Summer Slide: Denial Is Dangerous

by Guest Blogger
June 18th, 2014

I’ll guess that pretty much all educators are aware of the “summer slide” or “summer learning loss.” Even if there is a teacher who hasn’t heard those terms, all teachers have to deal with the consequences—wasting 2 to 5 weeks each fall reteaching content and skills. Naively, I thought the reteaching ritual was so widely lamented that parents, too, were aware of the summer slide. So I was shocked to see that 61% of parents do not believe that their children decline in reading ability over the summer.


Summer slide courtesy of Shutterstock.

The finding comes from a new survey of 1,014 parents with children ages 5–11. Conducted by Harris Interactive, it kicks off the summer campaign by Reading Is Fundamental and Macy’s to provide books to needy children.

Sadly, that 61% foreshadows all of the findings.

For example, playing outside is the top priority: “By a wide margin, parents of 5-11 year olds identify playing outside (49%) as the most important activity they want their child to do this summer. Reading books (17%) takes second place, followed by: relax and take it easy (13%), improve athletic skills (10%), travel (4%), work at a summer job (1%), and other activities (6%).” If forced to choose, I would also rank playing outside #1 and reading #2; I was lucky enough to do both pretty much every day as a kid. But reality settles in when we look at how kids are actually spending their time: “Parents of 5-11 year olds report that their child spent an average of 5.9 hours per week reading books last summer. This is lower than the time spent playing outdoors (16.7 hours), watching TV (10.8 hours), or playing video games (6.6 hours).” There’s a curmudgeonly voice in my head wondering how many of those outdoor hours were spent like this:


“Playing outside” courtesy of Shutterstock.

Six hours a week is definitely not enough time reading. Sadly, I think it shows how few children are finding books they love and having that magical experience of being absorbed in another world. With the right book, six hours a day doesn’t feel like enough. But according to the survey, I’m in the minority here: “Nearly six in ten parents of children age 5-11 say their child does just the right amount of reading during the summer (59%).”

But wait; it gets worse. There’s a 7% gap in what parents most want their sons and daughters to do over the summer. The number jumped out at me because 7% is the spread between female and male college degree attainment (i.e., in 2013, among 25- to 29-year-olds, 37% of females but only 30% of males had a bachelor’s). In this survey of parents, 7% is the pro-reading bias of parents for daughters (i.e., 21% of parents said reading was the most important activity for their daughters, but only 14% said as much for their sons). Coincidence? Only kinda sorta. There are stark differences in girls’ and boys’ summer activities: “Girls … spent an average of 6.6 hours per week reading books last summer, significantly higher than the average time spent by boys (5.2 hours). By contrast, boys spent an average of 8.0 hours per week playing video games last summer, compared to just 5.2 hours among girls.”

In discussions of the summer slide, most emphasis seems to be on the disparities between more- and less-advantaged children. That emphasis is necessary: while advantaged children tend to make gains in reading each summer, disadvantaged children tend to fall behind. Research shows these disparities to be due not just to differences in parenting, but also differences in the libraries and book stores available in different communities. What this parent survey shows is a need to also emphasize disparities between boys and girls. Hour after hour, summer after summer, boys are falling behind.


  1. My, so many numbers and so few (read “none”) ideas or suggestions.
    Since boys don’t catch up, how far behind are they by the end of their senior year?

    Comment by Ewaldoh — June 18, 2014 @ 12:04 pm

  2. This study reminds of Annette Lareau’s book Unequal Childhood, where parents did not really connect academics and reading with their role as a parent. For many working class and poor parents, they are not able to see better options for their children’s future, maybe, having a more realistic sense of the class ladder in this country, so they push their kids to play because it is all they have.

    Comment by DC Parent — June 18, 2014 @ 7:28 pm

  3. We seem to have a reflex reaction that reading is a part of “aristocratic” and not “real” life. The world in which only the privileged had education and used the others as servants of lesser human value was a major concern for those who innovated our existing educational philosophy. This includes John Dewey, who wrote in his Pedagogic Creed that literature summarizes experience but does not precede it (and of course experience counted enormously for him). That is, he seemed to believe that one cannot learn anything from reading. I do not know how much conscious influence this has had on our education, but it does reflect an attitude we are having problems confronting.

    Comment by Susan Toth — June 19, 2014 @ 8:59 am

  4. Susan(#3)raises an issue about literature that I struggle with. I haven’t read much written by John Dewey, but I’ve seen his idea that “literature summarizes experience but does not precede it” cited by many other writers on education.

    I read at most 25 serious novels during the first 30 years after I graduated from college in 1981; almost all of my book reading during that time was nonfiction: history, economics, philosophy. But three years ago I joined a book club that reads and discusses a classic novel every month. What’s clear to me as a later middle-aged adult is that I am a far better reader of serious fiction than I was in my 20′s and 30′s. My understanding is of course enhanced by discussion with other readers. But these days when I finish a novel – and before we have our book discussions – I still sense that I have a much deeper grasp of serious fiction than I had in younger days.

    Isn’t this because I have a lot more personal life experience? Or to use CK wordage, doesn’t this life experience give the background knowledge – the mental velcro – to read serious fiction with much better comprehension?

    Again, I’m not that familiar with Dewey, but I doubt that he would have disparaged the importance of nonfiction reading and the factual knowledge that such reading provides. But doesn’t Dewey have an inferred point that fiction is difficult to appreciate without relevant life experience? That’s probably a reason that boys, as a group, like reading nonfiction more than fiction, as compared to girls of similar ages. Great fiction delves into human feelings and psychology, and for better or worse (women say worse), most young males aren’t much into reading about feelings, emotions, and psychology (hopefully we abandon our brutish ways as we get older).

    So a practical question: what’s the best mix of fiction and nonfiction, especially for reluctant young male readers?

    Comment by John Webster — June 19, 2014 @ 12:24 pm

  5. John has brought up a valid point. Does reading well require life experience, or can reading well provide views into life experiences? Discussing this is not easy, principally because there are many levels to the whole. Yet it does raise interesting questions. For one: Is it possible, or not, for human beings to learn from vicarious experiences, including reading? Another question: Do children, people in general, always learn easily, with no effort?

    Initial contact with a new subject can cause confusion. Does that confusion mean it is not worthwhile to persist to clarity? Does initial confusion means there is nothing to be learned here?

    A third question related directly to children, whether they can understand concepts. Dewey believed not. Interesting to note that an approach that so glorifies children at the same time considered that they had only crude understanding, inability to react to nuances, and could not think.

    I believe that it goes two ways, that reading can give experiences; that they are vicarious does not disqualify them; also, that life experiences can enrich reading. It is right to say, as John does, that maturity can give a deeper grasp of serious fiction. However, it is not right to conclude therefore that young children should not be “forced” to read because they do not have enough life experience.

    Insofar as gender differences go, as a society we do a wonderful job of convincing boys and young men that human feelings and psychology have no place in the world of “real” men. And perhaps of convincing girls and young women that human feelings and psychology mean only “romance.”

    Comment by Susan Toth — June 19, 2014 @ 9:33 pm

  6. […] summer slide is serious, writes Lisa Hansel on Core Knowledge Blog. Teachers spend the first two to five weeks of school […]

    Pingback by Summer slide is dangerous — Joanne Jacobs — June 21, 2014 @ 11:00 am

  7. Your belief system is exactly why many districts began year-round schools–hey, summer loss happens, so let’s get rid of summer break! It didn’t help; the same gaps appear.

    Moreover, your depiction of “reteaching” ignores the fact that many of the kids never learned it in the first place–not because the teachers were bad, not because their parents didn’t enrich, but because the kids didn’t have the cognitive ability to learn the knowledge.

    Kids aren’t losing knowledge because of lack of sustained exposure, but because they don’t have the cognitive ability to acquire the information. And they don’t have the cognitive ability because of largely innate characteristics, unaffected by whether or not their parents took them to museums or read them the right books to give them the best content knowledge.

    Lots of unsupported assertions can’t overcome the enormous mountain of contradicting data.

    Comment by education realist — June 21, 2014 @ 12:39 pm

  8. Dear education realist,
    You and I have addressed similar issues on Twitter. Let me explain again: there is no evidence that IQ varies in infancy by family income, race/ethnicity, or gender. Therefore, your statement on innate ability is baseless. While individual students vary by IQ, IQ increases as knowledge increases. Once again, I have to ask you to read Daniel Willingham’s “Why Don’t Students Like School?” It will help you better understand recent findings regarding learning and memory. As far as the summer slide, there are dozens of ways to intervene. Perhaps the most obvious is for educators and librarians to help educate parents about the summer slide. There are all sorts of potential implications that I purposely didn’t dig into simply because this is a blog post, not a book.


    Comment by Lisa Hansel — June 21, 2014 @ 1:05 pm

  9. “Let me explain again: there is no evidence that IQ varies in infancy by family income, race/ethnicity, or gender.”

    Well, if by “infancy” you mean before the age of 3, there is no IQ tests available.

    Or, as someone said the first time the Fryer/Leavitt study was brought up: “When Usain Bolt and I were born, we ran at roughly the same speed.”

    The cognitive ability gap shows up by the age of 3. The fact that it’s not easily measured doesn’t mean it can’t be innate. Unless, of course, you think the only thing stopping you from trouncing Bolt is hard work and good parenting.

    Daniel Willingham can pretend to ignore IQ, but he knows better.

    BTW: It would help if you at least considered the possibility that all sorts of people are at least, if not better, informed than you are. Also helpful if you mentioned someone other than a psychologist on the board of your company when trying to support your views.

    Comment by education realist — June 21, 2014 @ 3:20 pm

  10. So, Lisa, where are the studies that show that your interventions make a hoot of difference?

    Comment by Ewaldoh — June 23, 2014 @ 2:19 pm

  11. Hello education realist,
    Having engaged in a very similar exchange with you not long ago on Twitter, I see no reason to resend everything I sent to you then. You know that research demonstrates a great assortment of interventions to be effective, and you know that I published many summaries and explanations of that research in American Educator. Most articles from the past 15 years are available for free at You certainly can choose to be skeptical of that research; my choice is to continue trying to determine best practices and disseminate them.

    Core Knowledge board members do not receive any compensation. I refer to Daniel Willingham’s work often because I think he does an excellent job of summarizing research in a way that educators and parents find useful.

    If you would prefer to read a book by a different cognitive scientist, please see Richard Nisbett’s Intelligence and How to Get It: Why Schools and Cultures Count.

    For information on Core Knowledge’s effectiveness, please see


    Comment by Lisa Hansel — June 25, 2014 @ 8:05 am

  12. […] editor of American Educator, the magazine published by the American Federation of Teachers. This post originally appeared on The Core Knowledge […]

    Pingback by Educational Policy Information — July 3, 2014 @ 2:21 pm

  13. […] The summer slide is serious, writes Lisa Hansel on Core Knowledge Blog. Teachers spend the first two to five weeks of school reteaching content and skills that have slipped away over the summer. Yet 61 percent of parents do not believe that their children decline in reading ability over the summer, according to a survey for Reading is Fundamental. […]

    Pingback by How Parent's are Coping with the Summer Slide - OptiKodes Academy — July 7, 2014 @ 10:23 am

  14. I find this interesting that parents vary in ideas when it comes to their sons and daughters. I do believe that there is a bias toward the genders. As a teacher, I notice that more girls will read during the day, whereas boys are doing more energetic types of activities. I have tried this year to make an effort to emphasize the importance of reading to both genders and create engaging activities. I am not saying that I did not before, but I made a mental effort to focus on this even more this past year.

    As I think about looking at students’ end of the year scores compared to their beginning of a new year scores I tend to see a bit of a drop. Unfortunately, with the assessments my state used last year, to find out words per minute read, the only grade levels where their scores were expected to raise during the summer were from first grade to second grade. I found this interesting, but no one was ever able to give me an explanation why this expectation was there. Going into all of the other grade levels the students had wiggle room where they could drop from the end of a grade and the beginning of another.

    Comment by Samantha — July 15, 2014 @ 11:47 am

  15. Once a parent made a comment to me that learning should be done at school and it stops when the child is home. Just imagine the injustice this does for a child to not have the support and home or the resources at home to continue to learn once they leave the classroom. Imagine this child having the attitude that the parent has about education be done only at school. It makes you wonder if this is the view of parents during the year, just imagine the summer for these kids. Wow…really no reading at all. This past year our students received iPad mini’s or iPads, our district decided that it would benefit our students for them to take them home over the summer. We also set up access for them to have books on their ipads through our district library. We understood also that most parents in our community do not have access to internet so the district also set up hot spots around our community that would give internet access to our students. Hopefully our students don’t lose out to much this summer. We will see in August when they return. Here’s hoping.

    Comment by Jovana Garcia — July 17, 2014 @ 1:08 am

  16. Being an educator as well as mother of a 9-yr old son,I can totally agree with all of the concepts and ideas presented in this article. I would also like to add that girls are encouraged to read, and boys are encouraged to be more physical, play more sports, video games, and now ipad games. Through recent public observation, I have noticed that most boys between the ages of 8 and 13 spend the majority of their free time on ipads and other technological devices. The other precentage of boys are playing soccer, or football, or basketball. So where does that leave time for reading? I think that society has to also shift its thinking and encourage boys to that reading is cool, and can be tons of fun. As educators we can only do so much, families have to step in and encourage their boys to read.

    Comment by Dulce — July 20, 2014 @ 2:41 pm

  17. It is unfortunate that some parents do not see the importance of reading often. One thing that one of my teachers had told me when I was getting my degree in education is to read when students are reading. This can pertain to parents, just like it can to parents. Children learn through example. Many times when I was younger I would get to read at the same time my mom was and then we would talk about our stories, so I truly see where her example encouraged me to have a love for reading.

    Another great idea is to set aside time to read. This can happen based on minutes per week or a certain time at night is set aside for reading. As a teacher of elementary students, we asked them to read a certain number of minutes each week as homework. We felt that this gave flexibility with their schedules. I obviously encouraged them to read beyond the asked assignment, but I could tell those students who were actually reading each week. Their abilities to read higher level text and have open dialogues about stories was prevalent. I am positive that if this would carry on throughout the summer, all students would grow academically.

    Comment by Samantha — July 20, 2014 @ 7:14 pm

  18. I am also an educator and a parent and enjoyed the discussion and debate on the article. I have two girls and both enjoy reading. However, my 15 year old would much rather hang out with friends or play on her phone than read a book. While my 9 year old would rather sit and read a book outside. Kids are different and in the summer there is so many choices. Kids have to read books all year long and do not often have time for some of the things they enjoy, which is why I think most kids do not enjoy reading as much in the summer. The environment of the home also contributes to kids continue to read and learn over the summer. If I sit down and read, my daughter wants to pick up and book to read and snuggle next to me, but if I opt to watch TV, she watches TV. Another opinion of the summer slide is that many of our struggling learners are the ones who “lose” the most over the summer. During the school year, struggling learners receive the most intense instruction and interventions to help them achieve. When the push and support for them is gone over the summer, I think it effects the momentum they had in the school year. The beginning of the year is spent building it back up.

    Comment by Anthony — July 20, 2014 @ 7:50 pm

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