Summer Learning Loss: The Problem and Some Solutions

Summer is just around the corner. Cue influx of articles, blog posts, and discussions about dreaded summer learning loss and summer learning opportunities. (And here’s one more, haha!) Before we go into a frenzy, signing kids up for educational summer camps, making reading schedules, and grasping for workbooks for our children, let’s take a look at summer learning loss research and then reflect on what our kids—and the kids in our community—really need this summer.

The Jury Is Still Out on Summer Learning Loss

Summer learning loss, or the catchier “summer slide,” receives a lot of attention every year. In 2018, one researcher found about 50,000 stories in the media on the topic, many with gloomy forecasts of how far children “fall behind” each summer.

Some studies suggest a one-month loss in academic achievement over the summer so that when children return to school in the fall they are a month behind their achievements reached by the end of the previous school year. Other studies say there may be up to a three-month reading gap created over the summer when comparing children who read during the summer and children who do not read or do so very little.

However, overall, the summer learning loss research is truly mixed.

In fact, a review of the available data in 2019 found that fewer than 10 percent of children starting first grade experience a one-month learning loss in math and reading, according to Abel J. Koury, Senior Research Associate at Ohio State University. This went up a few percentage points when looking at children starting second grade, but overall the vast majority of children do not lose a month of learning over the summer.

By the end of fourth grade, there is little difference between those perceived to have experienced a summer slide, with test scores varying by justv0.04 points in math and 0.12 points in reading, according to Koury.

Are There Summer Learning Gains?

While we may be concerned at first about summer learning loss, the next question for some may be, are there learning gains to be had during the summer?

The answer is a resounding, “yes,” but they may not come in the way we first think.

Summer “homework” is not really the answer. In fact, Koury’s research found that 78 percent of parents of children who gained reading skills during the summer and 79 percent of parents of children who “slid” during the summer read to their children regularly during the summer. There was however, a slight perceived difference among children who read independently on a regular basis during the summer.

Additionally, there are two ways children can learn and wire their brains for success during the summer, and guess what? Neither involve workbooks or academic training. Both rely on downtime.

First, while we Americans are not typically good at allowing ourselves and our brains (or our children’s brains) to rest, doing so is actually quite important. “When the brain is at rest—daydreaming, staring into space, meditating, and sleeping—it is consolidating new information and skills, making connections that can only come with what we call radical downtime,” according to William Stixrud, Ph.D. and Ned Johnson in an article in Psychology Today.

In addition to allowing time for rest, the summer has been observed to be a critical time for children to pick up reasoning and life skills that often fall by the wayside when they are engaged in academic endeavors and structured extracurricular activities.

Some studies have shown that while some children may temporarily forget certain math processes they learned in school, their math reasoning sometimes improves as they actually apply math skills to their day. Whether baking, dividing up cookies among friends, or calculating how many hours until they can have a popsicle, children often naturally engage with numbers throughout the summer.

Furthermore, children tend to pick up valuable life stills during the summer as they have time to engage more naturally with the outside world. They may help cook dinner, help with laundry, pack their own suitcase for a trip, or  use some physics and risk assessment skills to decide which trees to climb and how high to climb.

Thus, we parents can calm our worries about summer learning loss and focus instead on what our children have to gain during the summer.

Who Is at Risk for Summer Learning Loss?

While the studies are mixed, there is no denying the countless headlines and studies that claim children slip a little in their academics during the summer. As Koury noted, learning loss is evident among just a minority of students, but who are these students? Should we worry? And how can we help them?

The first guess might be that children who are already behind my lose more during the summer, but Koury says that’s not actually the case. In his observation, children with the highest math and reading test scores are the ones who tended to slide during the summer. Perhaps these students have been able to cram a lot of information into their brains during the school year without taking 100 percent of it into their long-term learning.

Allowing these students time to explore and rest may help them solidify some of what they learned, and evidence shows these children tend to “recover” academically fairly quickly when they return to school in the fall.

What Should Your Children Do This Summer?

