Summer and Basic Skills

Here's an easy quiz: When do children achieve more academically, during the summer or the school year?

Most everyone knows the answer. It's one of the reasons parents may indulge in a mental tug-of-war between wanting offspring to experience that American ideal - the content-free summer - and taking a second look at summer-school classes. Exchange the September routine for more TV and little in the way of reading, after all, and the most common warm-weather lesson becomes one in how to backpedal.

Now, you could argue that a little nose-to-the-grindstone after Labor Day will get students back on track. But there's more at stake. Summer is not only when skills may slide, but also when gaps in academic growth widen between children of different social and economic backgrounds - sometimes creating long-term barriers to success in school.

The research is sobering. A recent study looked at the difference in reading comprehension skills between high-poverty and middle-class students at the end of elementary school. More-advantaged kids moved steadily ahead over the years, while high-poverty children barely budged. The problem, the study stated, lay almost completely at the feet of differing summer experiences.

Two other studies found that while high-poverty first-graders moved ahead more quickly than their peers in reading, their progress slowed more than that of their peers over the following summer - and did not pick up again in second grade.

Most kids lose some academic skills over the summer. But those from more-prosperous homes often get camp, summer classes, or most important, many informal learning, playing, and reading opportunities to keep them on track.

A number of urban systems are requiring more summer classes for students who have fallen behind - a move that is often popular with inner-city parents and the kids themselves, in part because it keeps them safe and with other children. But experts say that some informal (and free) efforts can make a difference as well.

Janine Bempechat, assistant professor in human development and psychology at the Harvard Graduate School of Education in Cambridge, Mass., makes a key point: If adults show interest, kids typically will as well. If you both liked the movie "Contact," for example, read the book (by Carl Sagan) aloud. Try to find someone, or a university, who has a telescope you can check out. Do the shopping together, making a game out of reading labels and sorting items. Borrow library passes to museums.

The United States Department of Education also is chipping in to help. Its "Summer Challenge in Read*Write*Now!" program encourages children to read 20 minutes and write 10 minutes each day. Partners meet with children once or twice a week. The department provides activity books, including "summer home recipes" in reading, math, and history (Contact 1-800-USA LEARN or The department also has materials for preschool kids.

No question - kids deserve a summer break. But that doesn't mean some fun that slips in a few learning tips is a bad idea.

* Write to Learning Editor, One Norway St., Boston, MA 02115, or e-mail

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