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Summer learning keeps kids from falling behind in school

Jahmir Mojica, 5, reacts after correctly writing the letter "G" during a reading and writing tutoring session with Lauren Olson (left) at the Northern Illinois University Literacy Clinic in DeKalb, Ill., on Wednesday July 14, 2010.
Jahmir Mojica, 5, reacts after correctly writing the letter "G" during a reading and writing tutoring session with Lauren Olson (left) at the Northern Illinois University Literacy Clinic in DeKalb, Ill., on Wednesday July 14, 2010.

On a typical Thursday afternoon, you'll find Jadyn Ensign at the Cortland Community Library. That's when the library offers crafts and other activities for kids as part of the summer reading program.

Jadyn, 9, has read four or five books already this summer, she said. She keeps track of them on a reading log, which she brings to the library and can use to claim prizes. Since starting the summer reading, Jadyn feels more confident in the chapter books she is reading, she said. And she feels ready for the fourth grade.

"My third-grade teacher always used to tell me to read over the summer because when you do, you'll get better and you'll be prepared for what will come in the next grade," she said.

More than getting ahead, summer learning prevents students from falling behind. The research varies, but local education experts say that not reading over the summer can set kids back several months to a full year.

Unlike other school subjects, reading, writing and even math need constant practice, educators say.

"In a lot of the other subject areas it's more content-focused," said Pam Wicking, child care resource and referral program director of Community Coordinated Child Care, or 4-C.

"Reading and writing skills are needed to be successful in every single subject area," Wicking said. "It doesn't matter what grade or what the subject matter is."

It's recommended that elementary-aged kids read at least 15-20 minutes a day and middle and high school students read at least 30 minutes a day, said Laurie Elish-Piper, who directs the Literacy Clinic of Northern Illinois University. The NIU Literacy Clinic offers reading support services to K-12 students and has 90 kids signed up for the six-week summer program, she said.

Math important, too

The middle school students in Sycamore's Spartan REACH summer program start each math session with a game.

It's called "Buzz," and it helps reinforce multiplication facts by going around the circle and counting up, starting with one.

If they're playing using the multiples of five, for instance, each person counts until it reaches a multiple – five, 10, 15 – in which that person must say "buzz" instead of the number. If they don't say "buzz," they're out, and the game continues until there is one person standing.

On Thursday, the group got on a roll with multiples of six, making it up to 78 before someone forgot to say "buzz" for the multiple of six times 13. Speed is also a part of the game, and if you think too long, you're out.

"We only do it 15 minutes a day but I can see the difference in the first day we did it and to now how they're remembering those facts," said Phoebe Blaustein, who teaches math at Sycamore High School.

After the game, there's a brief lesson, then students log onto computers for a review test and to play math games.

Math review can sometimes be be ignored over the summer because parents may not know how to teach the lessons – it's been awhile since they've learned it themselves – or may not know where to find resources, Blaustein said.

"People can be intimidated by teaching math over the summer," she said.

But its importance cannot be neglected.

"Some of the kids can understand the concept and get back into it," Blaustein said. "Other kids, their success or failure depends on how much they memorize. If they can memorize (concepts), it makes math later on easier."

Libraries and bookstores can be invaluable places to find workbooks and even school textbooks, Blaustein said. She encouraged parents to find textbooks for the grade their child is entering and allow them to at least flip through the pages and let the information soak in before August.

She also recommends that parents give their kids real-life math problems – for instance, have them calculate the tip at the restaurant or measure dimensions for a home-improvement project.

Neighbors' House, a DeKalb County organization that works on students' academics and has a summer refresher program, also focuses on reading and math, director Kyle White said.

"Those seem like the two big struggle areas so we want to keep kids fresh during the summer with those in particular," he said. "Reading seems to be the key to learning, and definitely summer learning."

Keeping it fun

Wicking, of 4-C, believes that summer is the perfect time for children to "develop that love for reading."

"Often during the school months, they may not be doing as much self-selection of materials," she said. "They're more likely to be reading materials at the instructional level or independent reading."

Tutors at the NIU Literacy Clinic also try to get to know the kids and know their interests to find enjoyable material. Besides finding books, Elish-Piper also encourages word games at home – Scrabble, crossword puzzles, 20 Questions or anything related to language and vocabulary, she said.

"There is really a great deal of research that shows the more students read, the better they get at reading, the more they like reading," Elish-Piper said.

And not reading over the summer that reverse that cycle, she said.

Dawn McAllister, a Cortland librarian and media assistant at the elementary school, likes to hook kids on series. Besides being made for all reading levels, a book series can introduce kids to a topic they might be interested in – and keep them reading after the last page.

She also reads aloud to all ages at the school, even to fifth-graders. But the trick is to read a book aloud that is at a higher reading level than the person being read to.

"When you are listening to someone reading to you, you can handle a higher-level book," she said.

Lastly, McAllister encouraged parents to be open-minded to the books kids choose.

"I personally, as a parent, let my kids read everything," she said. "If you find something your child enjoys, give them lots of access."

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