Teaching Strategies & Tips

Avoiding the Summer Slide

What do you want for your students this summer?  

Especially after a year like this one – where stressful change felt like a constant – I’m hoping that my students get a chance to really rest.  To get off the screen and go outside.  To reconnect with family and friends they may not have seen over months of social distancing.  

I also hope they keep reading.

If you’ve been teaching for a while, you’re probably familiar with the “summer slide.”  It’s the way that the average student returns to school in the Fall a little… rusty.  As if they took a couple steps backwards from where they were at the end of the last grade level.  

Researchers have been studying this phenomenon for years.  Some studies suggest that the average student loses about 20% of the gains they made in reading during the school year; others indicate losses of about one month of academic-calender growth.  While there is disagreement on the extent of learning loss, a general consensus exists that:

  1. Academic gains made during the school year CAN, and often DO, diminish over the summer.
  2. Loss in reading skills is more pronounced for students from low-income families and historically disadvantaged groups.
  3. Easy access to high-interest reading material plays a key role in whether students read during breaks.

What Can Teachers Really Do?

What Can Teachers Really Do?

Since most of us have basically zero access to our students during the summer months, it often feels like there is very little a teacher can actually DO to help students avoid the summer slide.  

You could try assigning some kind of required summer reading.  But if you want students to be accountable for actually completing it, you’re going to have to tie it to a grade they will get in the Fall.  That requires coordination with teachers in the next grade level and may be another factor out of your control.  Besides, many educators have discovered that forced reading over a break does not produce the sustained engagement with books that we’re hoping for.  As teacher-author Katie Sluiter puts it“Kids who don’t want to read, still don’t want to read when you tell them to read a book and do an assignment.”  

So what, really, CAN you do?

You can be invitational.  Share from your own experience. Make pleasure reading sound like a party. Celebrate all types of texts, believing that ANY reading is good reading when it comes to student growth.  Connect students with whatever they actually WANT to read.  Don’t worry about lexile levels or reader-response journals or thematic complexity.

Basically, just throw a bunch of texts out there and see what sticks.  

Online Resources

Images from Epic.com (left)Newsela.com (right)*Images from Epic.com (left) and Newsela.com (right)

Although many of us might feel concerned about the amount of time our students will spend on screens over the summer, tablets and smartphones aren’t all bad news: they provide many of our students FREE and easy access to a treasure trove of texts.

As you know, ReadTheory hosts thousands of reading practice passages aligned to student abilities.  What’s great about ReadTheory is that it will adjust all summer long with your students. If they are struggling, it will ease off so that they stay engaged. If they are acing everything, the program will get a little more challenging so they never get bored.

For younger readers, Starfall is a website packed with simple but engaging learning games that foster literacy.

Newsela offers leveled nonfiction texts grouped by interest categories like Science, Technology, Arts, and Entertainment.  The news and current events section gives free access to hundreds of regularly-updated articles that can be adjusted to a student’s lexile level at the click of a button.  

CommonLit is completely free for students.  This site features a blend of nonfiction, fiction, and poetry.  The short story collection is especially strong and is organized by both theme and grade level.

Epic offers free accounts for families and functions like an online library.  There are tons of the same picture books and YA novels you might find while walking through the kids’ section of your local bookstore, plus a collection of Epic Originals that read like digital comic books.

Handy Reading Resource Sheet you can send home with your studentsHandy Reading Resource Sheet you can send home with your students

Whichever resources you decide on, spend class time accessing these resources on devices that the students will actually be using at home (GASP, they can use their phone in class!). This will reduce the barrier to entry over the summer and you can be there to help with any technical glitches that may impede them. It also can be a way to see which of your students may need access to a device over the summer.

Community Resources

Community Resources

There are TONS of physical books out there that we can get into our students’ hands, too.  It’s just a matter of knowing where to look.  

Local libraries often have annual sales where they sell off older copies of texts at drastically reduced prices.  You (or your school’s PTO) can spend just a few dollars to score bags of books that you can hand out to students to take home over the summer.  

Similarly, school Media Centers are continually moving books out of rotation.  Talk to your school or district-level Media Coordinator to see if they can funnel some of these unused books directly to your students.  

While you’re talking to school and local libraries, ask a librarian about setting your students up with library cards.  Your school district may even have a program already in place for this purpose.  In my own school district, students can sign up for electronic library cards that they can use in person at any local branch or online to borrow from our state’s collection of eBooks.

Your community likely has other organizations dedicated to supporting literacy and connecting people with books.  See if your area has a “literacy council” or second-hand book recycling program that you could reach out to.  Maybe you could even help your school to organize its own free book exchange at the end of the school year.  Students could bring in books they might otherwise just leave on a shelf or dump at used book store, creating a self-sustaining cycle of shared reading and reuse among families connected to your school.

Keep them Connected

Keep them Connected*Image from Instagram.com

Whether it’s training for a sport or learning a new hobby, all of us are more likely to follow through on activities that tie us to some kind of supportive community.  What we see others doing and enjoying, we are more motivated to try for ourselves, especially if it means we get to connect with others over a common interest.

Before the school year ends, brainstorm with your students about how they might like to stay connected and share what they are reading over the summer.  Their enthusiasm might surprise you.  

Maybe students could sign up for book groups, organizing message boards for friends reading the same book over a platform like Remind or Discord.  Especially with older students, you don’t necessarily need to oversee these; many of those students already have group chat threads with their whole class.

Or maybe, for a more whole-class or whole-grade level approach, you try to mimic the trend on Instagram where people post pictures of books, take selfies with books, snap pictures of other people reading books… you get the idea.  You could create an account that your students message with book selfies or visual book reviews.  (Set the account so they have to send those images to you directly, allowing you to vet posts before they go public.)  You could then re-post those pictures in a way that celebrates the student and inspires others to “join the party.”

A more analog version of that idea could be to give each of your students a set of postcards, pre-stamped and addressed to your school.  Whenever a student finishes a book, they send in a postcard with a couple sentences about it.  You could assemble and post these on a bulletin board somewhere in the school, share out photos of the postcard collection, and celebrate them on your school’s website.

Last Thoughts

Summer should be fun.Summer should be fun.

Reading should be, too.

I have very fond memories of the summer before my Junior year in high school.  My family had just moved to a new town. I didn’t know anyone, and I missed my friends. But I found so much joy in having nothing to do but sit out in a hammock and lose myself in a series of fantasy novels.

That is the sort of experience we should be wanting for our students – one that is way less about what we assign or what we teach and way more about just letting books work their magic.

David Kayler, 9-12 ELA Instructor
Written by David Kayler, 9-12 ELA Instructor

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *