Bobbi Moraski knows what research says about summer slide, otherwise known as summer setback or summer brain drain.
It's the idea — documented over the past several decades — that students' skills, particularly in reading, can slip over the long summer lull if not exercised.
Moraski is a speech pathologist. Her husband is a high school teacher and coach. So she makes sure her son, Grant, a second-grader, and daughter, Madison, a fourth-grader, spend time reading over the summer. Sometimes, she holds out on screen time until they've done 15 minutes of math practice.
During June, she also took the youngsters to their school library once or twice a week. Pawnee Elementary, near 48th and Harrison Streets, is one of 29 schools in the Omaha district that opened to the public this summer to encourage summer reading. A few schools will have open hours in July and early August.
“Just keeping them up here at school is motivating for them,” Moraski said. “Because they're up here all summer, it's not so hard when they have to go back to school.”
Reading, like sports skills, must be practiced.
Richard Allington, a professor at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville who studies summer reading, compared it to hockey.
A player who's learned how to skate won't forget how if he takes time off, Allington said in an email interview. But he will lose some prowess, and he won't improve his skills over that period.
When it comes to reading, the loss can add up. In fact, researchers and policymakers have attributed a large chunk of the achievement gap between low-income students and their middle class peers to the summer slide. A Johns Hopkins University study indicated that the summer slide accounted for up to two-thirds of the gap by ninth grade.
Summer reading setback, Allington wrote, varies largely by how often a child reads during the summer.
In general, children from low-income families lose about three months of reading growth during the summer months, he wrote. Middle-class kids gain about a month.
That adds up to a four-month gap every year. By sixth grade, low-income students typically are two years behind middle-class kids when it comes to reading.
The summer gap, he wrote, appears to be primarily a function of access to books. Middle-class kids own far more books, and many poor neighborhoods have fewer places to buy or borrow books.
Allington helped tackle that problem by allowing kids in 17 high-poverty schools in Florida to pick a dozen paperback books to take home on the last day of school. After the three years in the program, he wrote in a 2010 study, their reading scores were significantly higher than those of students who didn't get books.
And, he says, the students who got books had the same sort of summer growth as middle income kids.
In the Omaha Public Schools, opening school libraries was intended to improve access, said ReNae Kehrberg, OPS's assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction. The program has been funded by the Sherwood Foundation.
The open libraries all lie more than a mile from an Omaha Public Library branch. This summer, the school district added three school libraries to its program.
“It's a very focused effort to be sure our kids who don't have access to transportation can get to their neighborhood schools,” Kehrberg said. “If we can get them in our library doors, we can get them hooked on reading.”
Laura Pietsch, the district's supervisor of library services, said the libraries provide take-home materials to get the whole family involved with literacy.
They also offer programs to teach parents strategies for engaging kids in what they're reading and checking their comprehension. Those can include asking questions about characters and plots and seeing if children can predict what happens next in the story.
“Having families who understand how to support children with reading strategies at home is incredibly powerful,” she said.
Math skills, too, can slip during the summer. Most kids lose about two months' worth of math skills over the summer, said Gary Huggins, chief executive officer of the National Summer Learning Association in Baltimore.
While encouraging kids to read over the summer comes naturally to many parents, he said, asking them to practice math isn't as automatic.
Both Kehrberg and Huggins encouraged math practice, particularly when it comes to basic facts — addition, subtraction, multiplication and division.
“That is the one thing rote memorization is good for,” Kehrberg said. “Math facts are something kids should know automatically.”
At the same time, summer reading slide also can affect math and science achievement, given that reading skills are important to success in math and science.
Flashcards are a good choice for math practice. And more math games and practice programs are showing up for use on computers and mobile devices.
Moraski said she allows her childrenb to use an iPad app to practice math on occasion. Other times, they do worksheets.
They also look for free or inexpensive activities that can help keep young minds growing, she said. Before they visited the Pawnee Elementary library, they biked on the Keystone Trail and talked about the things they saw.
Kehrberg and others encouraged other parents to do the same.
Pawnee, for example, offered crafts every day. The young Moraskis made shadow boxes out of Styrofoam containers. They took home peat pots, a small bag of potting soil and packets of seeds to plant.
Bobbi Moraski held up Grant's packet of calendula seeds. “How many days 'til they germinate?” she asked her son. “Germinate means grow.”
But parents don't have to go overboard. Even reading a relatively small collection of books — 12 to 15 for kids in first through third grades; five in upper elementary grades — should keep skills up to par, Allington said.
Kehrberg and Pietsch also recommended reading to kids even after they've learned to read.
“The first teacher of every child is their parent,” Kehrberg said. “This is their time to shine, in the summer.”
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Strategies to stop the slide
» Make reading a priority. Read 15 to 20 minutes a day with your child.
» Model reading in the home. Letting children see adults read emphasizes its importance.
» Pack books when running errands. It helps bust boredom and squeezes in reading time.
» Talk to kids while going about your day. Interacting with adults builds kids' vocabulary.
» Expand reading options by tapping school and public library shelves.
» Need book ideas? Ask a children's librarian or school media specialist. Find the National Endowment for the Humanities' summer reading booklist at www.neh.gov/news/summertime-favorites. Bookadventure.com offers a free tool to help pick books and quiz students.
» Tie math practice to a favorite game or hobby. Baseball fans can calculate their favorite players' RBIs. Or chart medal counts in the Olympics.
» Have kids help double a baking recipe or calculate travel time during trips.
» Explore websites for learning games. PBS games, featuring Curious George and Sid the Science Kid, help 3- to 5-year-olds practice basic math. Kids up to age 8 can tackle harder problems in Prankster Planet or Fizzy's Lunch Lab. Go to pbskids.org/lab/games.
» Older kids can find mazes, puzzles and skill-building games at Coolmath4kids.com.
» For more tips on incorporating reading and math skills, visit summerlearning.org/sldparents.
Sources: National Summer Learning Association; Richard Allington, University of Tennessee; ReNae Kehrberg and Laura Pietsch, Omaha Public Schools.