summer holiday fun with boys sliding along plastic sheet

What is summer slide or learning loss – and should you be worried about it?


The summer holiday beckons, with its long, carefree days promising a break from timetables, PE kits and packed lunches.

However, if you haven’t heard of ‘summer slide’, read on, as it’s not simply a floom at a water park. It’s the notion that, over the holiday, children can lose a significant amount of what they’ve learned during the previous academic year, potentially undoing months of hard work, with the result that time is lost (and money spent) catching up come the autumn. One statistic claims this catch-up process takes up to six weeks.

Summer play is great but can lead to learning loss - kids at play in the sunset.

The phenomenon of summer slide has fascinated educational researchers since the early twentieth century.

It’s an understandable concept in many ways – after all, how many of us would be able to return to our jobs after a six-week break as though we’d never been away? Yet we expect children to hit the ground running every August or September.

Some even reckon ‘summer slide’, also called ‘summer setback’ or ‘summer learning loss’, is so severe that lessons should continue all summer. (We can’t see many teens stampeding to agree with that one.)

Reading and literacy skills, clearly so vital for other areas of the curriculum, are among the areas of learning most affected. And those pupils who can least afford to let their reading achievements from the previous academic year slip are often those who fall most behind.

Equally, worryingly, there’s extensive research suggesting that, on average, reading proficiency of pupils from lower-income families falls disproportionately behind during the holiday period, with one study stating children in this group fall on average two months behind with their reading after the summer.

Secondary school pupils already don’t read enough age-appropriate, challenging books, according to the tenth annual What Kids Are Reading report, which surveyed nearly a million school pupils in Britain and Ireland.

This rather perturbing report found secondary pupils didn’t read as many books as those in primary schools, even allowing for the fact that you’d expect primary pupils to read shorter volumes. The National Literacy Trust cites a lack of reading enjoyment as a key barrier to furthering literacy skills.

It seems that older pupils don’t always build on their reading development once they reach secondary level, where dedicated reading time isn’t built into the school day.

What’s more, there are concerns that, as it occurs year after year throughout a student’s education, the effects of yearly ‘summer slides’ could become cumulative.

However, clearly, there are counter-arguments, too. For example, one article in Psychology Today wonders whether, if students’ skills are so easily lost, they were ever properly mastered at all.

Additionally, what happens when children leave school? Won’t they lose skills then? And what of the benefits of ‘real-life’ learning that the long holiday can bring?

The piece points out that much of the existing research is now quite old, and that not all studies have agreed that ‘summer slide’ inevitably applies. Three, for example, found that maths reasoning actively increased over the summer vacation.

Nonetheless, ‘summer slide’ is something parents and young people, especially those preparing for exams, should at least be aware of. One of its key causes is thought to be not continuing to improve reading outside the classroom, alongside a parental lack of awareness of reading’s importance, as well as, perhaps, in some cases, a parent’s lack of confidence in their own reading abilities.

So what can you do? According to a white paper produced in the US which reviewed existing literature on summer reading, being a summertime bookworm can halt ‘summer slide’, especially in lower-income families. Just a few hours a week, leaving the rest of the time free to enjoy the summer, could make a difference. And if you know your child has a weakness in a particular area, use the time to help them catch up in a less formal setting than a classroom.

summer holiday fun as family enjoy water slide

Here are some tips:

  • Look for a variety of daily reading materials, from cookbooks to (foreign language) TV subtitles, websites and newspapers – even text messages!
  • Encourage reading as an enjoyable activity in itself, rather than something to be rushed before doing something more ‘fun’.
  • Focus reading matter on a subject your child enjoys, and let them choose what they want to read.
  • Use ‘idle’ moments for reading – before appointments, on journeys or while waiting in the car.
  • Keep reading to children even when they’re old enough to read for themselves. Consider using ‘funny’ voices and reading humorous stories to liven up the experience for your young listeners.
  • If kids are reading themselves, do it in 10-minute bursts, maybe setting a timer. Remember to praise your child in their reading efforts.
  • Try and focus family discussions around things you have read.
  • Use your local library for reading suggestions, and to access a wide range of materials – sign up for the national Summer Reading Challenge.
  • Give books as gifts to your own and other children, and encourage swapping and borrowing between their friends (naming the books first!). Turn a trip to a bookshop into a treat.
  • Consider having one screen-free night a week.
  • We’ve written previously about study with a friend. Could your child swap skills with a friend over the summer?


Following several of these simple steps will mean that while you should be aware of potential summer learning loss, there’s no need to worry unduly. Check out our last year’s blog posts with recommended reading lists for different age groups to give you inspiration for books to share with the young readers in your life!

Recommended reading for age nine and younger this summer – 10 top reads!

Summer top 10: recommended reading list for readers age 10 to 14





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