knowledge—the only way to further “test” if your baking knowledge was procedural or conceptual would be to change a circumstance: introduce a new baking element; change the kitchen; take away a tool. In other words, what good teachers try to do all the time (and, if you’re a fan of The Great British Baking Show, precisely what Paul Hollywood and co. aim to do with all their amateur bakers).

I’m a math teacher, and these differences in conceptual vs. procedural knowledge are prevalent in my classroom all the time. I’ll teach students the concept of division, for example (making groups), and the procedures of division (long division, area models, ratio tables). On a test with a new, unfamiliar word problem, students might have to first identify that division is necessary to solve the problem. I would classify this as a conceptual/type of division question: Did they know that division was needed to solve this question? Students might then execute a division algorithm to solve the problem. I would classify this as a procedural/type of division question: Do they know how to apply a strategy to divide?

Here’s an example of what that might look like with a specific student: When evaluating the test, I am surprised by Eva’s answer. She executed the algorithm of long division well on our exit tickets. However, she did not identify that this problem was a division problem and applied multiplication instead. This may have just revealed that Eva’s quality of learning regarding division is procedural. Despite correct algorithm usage on worksheets, she needs to more deeply conceptualize the notion of division, that is, move from a procedural to a conceptual understanding, to truly “get” it.

Ten different math teachers would have 10 different “reads” on this type of knowledge, hence the Harvard study! But what’s the bottom line? Where possible, it is usually much more valuable to engage students in conversations about concepts than drilling procedures. So this summer, instead of drilling your child on their times tables, ask them to explain what multiplication is, why we need it, and when we should use it. Here are a few more ideas for making learning just a bit stickier.

Math

  • Make it tangible. While cooking, talk about division. What is division? Where are we using it in a recipe? Drilling 6 divided by 2 is fine, but what if your child showed you the right answer by dividing their 6 strawberries into 2 sets of 3, one for you and one for them?
  • Remember: money talks! Talk about money, whenever you see it! Ask children why percentages even exist (hint: so we can talk about being less than one whole). I love the free Math Learning Center app, where students can turn $1 into four quarters and visualize exchange rates.
  • Estimate. Ask kids how many apples are in that pile at the grocery store, how many cars are between them and the red light. Invite them to share their reasoning. Estimation180 is an awesome website with real-world prompts. Even when students encounter a new concept in math, estimation can help in most math settings.
  • Have a movie or TV show scavenger hunt. Especially with older learners, invite them to find three spots in a movie or TV show where math was used, exhibited, or even taken for granted. Get creative as you point out all the places numeracy surrounds us.

Science

  • Get curious. Where did the puddle that was here yesterday go? Did it seep into the ground? Did something drink it up? Instead of supplying a half-hearted answer about evaporation, ask your child how they would go about solving the mystery—and listen to their scientific process. Wonderopolis provides excellently weird questions.
  • Don’t just go to a museum. Ask hard questions. Invite learners to ask three questions they still have after a visit. Help them find the answers. Or celebrate that much of science is still unknown!
  • Grab a camera. Take a photo every day of one thing that changes: your child’s face, a new flower outside, the clouds above your home… Discuss what change means and invite predictions.
  • Dive deeper. Ask your child what they remember most about science class this year. Go to the library and check out a book on the subject, watch YouTube videos together, and don’t be afraid to admit that even scientists are still learning.

Reading and writing

  • Go to the library. Check out books from the library and get curious about the concepts in them. Invite your learner to read aloud to you, and then follow up with an “I wonder” statement after they have concluded a paragraph: “I wonder what they will decide to do. What would you do?” This encourages students to read for context and opinion. Check out the Regional Educational Laboratory at Florida State University, which has loads of other ideas for how to encourage literacy skills at home.
  • Keep a messy journal. Keep a summer journal, with photos, leaves, and even smears of sunscreen to smell! Encourage kids to write memories, captions, questions, and descriptions. Check out this list of 50 prompts.
  • Write letters. To anyone. Family, friends, real people, or imaginary ones!
  • Make tutorial videos. Invite your learner to make a tutorial video to explain how to do something. It can be how to go on a nature walk, how to organize a bookshelf, how to visit the library, how to make a bowl of cereal, or how to do something else entirely. This asks students to break a task down, explain why, and deeply engage with the concept behind the motions. Test the effectiveness of the video by sending it to friends and family.

What if we just kept learning?

The summer slide is real. It’s so real that for many adults, I have good news: it’s always summer for us! We’re “losing” learning constantly. And we’re doing okay, aren’t we?

As the research continues to explore the why, how, and who of summer slide, there is one thing I can confidently say: it’s not about avoiding the summer slide; it’s about prolonging learning. So read books. Play math games. Get curious. Enjoy summer. The adults are alright, and the kids are, too.

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