My colleague Professor Tom Nicholson claims that there is increasing research to show that “children experience a slide in reading ability during the summer break and that some regress by as much as six months.” (Stuff, 9 January 2019)
There is scant evidence to show that this is the case in New Zealand. Much of the “summer slide” research on children’s reading performance has been conducted in the United States. The summer holiday is longer in the US than in New Zealand. Using American research to claim there is a similar summer slide in New Zealand can result in misleading views about what really happens.
Data from two separate New Zealand longitudinal studies show no evidence to support the view that children’s reading abilities regress during the summer holiday break.
One study involving 568 children in a wide range of schools in the lower North Island compared reading scores towards the end of Year 1 with scores obtained during February of Year 2. On a widely used test of word knowledge, which relates strongly to reading comprehension ability, children showed a significance increase in scores. The increase was close to a 10% improvement, and occurred for children in low, middle and high decile band schools. Also, boys and girls improved at around the same rate.
Data from another study in predominantly low decile schools in Auckland also showed an increase in scores for word knowledge following the summer break. In this study, 85 children in transition from Year 1 to Year 2 showed a 20% improvement in word knowledge early in the school year after the summer holidays. Results for these children from another assessment routinely administered by classroom teachers also showed no evidence of a summer slide. Reading book levels assessed at the start of Year 2 increases slightly for these children compared to their reading book levels assessed towards the end of Year 1.
In short, evidence in support of a summer slide in reading for young children is sparse. And there is research to show quite the opposite. Many children show improvements in reading ability following the summer break.
That said, Professor Nicholson offers useful advice for ways to improve the reading skills of New Zealand children. As Professor Nicholson points out, there is indeed an ongoing and worrying decline in reading achievement that remains to be properly addressed. Having parents participate in reading activities with children in the home is an important idea. However, not all parents have the resources or knowledge to be effective readers with their children. The onus then is on teachers and teacher educators to provide literacy instruction that is based on contemporary research. This is where New Zealand lacks the most at present.
James Chapman is Professor of Educational Psychology and Literacy Researcher at Massey University.