If we’ve calmed some fears of summer learning loss, we might then wonder, what should children do during the summer? The summer break is long, and while rest is good, most children don’t want to stare into space for three months.

The summer is a great time to allow children to enjoy books. Let them choose books from the library, them flip through magazines, or read comic books independently. Helping our children ignite a love for reading can benefit them in countless ways long-term.

Also, while summer homework assignments tend not to demonstrate much academic advantage, one study showed that children who read independently during the summer between first and second grade did have a slight advantage over their classmates.

In addition to reading time, allow children to follow their own interests. Talk to them about how they’d like to spend their summer days, what they’d like to learn, and what they’d like to try for the first time perhaps. Maybe  they’d like to learn to draw better, or maybe they’d like to learn about all the types of birds that live in their neighborhood. It matters much less what exactly they are learning and much more that they are motivated to learn, gather information, and apply and improve their skills.

If you plan to sign your child up for some summer camps, try to take their input, and also seek out camps and activities that provide some unstructured time and some self-directed or group-directed activities.

How to Help Those Who Lag Academically Take Advantage of Their Summer:

When we think about summer learning opportunities for our own children, it can be a relief to know that summer learning loss may not be all it’s hyped up to be. It’s good to know that our children can and should have undirected free time, relaxation, and some good old fun during the summer.

However, we should also take a moment to think outside of our own home for a moment and consider how we can help children who are vulnerable to the very real and documented achievement gap between children from high-to-middle- and low-income households.

One way to help is by providing books to those who may not have an extensive home library. Some schools host a school-wide book exchange either throughout the year or at the end of the year to provide children with access to at-home reading materials. Children can bring in books to donate, and then any student can take a book or books of his/her choosing. If your school has one, be sure to participate, and if your school doesn’t have one, perhaps you could suggest or even help organize one.

There are also several book charities working hard to provide children with access to engaging and age-appropriate reading materials. Check them out, and find ways to help all children find some book joy this summer!

The Case for Comics and Graphic Novels for Kids

Comics and graphic novels for kids can be a fun, educational and worthwhile part of a child’s reading diet.

While growing steadily in popularity, comics and graphic novels for kids have been met with a mix of resistance and some often-cited benefits for “reluctant” and “struggling” readers. However, the genre is a good fit for any reader—reluctant or voracious.

Graphic novels have gained considerable ground, breaking sales records and winning prestigious children’s book awards in recent years. Sales of comics and graphic novels have risen steadily for the past several years with a slight dip in 2017 before a rebound in 2019. In total, comic book and graphic novel sales reached $1.2 billion in North America in 2019, a record year.

While many librarians have embraced graphic novels, “an implicit – and strong – bias remains in U.S. education against books with pictures,” Karen MacPherson, a children’s and teen services coordinator for a library in Maryland, wrote in an article in the Washington Post early last year. Her perception is that even among the adults who value graphic novels for children, they are seen simply “as a steppingstone toward the goal of reading text-only books.”

She pointed out that graphic novels were given some new credibility in 2020 when New Kid by Jerry Craft was awarded a Newbery Medal, which MacPherson says is “considered the most prestigious U.S. children’s book award.”

Here are a few reasons we should embrace comics and graphic novels as valid and educational reading for children and teens:

Benefits of Reading Comics and Graphic Novels for Kids:

Draw in Reluctant or Struggling Readers

Comics and graphic novels are often recommended for children who struggle with reading or are disinterested. Relying heavily on images and with far fewer words per page compared to a traditional novel, these books are often less intimidating. However, they have complex and longer story lines compared to traditional picture books, which children will feel they have “grown out of.” A struggling reader will likely feel much more confident carrying around a graphic novel than a picture book.

Comics and graphic novels can often feature humor or engaging plot lines that can make reading fun for those who dread it. However, the benefits of graphic novels go beyond engaging reluctant readers.

Develop Inferencing and Sequencing Skills

With a sequence of pictures and a few words per frame, readers of comics and graphic novels are called upon to infer what is happening in each frame and between each frame. They must understand how one frame leads to the next and make several inferences about the characters, the world they live in, their relationships with one another, and more.

