A weekend interview with Melissa Hughes, an author on summer learning
Summer is fast approaching, the time when many students abandon the books in favor of the beach or other non-school activities. It's also the time when the achievement gap can expand, as children lose some of the skills they've learned if they don't keep their minds active. Melissa Hughes, an author of summer learning programs and director of consumer engagement Carson-Dellosa Publishing, spoke with reporter Jeff Solochek about what parents can do to keep their students thinking over the summer break.
I thought it would be interesting to talk as we're approaching the summer about what parents can do to avoid that summer slide.
Research in the area of summer learning loss is over 100 years old. I think the first study was done in 1906. So we've got lots and lots of data ... indicating that those three months have just monumental implications on kids as they progress through school.
What is it that is the problem? That kids just stop learning?
It's kind of a multifaceted problem. But what I think happens is in your procedural skills like math, spelling, some science -- if it's not just about knowledge but about learning a skill, kids don't really have daily opportunities to practice those skills as they do when they're in school. That's one thing. And if you've got kids who are readers, at least they're still reading over the summer so their reading achievement isn't as threatened. ... Now, we're assuming that all these kids have access to books, and there's someone at home who can make sure they've got interesting materials.But things like math and spelling, those aren't things that kids just typically do on their own.
Should parents take on the responsibility, then, of giving it to them?
Absolutely. Here's the other thing I have learned in my investigation of the whole thing, which has become incredibly personal. I think parents want to help. ... And they want to do things in down time to help their kids prepare for school. I think what happens is, our education system has become so standards based. And for a lot of parents, it's really tough for them to understand what the grade-level expectations are for their kids, especially if they have more than one. So when the summer rolls around, now we're preparing for a whole new set of skills. If the parent isn't prepared, or doesn't have a clear understanding of what those grade-level expectations are, then it makes it really hard to just weave them into familial activities.Here's an example. You're going on a family vacation and you're going to take your family to a national park. If you've got a second grader, there are a lot of things you can do just in conversation in that hike through the national park. You can talk about living things vs. nonliving things. But if the parent doesn't have that background knowledge and doesn't know that my child is going to be learning about living vs. nonliving things next year, then it doesn't even enter into their minds that would be something just in conversation that walking through the park could be an educational activity.
Should schools be distributing that at the end of the year? Or should parents be getting on to their state standards website looking for those things.
I think schools try to do a good job with that. ... I think that's why Summer Bridge activity books are so great. To tell parents to go onto the state Department of Education website and to search through and find what's applicable to their children, that's really tough for most parents. Summer bridge activity books do a great job with that though because they're all aligned to national standards at specific grade levels. ...
If you as a parent review some of the stuff that they've brought home over the course of the year and start to move into some of the stuff you know is coming up -- review and preview -- that would be a way to help your kid not lose it?
Exactly. We know the parents want to help. We know that parents don't always have the knowledge they need surrounding all of the changing standards. The other thing we know is that families are busy. And so the other beautiful thing about the Summer Bridge books is, it's not structured to be a summer school program. It's structured to be a 15-30 minute activity. ... really what it is, is a reminder that learning isn't confined to the classroom. Families can do things together and reinforce those academic skills. And it gives parents some really nice one-on-one time to set aside to work with their child at the end of a busy day. If you miss a day, go on vacation, it's not the end of the world. ...
It seems like doing nothing is the biggest issue because there are huge opportunities to lose momentum.
Exactly. Well, you know the research shows that regardless of socioeconomic status, all students lose an average of 2-1/2 months of grade equivalency in math. That's huge. 2-1/2 months. That means they start fourth grade at the level they were in February or March in third grade the year before. That's a big deal. And I think the other really important note here is the achievement gap for students who don't have academic opportunities over the summer widens each year. So by the time they are in say ninth grade, two-thirds of the achievement gap ... can be traced back to educational opportunities that kids have in elementary school. So it's incremental, and it gets wider and wider each year. And the school year is only nine months long.
I wonder how much the schools' move away from summer school, mostly because of finances, has hurt this.
Oh, it's huge. ... Almost 50 percent of the programs in Florida have eliminated summer services altogether. And those that remain, remain not for the mainstream kids but for special programs.. .. So your average mainstream kid, your B, C student -- it takes so little to do so much for that student and to give them the academic edge for when they return in the fall. And the opportunities through the schools are just evaporating because of the budget cuts. So parents are really looking for alternative solutions.
Are there any simple basic things you would recommend that parents and kids can do?
The biggest tip or strategy that I would share with a parent is talk to your kids and, where you can, weave in academics. When you're watching TV, ask your kids, Who are the main characters? Talk in some of that school language that they were using every day and that they will be using again. What do you think is going to happen? Prediction skills as they watch a television show. I mean, that's huge. If you could have changed the end of that movie, how would you have changed it?
Read with your kids. Kids who read often read well. And reading is the single most important skill a child can have all the way up. Public libraries. There are lots of things that don't cost anything. ...
There are a million things you can do every day just in math skills. Let them measure. Let them cook with you. Let them help prepare the meals and prepare the ingredients. In the grocery store, which one of these canned foods is the best value? Talk about those kinds of things. The key for parents is just knowing the skill that is the appropriate grade level for their children. That's the challenge for parents.