March 6, 2019

By Elyse August

The summer slide—the reading loss that happens when students are not in school during the summer months—is a well-documented reality that is a challenge for both educators and families. In fact, summer learning loss accounts for about two-thirds of the ninth-grade achievement gap in reading, and we know that students who struggle with literacy are far less likely to graduate from high school and enroll in college.1

While all students tend to experience learning loss when they do not engage in educational activities over the summer, low-income students fall behind the most. On average, low-income students lose more than two months of reading achievement each summer, while their middle-income peers tend to make slight gains. More than half of this achievement gap can be explained by unequal access to summer learning opportunities.2

To understand how we can reverse this trend, the RAND Corporation analyzed current research on the summer slide and found three essential components3 of quality summer learning programs:

Differentiated instruction: Summer programs that provide personalized instruction are more effective than programs that do not differentiate. This comes as no surprise, as research shows that students’ reading comprehension is highest when they are reading texts within their zone of proximal development (ZPD), or “just-right” reading range. Asking all students to read the same books can be asking too much of some students, and too little of others.

We also know that choice is a powerful motivational factor for student reading. In one survey, nearly nine out of ten kids said that their favorite books were the ones they had picked out themselves. Summer provides a great opportunity for students to explore topics that interest them or questions they’ve always wondered about—ranging from why we dream when we sleep to when and how dinosaurs became extinct.

Engaging programming: Experts recommend programs that provide students with expanded learning through innovation and opportunities for enrichment. Engaging programming encourages higher participation while helping to counter the misconception that summer programs are largely—or even solely—focused on remediation.

As noted in the RAND study, some experts also recommend using different instructional methods and activities in summer learning programs, to provide students with an experience that differs from that of the regular school year.

Digital platforms offer a number of opportunities for innovation and enrichment that can easily be embedded in a summer program. For example, digital reading platforms offer students instant access to a wide variety of fiction and nonfiction texts, while the Internet provides new opportunities for students to collaborate with each other. Students might also try their hand at blogging, writing and sharing book reviews, or using digital projects and portfolios to highlight and extend their summer learning.

Evaluations of effectiveness: Evaluating the effectiveness of current summer programs will help educational leaders discover what works well and what doesn’t, allowing them to adjust for future program development. Data to consider could include student attendance and participation rates; gains in student reading achievement; student reading engagement (hours spent reading, number of books read, etc.); and feedback on the summer program from educators, students, and families.

The RAND study found positive effects on student achievement from a variety of summer learning programs, including both voluntary and mandatory programs, as well as programs that encourage students to read at home over the summer. Access to books makes all the difference.4 Public libraries, reading clubs, and access to public internet hotspots can tip the scale and put books in the hands of students during summer—especially low-income students who might not have access to books at home.

Community-based models are also particularly powerful in allowing everyone to take part in helping students maintain their school-year growth during the summer months. I’ve seen schools successfully partner with community centers, YMCAs, public libraries, and even local businesses to promote summer reading and celebrate kids’ reading success. In my experience, everyone’s willing to help when the cause is greater student literacy.

I’ve worked with a number of schools to incorporate Renaissance myON® Reader into their summer programs in order to expand student access and choice. myON Reader provides each student with a personalized library of digital books. Students can read either online or offline, using a range of devices. Embedded supports and scaffolds—including professionally narrated audio, an embedded dictionary, sticky notes, and highlighters—support student reading in the classroom and at home.

Plus, students can easily see their reading activity and progress toward goals, while educators can monitor students’ reading engagement and growth—and make progress visible to families and the community.

We cannot afford to invest in 10 months of learning, growth, and hard work, just to lose months of progress each summer. When we consider that students who participate in quality summer learning programs realize the benefits for at least two years5, it becomes all the more critical that we keep students engaged in reading and learning over the summer months.


1 Alexander, K., et al. (2007). Lasting consequences of the summer learning gap. American Sociological Review, 72(2), 167–180.

2 Cooper, H., et al. (1996). The effects of summer vacation on achievement test scores. Review of Educational Research, 66(3), 227–268; Cooper, H., et al. (2000). Making the most of summer school. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 65 (1); Alexander, K., et al. (2007).

3 McCombs, J., et al. (2011). Making summer count: How summer programs can boost students’ learning. Santa Monica, CA: RAND.
4 Evans, M., et al. (2010). Family scholarly culture and educational success. Research in Social Stratification and Mobility, 28(2), 171-197.
5 McCombs, J., et al. (2011).

Looking to keep your students engaged in literacy over the summer? Check out our summer learning page for helpful resources for both educators and families.

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