Develop Visual Literacy

As much as parents battle “screen time” and try to combat the influx of new technology in our children’s lives, we live in a highly visual world. As such, we must learn to “read” images and visual ques. Comics are a great practice for this necessary skill.

There is no narrator telling us when a character is sad, happy, angry, or perhaps feeling mischievous. We can read the speech bubble of one character, and then we have to look at another character’s face and body language to determine their reaction. In fact, comics and graphic novels can be a great way to practice understanding and talking about the emotions of different characters.

Expose Readers to Advanced Vocabulary (Often More than Other Reading Sources)

Another benefit of comics is they tend not to shy away from advance vocabulary. In our home, we’ve definitely noticed this when reading Calvin and Hobbes comics, a favorite for our whole family. We often find ourselves stopping to discuss a particular word.

In fact, a study of more than 1,000 comics found that 36 to 76 percent of language in comics and graphic novels is “representative of language found in senior secondary school and college/university placement tests.” This compares to just 14 percent of the language in most newspapers, according to Our Kids Media.

Develop a Love of Reading and Books

Comics can introduce beloved characters such as Calvin and Hobbes that we can connect with, laugh with, and enjoy throughout our lives. Graphic novels can also tell compelling stories in a captivating way that can spark a love for books in young readers. This brightly colored and fun storytelling method can draw children into the literary world and can be the starting point for a lifelong love of reading.

When our children are learning to read and learning to love reading, we should be happy whether they are reading the back of a cereal box, a comic, or a novel.

Can Inspire Creativity and Writing

Comic books may also inspire children to create their own stories. For children who are just learning to write, creating their own comics gives them a way to tell a complete story through a combination of pictures and written word. The task of creating an entire story may seem much less daunting to children who are still learning to spell and may write slowly.

Great for Family Bonding

Comics are also a great opportunity for parents and children to bond. When we read a picture book or chapter book, it is easy to just glide through the story, reading the words and turning the pages. However, when we read a graphic novel, we have to “read” the pictures as well as the words to understand the complete story.

All of the inferences and connections our minds have to make usually require a conversation when reading a comic together. The conversations and laughter that take place when reading comics together can be a great moment of connection for the family.

If you’re interested in finding some comics and graphic novels for your child, you can try reading a few classic comic strips such as Calvin and Hobbes or Peanuts, and you can also check your local library. Scholastic also has a long list of graphic novels for kids.

Printable Drawing Prompts for Kids

As the year–this strangest of years–comes to a close, I’d like to leave you these printable drawing prompts for kids to enjoy during the holiday break.

I hope your children will enjoy letting their imaginations run loose with these mini drawing prompts. Each rectangle of this three-page printable pack has a few shapes or lines. These are the starting point, and you and your child’s imaginative visions are the next step. Turn these simple shapes into landscapes, silly creatures, or an interesting scene that tells a story.

Also, as I’ve mentioned before, drawing before writing is a great way to get ideas flowing, organize thoughts, and enhance the overall writing process. When children draw before writing, they often write better and longer. Thus a drawing prompt can also serve as a fun writing prompt. If you or your child is so inclined, try writing a mini story based on your favorite mini drawing from this drawing prompt series!

I also want to say a huge thank you to my readers, subscribers, and supporters–everyone who has purchased one of my books and everyone who follows this blog. I plan to share many more resources and research in the new year!

Best Nonfiction Books for Elementary Students

Nonfiction for Kids

Six of the Best Nonfiction Book Series for Kids

Children are naturally curious about the world around them, and nonfiction books for elementary students can help them explore and grow their interests. There are so many engaging nonfiction book series for children covering such a wide range of topics, and the benefits of reading nonfiction books for kids are immense. Whether your child is drawn to the true stories of historical figures who have helped shape our world, are curious about how things work, or wonder about dangerous creatures from the deep, there is a nonfiction book to meet their curious ponderings.

