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Adventures in Summer Learning

Giving kids a summer full of reading and learning. School may be out, but learning is still in. In Adventures in Summer Learning, you’ll meet parents, teachers, and researchers in Washington, D.C., Detroit, and Boston who are discovering the best ways to keep kids engaged with learning during the long summer break — and avoid the “summer slump.”

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About the program

The research is clear that children who don’t read during the summer can lose up to three months of reading progress and that loss has a cumulative, long-term effect. Adventures in Summer Learning offers practical suggestions for parents about how to create a literacy-rich summer, as well as profiles of effective formal programs for at-risk youth and children with learning disabilities.

This 30-minute program is the eleventh episode of our award-winning PBS series, Launching Young Readers.

Kids who don’t have educationally rich summers will be nearly three years behind their peers by the time they reach the end of the fifth grade… Much like we would expect an athlete or a musician’s performance to suffer if they didn’t practice regularly, the same thing is true for young people when it comes to reading performance.”

                      — Ron Fairchild, Founding CEO, National Summer Learning Association

Stopping the slump

The national organization BELL (Building Educated Leaders for Life) partners with schools in urban communities — schools like Detroit’s Warrendale Elementary — to provide structured summer programs that mix academics with enrichment activities designed to build background knowledge — critical for a child’s success in school.

Michael’s successful summer

Michael is an eight-year-old whose dyslexia has made school a struggle. Follow him to a six-week intensive summer program at the Landmark School — a well-known school for children with learning disabilities based in Beverly, Massachusetts. The Landmark program features explicit instruction, a slower pace, and lots of repetition to help students like Michael.

The home front

Meet Wendy Bostic, a mother of two young children in suburban Washington, D.C., who knows that taking a vacation from school doesn’t have to be a vacation from learning. During the summer, she makes a conscious effort to keep her two young children engaged — with reading, regular trips to the library, and exploring the world around them through local field trips.

Watch the program

Additional video

More about Michael

More from the home front

Meet the experts

Listen to three nationally recognized experts talk about their research and what parents can do to “keep the learning faucet on” during the summer.

Earl Martin Phalen

Earl Martin Phalen is the CEO of Reach Out and Read and Founder of Summer Advantage USA. Reach Out and Read, promotes early literacy skill development of children ages 0-5; and Summer Advantage USA ensures the academic and social development of school-aged children, ages 5-14.

Dr. James Kim

Dr. Jimmy Kim is an assistant professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a former middle school history teacher. His research focuses on literacy interventions designed to improve reading and writing of upper elementary, middle, and high school students.

Dr. Karl Alexander

Dr. Karl Alexander is a professor of sociology at Johns Hopkins University. His research looks at the influences of school and home on student success, why some children are more successful in school than others, and how this affects them later in life. He is a principal investigator with the Beginning School Study, which since 1982 has been monitoring the personal and academic development of youngsters who began first grade that year in 20 Baltimore City Public Schools.

Recommended resources


Especially for teachers and librarians

Especially for parents

Especially for parents of children with learning disabilities

Research and reports

Organizations featured in the program


Stopping the Slump

Detroit, Michigan

Narrator: While this classroom doesn’t have desks and blackboards…   
…it’s still helping these kids make serious educational strides.   
So what do a trip to a major stadium…   
Watching a ball game…   
And even riding on a merry-go-round…   
Have to do with learning to read?   
Let’s rewind…

Warrendale Elementary is in Detroit, Michigan — the home of seven-year-old Nikita.

Nikita attends Warrendale with her friends during the regular school year, but for the second year running, she’s also coming during the summer — and loving it!

Yolanda Devon: When I pull up, she’s happy. She comes out the door. She’s laughing. She’s smiling. It’s never a dull moment… This was summer school and she was happy. I can’t miss a day. Mom, we’re going to do this today, we’re going to read this story today. She just really enjoys everything about the BELL program.

Narrator: Yolanda is determined to help Nikita avoid the “summer slump.” Research shows that kids without educational summers return to school up to three months behind their peers — and they might never catch up.

Luckily, Yolanda has allies in the fight.

