For Kiwi children, the summer holidays are all about five weeks of sunshine, holidays and spending time with family and friends. But those five weeks away from the classroom environment mean that children can forget some of what they have learned over the year. This is what is commonly known as ’summer learning loss’, or the ’summer slide’. This is especially true when it comes to reading, because when children get out of the reading habit over the summer holidays it can set them back the following school year.

For many primary and secondary school-aged children in New Zealand, there is often little or no opportunity to read and maintain their literacy skills and reading habits over the summer holidays, especially in lower socioeconomic areas, where children have limited access to reading material.

Paul Wright makes the observation in his article” An initiative to counter the ’summer reading drop’: An iterative process”, that lower decile schools tend to face greater hurdles in reducing summer learning loss than higher decile schools. From his experience as principal of Clayton Park School, a decile 2 primary school in Auckland, Wright perceives this to be due to a number of factors: there is typically limited access to learning materials in the homes in low socioeconomic areas; parents often have less time to spend with their children on learning activities; there are more one-parent families; there is a tendency – particularly among Pasifika parents – to work longer hours; parents are often not as well educated; there is a higher rate of domestic violence, and other poverty-related issues.

Collaborative strategies

Clayton Park School has been battling the summer learning loss for several years now, but has had notable success in improving student reading achievement. They have done this by introducing strategies to support reading at home during the holidays through a summer reading contract, working with parents and increasing teacher effectiveness.

The school now runs a successful ‘summer reading contract’ programme, which was first trialled in 2006. A home-school partnership was established, which became a key tool in combating summer reading loss, according to Wright. Home-school partnership meetings are used to inform parents and teach them strategies they can use with their children to support their learning over the summer holidays. Parents play a big part in this programme and receive all the information and support they need to help their children. Although it got off to a slow start, the programme gradually took off through the use of the home-school partnership meetings.

Research by the Woolf Fisher Research Centre at The University of Auckland also states this importance for parental involvement when it comes to summer holiday learning. Parents should play an active role, discuss with their child what they are reading, and focus on interest and enjoyment over summer rather than success at school.

“The key to success is not just for each student to read every day during the holidays, it is vital that they then talk about the things they have just read with an adult, someone who is interested and helpful. Kids cannot do this by themselves,” says Wright.

 “The summer reading contract sets out goals and expectations for parents and students and provides a structure for reading strategy acquisition practice over the summer. These contracts are sent home at the end of the year and contain an individualised plan for appropriate and regular reading over the summer.”

Encouraging results

Over the years the programme has been running, the proportion of students returning completed reading contracts has steadily increased.

“After eight years, over 65 per cent of all students and their families keep up their contracts every day during the holidays,” says Wright. “The programme has been extended into the short holidays as well. Many children have now read with an adult for 1,000 nights in a row, without a break.”

For these students there is no ‘catch-up’ effect when they come back to school after the summer holidays – they do not lose any of reading gains they have made. Also, children who complete their contracts experience an average year-on-year gain in reading achievement which is greater than that of children who do not complete reading contracts.

Teachers’ effectiveness, in the area of reading, is also something Clayton Park School has addressed to combat summer learning loss. This includes focused professional development, quality assurance and the use of reading achievement data.

Secondary schools join in

Secondary schools are also encouraging students to partake in holiday reading to fight summer learning loss, but in slightly different ways. Mahurangi College in Warkworth, a decile 7 secondary school, has been working hard to reduce the loss of reading levels through the use of their school library. The school library has put in place a programme called ‘Book Break’, where students are allowed to borrow up to six books to read over the summer holidays. They have a special ‘Book Break’ borrowing day and guided help for students from the school librarians to select suitable books for their reading level. The librarians also educate students about the importance of summer reading and practising a skill in order not to lose what you have learned. This is a simple, yet effective way to keep students learning over the summer holidays.

Libraries help out

Public libraries around the country are also doing their bit to encourage children to keep reading over the summer holidays, many of them holding summer reading programmes in a bid to reverse the summer slide. The Association of Public Libraries of New Zealand highlights that summer learning loss can have lasting effects on educational outcomes and it can set children back by one month on average from before the summer break and can have long-lasting effects.

“Low literacy levels can trap kids in a cycle of poor health, limited employment opportunities and reduced income levels. This often continues as their children in turn lack access to reading materials,” says Tim Antric, director of Public Libraries of New Zealand.

Preventing this can be as simple as encouraging kids to read five books over the summer break. Mahurangi College has already put in place something similar and has had notable success with it. Primary and secondary schools also work in liaison with public libraries so children know what summer reading programmes are available to them, and are encouraged to attend and make use of the free services that public libraries offer.

Summer reading should be encouraged as an enjoyable task, not a chore. According to findings from research by the Woolf Fisher Research Centre at The University of Auckland, results show that engagement in reading over summer relies on students selecting and enjoying texts as part of leisure activities. Children need to engage in text that is suitable for their age and is about something that they are interested in. Then, the learning will happen, all while having an enjoyable Kiwi summer break.


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