Nonfiction Book Series for Kids

Here Are Six of the Best Nonfiction Book Series for Elementary Students

Rosa Parks (Little People, Big Dreams)

Little People, Big Dreams Series

This biographical children’s book series seems to be ever growing in popularity and size. The series introduces children to important and intriguing artists, musicians, scientists, activists, athletes, and more. The clean and colorful illustrations and simple language present even complex topics in ways that are accessible for young children.

Translated into 40 different languages and with 2 million sales and counting, this diverse children’s book series is likely to be a mainstay that children today will grow up remembering. Whether you have an animal lover, young musician or budding fashion designer at home, you’re sure to find a figure your child can learn from and relate to. You can also introduce your child to brave and admirable women and men who have changed the course of history, such as Rosa Parks and Mahatma Gandhi.

The author of this series, Maria Isabel Sanchez Vegara, hails from Barcelona, Spain (where we live!).

First Big Book of Why (National Geographic Little Kids)

National Geographic Little Kids First Big Book of …

Curious children and their parents can learn plenty from this hefty hardback nonfiction book series published by National Geographic. These books are packed with intriguing facts brought to life with relatable comparisons, revealing graphics, and striking photos and visualizations.

For the little scientist who incessantly asks “why?” there’s The Little Kids First Big Book of Why, and also The Little Kids First Big Book of How, which explains how ice cream is made, how fast the fastest train is, and much more. As your child develops particular interests, you can seek out one of the books focused on a more narrow theme, such as dinosaurs, oceans, bugs, birds, space, weather, and “things that go.”

The format of these books are wonderful for introducing fact-based nonfiction rather than nonfiction that reads like a narrative. These books are broken up into chapters by categories, allowing you and your child to start with the topic that most interests your child, rather than reading straight through from cover to cover. This is great practice for the type of research your child will do both in school and throughout life—perusing a large volume of information and seeking out the parts that are most relevant or interesting to them.

Fly Guy Presents: Space (Fly Guy Presents, #2)

Fly Guy Presents

This extensive series of short nonfiction books for kids presents bite-sized facts about a whole range of scientific, cultural, and historical topics. Topics include insects, weather, castles, monster trucks, the White House, firefighters, and garbage and recycling, and more.

Author Tedd Arnold opens each book with Fly Guy, a fly, and human boy, Buzz, who go on adventures together to learn new things. Buzz and Fly Guy are most visible at the start and end of the books. The majority of the book reads like a nonfiction list of fun facts, the kinds of things that make you say, “Wow!”

The images are a mixture of illustrations of Fly Guy and Buzz with photographs of the subject being explored. Some of the pages look like a scrapbook of their adventure.

Reptiles (Scholastic True or False)

Scholastic: True or False

Scholastic’s True or False book series are short nonfiction books for elementary school children. According to Scholastic, these books are ideal for second and third graders. Each book presents 22 statements made about a topic, and then explores the truth or falsehood of each statement. For example, in True or False: Planets, on page reads, “The earth’s surface is mostly land.” Turn the page, to find out whether this is true or false and read a brief explanation of why. This format allows children to consider the statement presented and make their own guess before turning the page.

The books also often feature real-life photos of the subject at hand. The series generally explores scientific topics, including a wide range of animals as well as storms, planets, rocks and minerals, and more.

Up Goes the Skyscraper!

Gail Gibbons Books

Gail Gibbons is an American author and illustrator with quite an extensive list of nonfiction children’s books published through a handful of different publishers. Her books are filled with her own colorful illustrations (not photographs) and vivid explanations of various concepts.

In addition to the beautiful illustrations and explanations, one of the wonderful things about Gail Gibbons selections is the original subjects explored. In Up Goes the Skyscraper, children can watch a skyscraper being built to learn how these behemoth structures come to be. We can learn about various animals, knights in shining armor, the “deep dark sea,” how the post office works, and weather forecasting. In her books about hurricanes and tornadoes, she explains what they are, how they form, and even tips for how to stay safe in these intense storms. These would be great for explaining these weather phenomena to children who live in areas affected by these events.