Warrendale Elementary and the national organization, “Building Educated Leaders for Life,” or BELL, have partnered to create a summer program aimed at stopping the slump.

And Yolanda isn’t the only parent excited about the partnership.

Mylah Ivory: We had parents call… did my scholar get in? Did my scholar get in? Because they knew last year… we did some outstanding things… Parents know that BELL gives them opportunities that they wouldn’t normally get during the summer.

Narrator: Dr. Jennifer Turner is an assistant professor of reading education at the University of Maryland.

Turner: Children need summer reading programs and summer reading opportunities because two-thirds of the achievement gap can be attributed to the unequal access to summer learning opportunities in elementary schools.

Narrator: BELL’s goal is to help close that gap by increasing the academic achievements of children living in low-income, urban communities — a population that is particularly at risk for falling behind during the summer.

Ron Fairchild is the head for the National Summer Learning Association.

Fairchild: What the research shows is that that gap grows tremendously during the summer months. So that we have a pattern of kids learning at about the same rates during the school years only to see the low income kids lose over two months of reading performance each and every summer of their elementary school years.

Narrator: In fact, kids who don’t have educationally rich summers will be nearly three years behind their peers by the time they reach the end of the fifth grade.

That’s why Yolanda is determined to keep Nikita on track.

Yolanda: I remember being in a summer program. And it consisted of swimming, running, jumping… Whereas, Nikita, she’s learning so much. She’s strengthening her reading skills. She’s strengthening her math skills, her interaction skills with her peers. She’s not just sitting at home in front of a television set. Or she’s not outside from 8:00 to 4:00 riding her bike or getting into trouble. She’s actually somewhere where individuals care about her future and her growth.

Narrator: And summer learning shouldn’t exclude summer fun! In fact, a child’s summer should be a rich mix of academic growth and enrichment — something that both BELL and Warrendale recognize.

Ivory: Warrendale and BELL work really well together… both see that summer loss is so important. We know that our children need other opportunities that they would not get during the summer, and then a structured program during the day.

Narrator: So mornings are spent on quality academic instruction, like writing exercises, vocabulary development, and reading strategies.

Teacher: How do we retell a story? Retell. Nikita.

Nikita: Using our own words?

Teacher: Using our own words. What words do we use?

Narrator: This structured, direct instruction is essential, especially if a child is struggling with reading. But becoming a strong reader means more than just knowing the rules of the language. It’s important to also develop a child’s background knowledge, so that students can understand what they’re reading.

Enter the Detroit Tigers and these lucky BELL students…   
Because all of this fun…   
…is actually making them better readers.

Turner: Children who have deep background knowledge are able to read the kinds of books that you put in front of them because they have the foundational vocabulary, they have the skills, they have the experience, and it helps them to make meaning of the text. When you read it’s much better if you know about the circus and have been there to activate that and say, oh yeah, I remember, the circus has a clown and there are elephants there and it’s under a big tent. Versus a child that’s never been to a circus and might not have that kind of background knowledge.

Narrator: And while field trips like this are only once a week, BELL and Warrendale make sure the kids’ exposure to new experiences doesn’t stop at the school’s front door.

Each afternoon the students have enrichment activities like dance, puppetry, PE, and special guest speakers.

All of this will have a big impact in the classroom.

Fairchild: Most middle and upper income kids have an incredible summer that’s chock-full of enrichment experiences. And many times, they have those experiences without even being fully aware of that. And what high quality summer learning programs do is they really give kids access to those kinds of enrichment experiences, the relationships with caring adults, exposure to people in the community that have expertise. And all of those experiences create the kind of background knowledge that kids need to be successful, both in reading, but also in other academic subjects.

Yolanda: I love all of it. I want to come to BELL and participate in some of the extracurricular activities. Everything that’s being offered to her, it’s more than what she can ever get just sitting at home.

Narrator: With so many adults determined to see her grow, it seems like Nikita is headed for a successful summer. That means she’ll be on her way to a successful school year. Just remember the BELL motto — think it, believe it, achieve it.

