As the kids head back to school, teachers everywhere are facing a common dilemma – the “summer slide.” Over the summer break, kids’ reading abilities, study habits and knowledge levels erode as books and other intellectual pursuits take a back seat to swimming, movie-going and Nintendo-playing. Teachers often have to repeat up to six weeks of lessons from the previous year just to get the students back to their previous levels of proficiency and knowledge.
We may know this happens intuitively, but Hopkins sociologists Karl Alexander and Doris Entwisle have actually studied the phenomenon. They followed 790 randomly-selected Baltimore students from 20 different schools from the time they entered the first grade in 1982 through their graduations in 1994. By comparing testing scores from one year to the next, the researchers were able to see the impact a lack of academic focus had during the summer.
Those students who enrolled in summer camps, music or art lessons or who were encouraged to read during the break tended to maintain knowledge levels, while those who had less focus during the summer tended to forget more of what they had learned the previous school year. From year to year, these learning gaps grew wider and wider between the two types of students so that by the end of the fifth grade, the difference in verbal abilities was two years and the difference in math abilities was a year-and-a-half.
Now, I’m guessing that not too many of us adults have been to summer camp, music or art lessons in quite awhile, and statistics don’t look too good for our reading habits. A Gallup poll on reading habits in 1990 found that the proportion of Americans who had not completed a book in the previous year had doubled to 16% since the previous poll in 1978 reported 8%. An Associated Press-Ipsos poll in 2007 had the number at a dismal 25%. If these numbers continue, over 50% of us won’t read any books by 2052, and no one will be reading books by the year 2112.
A.C. Neilson (the company that measures television ratings in the U.S.) reported in 1998 that six million videos are checked out every day (and that’s just my family…). Compare that to three million library books checked out in the average day (and a good percentage of those are by students). Neilson also tells us that the average American family watches over four hours of T.V. a day (equivalent to two months of non-stop T.V. viewing a year).
So, how’s your “summer slide” going? If elementary-age children could lose one-and-a-half to two years of verbal and mathematical ability after just five summers, what does that mean for us (who have had a few more summers on our record)? Are you actively learning anything, or has life since high school or college been one big summer break? Don’t let those brain cells drain away; it’s use ‘em or lose ‘em! Head to the library…we’ve got some catching up to do!