As explained on her Amazon author page, Gibbons’ books “are particularly accurate because she goes right to the source when researching a topic,” including visiting the 17th floor of a skyscraper being built.

Lion vs. Tiger (Who Would Win?)

Who Would Win?

This is another nonfiction children’s book series from Scholastic, and it takes on a creative format pitting real animals against one another to see who would win in an altercation. In Who Would Win? books, first we get to learn about the animals with several facts and illustrations of different parts of the animals being introduced. Then author Jerry Pallotta narrates a fight between the two animals. The deadly battle is described and illustrated. It is not overly gruesome, but it is a fight to the death, so be prepared!

This series exposes children to some advanced vocabulary and doesn’t shy away from animals’ scientific names, which is great for eager learners. Children can learn how large different animals are, how the animals are classified and related to other animals, how they move, and how they attack and defend themselves.

Nonfiction for Kids: Why Kids Need (and Love) Nonfiction Books Too

Why Read Nonfiction Books with Kids

There’s something magical about cuddling up with a good story book, entering an imaginary world and taking a journey with a vibrant character. However, nonfiction books for kids can also bring about memorable conversations and can reveal some of the magic in our own world.

With nonfiction we are invited to marvel at the massive size of prehistoric creatures that once roamed our planet, admire colorful life beneath our world’s oceans, learn how an inventor came up with an interesting new product like the slinky, or uncover stories about the courageous acts of women and men who have changed the course of history.

Do kids read enough nonfiction?

Back in 2000 an education researcher in the United States discovered that first grade classrooms across the country spent about 3.6 minutes per day with nonfiction text, and about 10% of classroom books were “informational.” The researcher, Nell Duke, felt this was insufficient, and according to Global Reading Network, her call for more nonfiction in early grades was heard.

The Common Core State Standards, which most states adhere to, calls for an even split between nonfiction and fiction text in classroom reading. I will personally have to admit that the bookshelves in my children’s bedrooms do not reflect this split at the moment.

While the United States has made strides in providing and encouraging nonfiction reading for young children, Room to Read, an organization dedicated to “filling gaps in global education,” has noted that in many countries where they work, nonfiction still lags behind fiction text in schools. In fact, nonfiction makes up just 7 percent of text available to students in first through third grades in the schools Room to Read observed. (You can visit their website and support their mission here.)

Tips for Reading Nonfiction Books with Kids

Why We Should Read Nonfiction Books with Kids

Fiction books are fun, engaging, often come with beautiful illustrations, and have been shown to help develop empathy while helping encourage a love of reading. So why the big push for nonfiction? And should we stick more with fiction for reluctant readers?

For those who haven’t trodden very far into the world of children’s nonfiction, perhaps we just need to reframe what nonfiction is and think about how children can relate to it. First, as James Clements wrote for the Oxford Owl blog, “non-fiction is far more than simply an absence of fiction.” Nonfiction “is a vital part of children’s reading experience” and provides an avenue for children to “follow their interests.”

The incessant “why’s” of a three-year-old, the questions about how the car works, the mischievous fingers that push all the buttons on the washing machine are all signs of curiosity about how the world works. This curiosity is inherent, and nonfiction books for kids are a great way to help children process some of the world around them and further develop their own interests.

Nonfiction books for kids teach children about their world.

Nonfiction books can teach children about how things work, how things are made, how people live in different parts of the world. When a child learns about a real-world inventor, they may be inspired to invent something of their own. When they learn about other cultures or where things come from, their world view broadens and they may be more understanding of other people or of their impact on the environment.

Nonfiction reading augments children’s vocabulary.

Fiction can certainly grow a child’s vocabulary, but nonfiction can open up a whole new type of vocabulary not generally seen in fiction stories. The language patterns used in some nonfiction also serve as a great example for children as they begin to write themselves. Much of the writing they will do throughout their lives will be nonfiction, and so exposure to nonfiction sentence structures and well-organized information can help them as they develop their own writing skills.

Nonfiction teaches us another very important way to read and gather information.