Michael’s Successful Summer

Beverly, Massachusetts

Brian Sylvester: The first day I met him he had like all these big, you know, books.

R. Michael Giardina: He’s a kind of a child who will sit and amuse himself, entertain himself with a stack of books.

Diane Giardina: He. Loves. Books.

Narrator: The book lover’s name is Michael Giardina. He’s eight years old and excited about the summer. So what’s the problem? Michael has dyslexia, so while he devours picture books and loves to be read to, reading is actually very, very hard for him. Here’s his dad.

R. Michael: It’s a very strange phenomenon … for a child who’s having a great deal of difficulty reading, he has an enormous passion to read. And maybe that’s the rather obvious paradox.

Narrator: Michael’s just finished a rough second grade year, and summer comes as a relief. Because of his learning disabilities, school has gotten progressively more challenging.

Diane: Which one do you think she’ll pick?

Isabella: That one.

Diane: That one?

Michael: Yeah, me, too.

R. Michael: It was clear as each year sort of unfolded that he was experiencing difficulties that I think he wasn’t sure on how to deal with them and we weren’t sure either exactly how to get at what was going to be best for him.

Narrator: For kids with learning disabilities who don’t get the help they need, school can be filled with daily failure and humiliation. Those kids learn to dread school, to dread reading, and their futures start to look bleak. The Giardinas were not going to let that happen to Michael.

R. Michael: We realized after going through our last evaluations during the school year, Michael really had some serious issues that we needed to deal with. And we knew before even that that he had to be in some sort of summer enrichment program.

Narrator: Michael’s father is exactly right. For kids with learning disabilities, summer is a critical time to address academic challenges — and emotional ones.

Dr. Patricia Quinn: A good summer program can really help your child with learning differences develop a sense of achievement. So often, children with learning differences feel that the glass is half empty. They always focus on what they can’t do as well as other people.

Narrator: Dr. Patricia Quinn has worked with children with learning disabilities for over 30 years.

Quinn: If you can find for them an experience over the summer that allows them to feel like they can do something, that sense of achievement and empowerment will carry over to the school year. There’s nothing more important than having a child believe that he can do it. Because he will.

R. Michael: So hopefully you’ll have a good day today? Huh? Yeah?

Michael: Yeah. Yeah.

Narrator: The Giardinas happened to live very near a well-known school for children with learning disabilities, The Landmark School, based in Beverly, Massachusetts. Their six-week summer program draws students from all over the country. Santo Brillati directs the program.

Santo Brillati: Students that come to Landmark generally have very strong visual and very strong perceptual reasoning … average, above average intelligence. But there’s often enough some gaps in reading, gaps in writing, gaps in the learning process.

Michael: Ow. Oy.

Narrator: For Michael, that gap was in phonemic awareness, which includes the ability to distinguish the different sounds within a spoken word. Without that skill, sounding out a printed word that you’re trying to read is practically impossible.

Michael: Ih. Eh. Ay. Eh.

Sylvester: When he came in at the beginning of the year, he didn’t really — he was so used to sort of guessing at words that he didn’t know. He didn’t really know how to decode or sound out a word.

Sharon Musto: We decided to place Michael within a program working specifically on that phonemic awareness and learning about the sounds and words, helping him to determine how many sounds there were and, really, at a basic level helping to differentiate between consonants and vowels and to be able to accurately and automatically give a sound-symbol relationship. So if he saw the letter “P,” he would know it said ‘puh’. And with that ability it should eventually move towards him being able to decode words more easily and to be able to accurately read connected text.

Narrator: Most preschool and kindergarten classes help kids develop beginning reading skills. Michael’s dyslexia made it difficult for him to process the individual sounds in words, so he needs much more explicit instruction, a slower pace, and lots of repetition in order to master those skills — and to feel successful.

Musto: We want them to feel that, yes, you learn differently, you have a language-based learning disability, but you’re not stupid and you can learn and it’s just a matter of finding the way that works best for you.

Diane: I think one of the things that Michael has struggled with up until this point is really being different. And I noticed that he doesn’t feel different at Landmark because you’re really part of a community. And you don’t have to explain yourself.

