Summer learning loss a challenge for some children

Summer is here and for many students it is a time to sleep later, play more and for some, to catch up on reading. For some—especially for those living in poverty or who struggle academically—it is a time when they “lose” some of the progress they made during the school year.

Summer learning loss is significant problem many school-age students. We share here some of the research about this problem that left unchecked can cause some students entering middle school to be fall significantly behind their peers in reading and academics.

The 9-month school schedule currently in widespread use has its roots in 19th and 20th Century society in which 85% of Americans were involved in agriculture. It made sense at the time to standardize school schedules and to have children at home during the summer months to help with farming. Today fewer than 3% of Americans are involved in agriculture and research shows that students’ learning is impacted negatively by this block of time away from school.

An analysis conducted by Cooper et al. (1996) integrating 13 studies examining the effects of summer vacation on standardized achievement test scores showed that summer learning loss equaled at least one month of instruction as measured by grade level equivalents on standardized test scores, on average. An analysis of the research of Hayes and Grether (1983) with high- and low-poverty students in 600 New York City schools showed that rich and poor students had seven-months difference in scores at the beginning of second grade but this widened to a difference of two years and seven months by the end of grade six. What made this particularly striking was the research showing little or no difference in these students’ achievement when school was in session: They learned at the same pace. As Hayes and Grether noted: “The differential progress made during the four summers between 2nd and 6th grade accounts for upwards of 80 percent of the achievement difference between economically advantaged … and … ghetto schools.”

More recent research shows that the impact of summer learning loss may be greater than found in earlier studies (Allington & McGill-Franzen, 2003). This deficit is so pronounced that Allington and McGill-Franzen dub summer reading loss as the “smoking gun.”  Their research has reported that the cumulative effects of summer reading loss can mean that struggling readers entering middle school may lag two years behind peers in their ability to read. Additional research (Alexander, Entwisle, & Olson, 2007) traces the achievement gap between high–socioeconomic and low–socioeconomic 9th grade students to the loss in reading proficiency that occurs over the summer months throughout the elementary grades. Summer learning loss across the elementary school years accounted for more than half the difference in the achievement gap between students from high–socioeconomic and low–socioeconomic families. A study by Kim (2004) published by The Center for Evaluation of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences highlights that low-income and minority students experience greater summer reading loss but suggest that summer reading mitigates this negative impact.

The issue of summer learning loss is not only debated in scholarly journals. In 2010, Time Magazine published a cover story entitled “The Case against Summer” (Von Drehle, 2010) in which it reported:

The problem of summer vacation, first documented in 1906, compounds year after year. What starts as a hiccup in a 6-year-old’s education can be a crisis by the time that child reaches high school. After collecting a century’s worth of academic studies, summer-learning expert Harris Cooper, … concluded that, on average, all students lose about a month of progress in math skills each summer, while low-income students slip as many as three months in reading comprehension, compared with middle-income students.

Calls to reorganize school calendars and extend the school year have been suggested as a way to deal with the issue of summer learning loss (Aronson, Zimmerman & Carols, 1998; Dechenes & Malone, 2011; Dessoff, 2011; Jimerson, Woehr, Kaufman & Anderson, 2003; Silva, 2007; WestEd, 2001; Woelfel, 2005). More recent research indicates that summer programs with a math and literacy component can help students realize gains in their math and reading abilities during the summer months (Graham, McNamara, & Van Lankveld, 2011; Smith, 2011-2012). Recent scholarship has included more on the role of summer programs for to mitigate summer learning loss (McCombs, et al., 2012) and even “do-at-home” activities (Nikirk, 2012).

What can you do to combat summer learning loss as a tutor? Help the kids you tutor find good and engaging books at their reading level. Talk to parents and family members about summer reading programs at your public library. Libraries provide incentives to readers and help them find engaging books. Celebrate summer reading by talking about good books. Point parents to summer programs like Freedom School and the Y-Readers–both programs in the Charlotte, N.C. area.


  • Alexander, K., Entwisle, D., & Olson, L. (2007). Lasting consequences of the summer learning gap. American Sociological Review, 72 (2), 167 – 180.
  • Allington, R. L., & McGill-Franzen, A. (2003). The impact of summer set-back on the reading achievement. Phi Delta Kappan, 85(1), 68-75.
  • Aronson, J., Simmerman, J. & Carols, L. (1998). Improving student achievement by extending school: Is it just a matter of time? WestEd. San Francisco: Far West Laboratory.
  • Cooper, H., Charlton, K., Valentine, J. C., & Muhlenbruck, L. (2000). Making the most of summer school: A meta-analytic and narrative review. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 65(1), 1-118. EJ 630 022.
  • Cooper, H., Nye, B., Charlton, K., Lindsay, J., & Greathouse, S. (1996). The effects of summer vacation on achievement test scores: A narrative and meta-analytic review. Review of Educational Research, 66(3), 227-268. EJ 596 384.
  • Dessoff, A. (2011). Is year-round schooling on track? District Administration, 47(7), 34-36.
  • Hayes, D. P., & Grether, J. (1983). The school year and vacations: When do students learn? Cornell Journal of Social Relations, 17(1), 56-71.
  • Kim, J. (2004). Summer Reading & the Ethnic Achievement Gap. Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk (JESPAR), 9(2), 169-188.
  • McCombs, J. S., Augustine, C., Schwartz, H., Bodilly, S., McInnis, B., Lichter, D., & Cross, A. B. (2012). Making summer count: How summer programs can boost children’s learning. Education Digest, 77(6), 47-52.
  • Nikirk, M. (2012). Stave off summer learning loss with do-at-home activities. Tech Directions, 71(10), 16-17.
  • Schacter, J. (2003). Preventing summer reading declines in children who are disadvantaged. Journal of Early Intervention, 26(1), 47-58.
  • Silva, E. (2007). On the clock: Rethinking the way schools use time. Washington, D.C.: Education Sector.
  • Smith, L. (2011-2012). Slowing the summer slide. Educational Leadership, 69(4), 60-63.
  • Von Drehle, D. (2010, July 22). The case against summer. Time Magazine. Available at,8599,2005654,00.html .
  • WestEd (2001). Making time count. San Francisco: Far West Laboratory.
  • Woelfel, K. (2005). Learning takes time for at-risk learners. Principal, 85 (Nov./Dec.), 18 -21.

About bluegrassjb

I am an academic with a love for language, literacy and learning. The focus of my work is on student success at the K-12 and college levels. Outside of my professional interests I enjoy travel, photography and antiquing with my partner and wife. We like to hit the road in our travel trailer with the dogs and when at home party with the cats.
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