When we read fiction, we start at the beginning of the book and read through to the end. We never read chapter 5 before reading chapter 1. In nonfiction, we might peruse the chapter titles and start with the one we’re most interested in. We might read only part of a book and then move on to another book that answers our question. When we look at National Geographic Little Kids First Big Book of the Ocean, we can flip through and look at the pictures. Then we can decide whether we are more interested in reading about dolphins or angler fish today. This is great practice for doing research, which we do throughout life—whether for work or for our personal lives. Whether searching for a particular type of recipe or looking for parenting advice, we as parents and caregivers regularly search for information online. We scan titles and subheads to decide whether a particular article or post is worth digging into, whether it has the information we seek.

Nonfiction can lure in the reluctant reader.

We may think of nonfiction as dry. We may be trying to find the silliest most entertaining books for our reluctant readers, but sometimes (not always) nonfiction may entice them. A child who struggles to read may be inspired to learn things about their own world—things that are real. Also, they may actually feel more at ease with an informational book they can flip through, perusing a page here or there, than a story they must read straight through relying on their understanding of page one when they’re on page three. For the truly reluctant reader, perhaps the seemingly most bland reading of all will be good practice—a recipe in a cookbook, instructions on how to do an experiment. Reading lists and phrases is still reading and can get a struggling reader to practice reading without really focusing on the daunting task of “reading.”

5 Tips for Reading Nonfiction with Kids

If you’re introducing nonfiction books to your child, or if they’re bringing them to you to read, here are a few tips to make the experience fun and engaging for you and your child:

Let your child take the lead.

If you visit a library or bookstore, introduce your child to the nonfiction section, and let them peruse the books there. Let them see which topics suit them, which images jump out and make them curious. Also, when you sit down to dive into a nonfiction book, let your child drive the reading, page-turning, and conversation. You will quickly learn where their interests lie and can help navigate them to more nonfiction books, articles, magazines and more on the subjects of their interest.

Try out different nonfiction formats and subjects.

Let your child start with a subject of interest to them, but don’t be afraid to explore more. You can try some nonfiction books that compare and contrast such as the Who Would Win series. You can try some of the National Geographic Little Kids First Big Books that lay out some interesting facts, illustrations, and maps. Also, don’t forget biographies. Introduce your children to some historical figures. It never crossed my mind to think my daughter is interested in history, but she is fascinated by some of the Little People Big Dreams books.

Dive into a particular topic. Become and expert.

If you find a topic that piques your child’s interest, don’t stop at one book. Browse online for additional facts. Look for a YouTube video on the same topic. Look for several books that explore the topic in different ways. We’ve watched YouTube videos that illustrate how a steam engine works and show us the fastest trains in the world and how they work. We’ve also read books about trains and how they’ve changed over the years. If your child finds a passion, help them become an expert!

Have a conversation.

As you read nonfiction with your child, have a conversation. Let them ask questions. Tell them what new fact surprised you. Try to relate what you are reading to things you and your child have experienced. When you’re reading a historical biography, you can tell your child about when it happened in relation to your own family tree. Maybe it’s something that happened when your grandmother was alive. Maybe there’s a family story to share alongside a historical event. You might also try reading a picture book biography of an artist or architect whose work you have seen in a museum.

Don’t replace the bedtime story.

We read every night before bed in our house. It’s a nice way to end the day calmly together and to make reading part of our daily life. I enjoy using this time to get into a good story. Depending on the topic though, sometimes our nonfiction reading is better suited for a different time of day when we are more energetic and have time to go down a rabbit hole of new information. We might read about a sea creature and then look for a video of it to see how it moves through the water. Then we might talk about how Grandpa saw a hammerhead shark on a fishing trip or reminisce about a trip to the aquarium. We may not always have the time (and we parents/caregivers may not always have the energy and patience) for these idea excursions at bedtime. Also, some of our nonfiction may invite images that are not bedtime-friendly. My son took an interest in the Titanic, which was great; but it wasn’t necessarily the story I wanted to send him off to dreamland with. Try out some nonfiction, but keep your bedtime story rituals.