Narrator: Landmark has turned out to be the perfect place for Michael to spend his summer. He studies vocabulary and sentence structure with Ms. Arnio…

Michael: A few.

Arnio: Is a?

Michael: Number.

Narrator: He focuses on matching letters to sounds with Ms. Valentine…

Valentine: That one is hard ‘cause it’s a slider.

Narrator: And he reinforces all of that in one-on-one instruction with Mr. Sylvester…

Sylvester: Nice job. Pound it.

Narrator: In the afternoon, kids get out of the classroom to learn in a different way.

Quinn: It’s very important that the summer program for children with learning disabilities not only have an academic component but also an enrichment component.

Waterman: And it’s salt water because it’s got green algae growing in it!

Quinn: It’s really during this enrichment program that I think children are able to explore, to look at themselves and to really find those areas that just light them up, that really turn them on and get them excited about something.

Narrator: For Michael, that’s marine science. And he probably doesn’t have any idea that he’s also improving his social skills, figuring out how to work with his classmates, and learning to take risks.

Kayak Instructor: There you go!

Kid: Bye, Mike!

Narrator: Third grade is not going to be easy for Michael. But this summer has helped him see himself in a new and positive light — as a learner and a reader.

Michael: “He would have to leave soon.”

Diane: This is really the first time that he’s had any measure of academic success. And I think that’s rather profound because, again, for a bright kid who struggled in school, to really have your first taste of a success, that “I can do this. I am going to be successful” is really remarkable.

Narrator: And that’s Michael’s successful summer.

The Home Front

Alexandria, VA

Narrator: On the outskirts of the nation’s capital, summer vacation is in full swing.   
And while it might look like it’s all fun and games, the summer plays a vital role in children’s learning.   
Which makes parents like Wendy Bostic determined to make the most of it.   
She’s discovering that there’s a lot she can do to keep four-year-old C.J. and six-year-old Ashley learning while school is out.

Wendy Bostic: So if they’re inside of the cocoon, or the chrysalis, then what happens?

Narrator: This weekend, the discussion and activities focus on butterflies and plants as they prepare for a trip to a local garden.

Wendy: Children are sponges. So they’re constantly learning and constantly wanting to learn ‘cause they wanna know well why, well who, well how, well when.

Narrator: But raising a reader can be a daunting task, even for a parent like Wendy, who knows the importance of summer learning. When she first thought about filling her kids’ days with education and enrichment, she was overwhelmed.

Wendy: I cried for about a week or two weeks straight because I was like, “Well, what am I going to do with them all day?” Ashley has been stimulated being in school. What am I going to do to keep her learning? I can only sing the ABC song.

Narrator: She knows that helping her kids maintain the skills and knowledge they learned in school will have a big impact when they return to class in September.

Ron Fairchild: Much like we would expect an athlete or a musician’s performance to suffer if they didn’t practice regularly, the same thing is true for young people when it comes to reading performance.

Narrator: Letting kids’ brains languish during the summer can mean more than just playing catch-up when they get back to the classroom; it can have serious, long-term consequences for a child.

Earl Martin Phalen has been dedicated to children’s summer education for over twenty years.

Earl Martin Phalen: Reading during the summer time and early school success is so so important. It’s predictable that if you’re not able to read and write proficiently by the end of third grade, the likelihood of dropping out, the likelihood of engaging in negative behaviors is 68% higher… so the summer is a critically important opportunity.

Narrator: And a formal program isn’t the only way to keep kids’ brains in gear.

Parents are a child’s first teachers, and there is a lot they can do every day to help their children build and maintain literacy skills.

Wendy: This is smooth and this is rough, so what do you think this is?

Narrator: Conversations, field trips, and reading together are all important — and fun — steps.

Phalen: All the research says children lose anywhere from one to three months reading, writing, and math skills during the summertime. So keeping children engaged, keeping them reading, keeping their minds stimulated during the summer months is so important to helping the short and long terms success both in school and in life.

Narrator: Wendy tackled the challenge by reading books, finding information online, and getting support from other moms.

Erica: Welcome to Mocha Moms! I guess we’ll get started.

Narrator: Mocha Moms is a national organization for mothers and Wendy’s chapter meets regularly at the library.

While the children play, the group comes together to discuss their kids and share their experiences. Today’s topic — summer learning, of course!

Kendra: We did a lot of her re-writing my grocery lists. We did a lot of signs as we’re driving down the street, like what does the stop sign say?

Wendy: I make my kids find the number of the exit when I’m going places.

Sheila: There are word families like ‘at.’ There’s at and you teach them that sound. Then you add an ‘s.’ Sat. Bat. Rat. I would make it where he had to run and get the letter that made the ‘sss’ sound.

Carol: When it looks like the party’s over, they don’t want to do that anymore… stop and do something else. I think as long as you approach it that way, it won’t, you know, make them resistant.

Narrator: Another great resource for Wendy is the local public library — a place her kids can’t get enough of.

Fairchild: The single most important activity for kids to do during the summer months to prevent losses from happening is reading. Build into your family life the opportunity for reading. Regular trips the library.

Wendy: Awesome! This looks like it’s going to be a good book.

Dr. Jennifer Turner: Libraries are such a wonderful resource for parents… and for communities as a whole. Librarians can play such an important role in helping children… to select books and to actually become successful readers.

Librarian: Can I help you?

Wendy: Yes, ma’am. I have a four-year-old and a six-year-old who’d like to see if you had any suggestions of good books for them to read this summer.

Narrator: While access to books is important, finding the ones that match a child’s reading level and interests, like butterflies for Ashley is key to creating a successful reader.

Wendy: They have a sense of independence because they’re picking out their own books, their own world.

Narrator: The bottom line — if they aren’t interested in the topic, why would they read about it? And if the book is too hard, they’ll struggle with the words, which means frustration instead of comprehension.

Now, with a stack of books and their library agenda complete…

…the Bostics take learning on the road.

Wendy: We are getting ready to go on a field trip!

Ashley: We’re going to a garden.

Wendy: And in the garden there’s gonna be… pigs?

Ashley: Flowers, butterflies…

Fairchild: It’s essential for parents to have active conversations with their kids, to turn off the radio in the car, to actually be an active listener and to ask a lot of questions.

Wendy: What’s next? What’s next? 3, 2, …

Kids: 1!

Narrator: Fun games and engaging conversations will help kids learn new vocabulary, build their listening and speaking skills, and encourage them to think and ask questions about their world.

Turner: Having conversations with your child helps them to think about what other people are saying and to listen, but it also helps them to express themselves and to develop new skills. And it gives a sense of what’s going on in their head and what’s important to them, what matters to them.

Wendy: Let’s see what’s up here, guys!

Narrator: Wendy has brought Ashley and C.J. to Brookside Gardens, a local community park that’s free to the public.

Here, they can learn more about the butterflies and plants they’ve been reading about.

Fairchild: Exposure to high quality enrichment opportunities are absolutely essential to build the background knowledge that kids need to be successful readers.

Volunteer: It’s called the Tiger Swallowtail because of its stripes.

Narrator: And since Wendy knows there is always more to learn, the whole family listens closely to a butterfly expert.

Volunteer: The cool thing about caterpillars is that once they decided, “Hey. I’ve eaten enough food. I am ready. I am strong. I’m going to change in to a butterfly.”

Narrator: Every field trip means more opportunities for conversations and questions.

Wendy: Get out of town and call somebody! What are they eating.

CJ: They’re eating fruit.

Wendy: They’re eating fruit.

Wendy: Summer’s really supposed to be somewhat of a break from the everyday going to school, sitting in the classroom, having to do, you know, your spelling and your writing. So you have to find new ways to keep them engaged. There’s learning everywhere. And just remember that they’ve never seen the world before. They’ve never encountered anything. Show them what you know. You’ll find out you’ll learn some other stuff, too.

Wendy: Let’s see… He might be black and yellow…

Narrator: Funding for “Adventures in Summer Learning” is provided by the United States Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs.