Skip to main content
Reader question: Is there any research on how to prevent the summer slide? 
I ask both as the parent of a 1st grader and as a teacher. I teach in a small, rural school with many struggling readers and English language learners, and every year we have kids who work their way up to grade level by the end of the school year but are behind grade level again when school starts the next fall. I volunteer with our public library’s summer reading program, so I  have the opportunity to work with some of our kids who struggle. How much reading do they need to do over the summer? What else can I do to help them keep the skills they’ve worked so hard to gain? 
Shanahan’s response:
There long has been evidence that the reading achievement of disadvantaged kids tend to retreat over summer. The same is not true for middle-class kids; they may even continue to improve in reading when schools are closed.
It’s been assumed that this is due to differences in reading practice: Some kids read during the summer and they manage to hold service during those months when such reading is the only academic practice available. Other kids don’t crack a book from June to August and, thus, they start to forget.
As a result, considerable attention has been accorded to trying to get kids to read more during summer. These efforts have included book fairs, self- selection, library buses, postcards and phone calls to parents, and so on.
Sadly, the results of these promising efforts have been mixed, and yet, at least some of the efforts, have been effective — though usually with rather modest results (as usual, the better the studies, the smaller the outcomes) (McGill-Franzen, Ward, & Cahill, 2016).
James Kim, (opens in a new window) now at Harvard, has carried out such studies more carefully — and more persistently — than anyone else. He has sometimes found positive effects (that getting kids to read about 5 books over the summer can be enough to prevent summer slide). But often the results of these programs have been duds. Even when his programs have succeeded, the results have been puzzling, such as when the kids from the highest poverty schools improved, while those from schools with slightly less disadvantage did not. 
My take on the whole thing is that providing books to kids along with various encouragements to read over the summer months are clearly not a panacea.
But what’s the alternative? At least these efforts seem to work some of the time.
Teachers in such circumstances have little choice but to take the best actions possible, no matter what the level of our certainty that those actions will work. I’ve often opposed free reading time during the school day, because the alternative — direct reading instruction from a teacher — is clearly the better choice for kids.
But during the summer, the choice is not whether to teach or leave kids to their own devices. It is, instead, whether we should encourage kids to learn on their own or to just leave them to their fate? That summer reading encouragement programs work some of the time with some of the kids is sufficient to make it worth the attempt (at least until research comes up with more reliable ways).
The answer should be somewhat different for the research community. Rather than haphazardly testing out more interventions, I wonder if it wouldn’t be more productive to rethink the problem. Evidence is convincing and consistent that there is a summer learning lag that has a negative impact on the achievement of disadvantaged kids. The link of that disadvantage to a dearth of summer reading is an inference, however (though it sure looks to be the link at least in those cases where encouraging reading has worked). Nevertheless, there is little high quality data demonstrating that it is the lack of reading alone that is the problem.
Let’s say the reading achievement of more advantaged kids improves some number of weeks and that of disadvantaged kids retreat some number each summer. And, let’s, for the sake of argument, say that this combined average difference totals about 8 weeks.
My question is, “How much of that 8-week difference in achievement is mediated by amount of reading?” The assumption seems to be that this effect is solely a reading effect, but there are other possibilities.
For example, disadvantaged kids may spend considerably less time interacting with adults during the summer months when compared to their more advantaged peers. Furthermore, these interactions may tend to be more or less supportive of language development given differences in levels of parent education.
Similarly, some kids may be involved in more organized activities through churches, synagogues, park districts, library programs, museums, zoos, and so on. Or, some kids have greater access to knowledge-stimulating activities such as family vacations as well as more sporadic day trips to cultural institutions and events.
Past research has found connections between these kinds of experiences and learning (Griswold, 1986), too, so why not they monitor such effects in summer reading studies? Other studies have been less sanguine about the effects of parent involvement and summer childhood activities on the summer slide, but that was because these were compared to formal summer school experience (Borman, Benson, & Overman, 2005), quite a different thing.
And, it is not just those informal educational activities that I’m thinking about. Research also suggests substantial differences in parent efforts to more explicitly teach their kids, too (Clark, 1984; Sénéchal & Young, 2008; Tobin, 1981).
I’m not trying to discourage you from attempting to motivate your students to read during the summer, but to suggest why the effects of such efforts may be so unreliable. If there are 8 weeks of differences between two groups, and 2 or 4 or 6 of those weeks of difference turn out to be due to non-reading experiences, then there would be very little variance that reading on one’s own would be able to influence.
Our measures are not so fine-grained that they are likely to identify such tiny differences in learning. It could be that these programs are working, but working in this case may not mean fully addressing the problem; just the part that is due to lack of reading practice.
Research needs to look at this problem more broadly to figure out the most effective response. Studies certainly show summer school to be highly effective in improving achievement, but summer school is expensive, and not everyone would take advantage of this opportunity if it were available.
The McGill-Franzen paper suggests that for $150 per child per summer, it would be possible to provide 10-12 free self-selected books to first- and second-graders. That’s probably $15,000-$30,000 or so for many schools; not a large expenditure for a high poverty school, and something that could be beneficial.
Encourage kids to read during the summer? Sure. Explain to parents how important it it for kids to read during that time? Of course. Buy books for kids or get local businesses and foundations to kick in? Couldn’t hurt. Talk to your local library about some kind of summer reading events? Good idea.

Borman, G.D., Benson, J., & Overman, L.T. (2005). Families, schools, and summer learning. Elementary School Journal, 106, 131-150.

Griswold, P.A.  (1986).  Family outing activities and achievement among fourth graders in compensatory education funded schools.  Journal of Educational Research, 79, 261-266.

McGill-Franzen, A., Ward, N., & Cahill, M. (2016). Summers: Some are reading, some are not! It matters. The Reading Teacher, 69, 585-596.

Sénéchal, M., & Young, L. (2008). The effect of family literacy interventions on children’s acquisition of reading from kindergarten to grade 3: A meta-analytic review. Review of Educational Research, 78, 880-907.

Tobin, A.W. (1981). A multiple discriminant cross-validation of the factors associated with the development of precocious reading achievement. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Delaware.            

About the Author

Literacy expert Timothy Shanahan shares best practices for teaching reading and writing. Dr. Shanahan is an internationally recognized professor of urban education and reading researcher who has extensive experience with children in inner-city schools and children with special needs. All posts are reprinted with permission from Shanahan on Literacy (opens in a new window).

Publication Date
May 17, 2016