Tips for avoiding the 'summer slide'

Summer reading doesn’t just keep kids from losing the skills they learned at school. It also helps them build confidence and a love of reading.

Giving kids easy access to books helps keep them reading over the summer. Your local librarian can help you and your child find books at the right level that fit their interests. They might have great suggestions even if your kid doesn’t like reading usually. Many libraries also have summer reading programs that offer prizes for kids who join.

It’s normal for kids to read at a lower level by themselves than they do in class. That actually builds confidence. To pick a book at the right level, use the “five finger” test. Have your kid read the first page and put a finger up for every word they don’t know. If they’ve got more than five fingers up at the end of the page, the book is too hard.

Your kid doesn’t just have to read books, either. Kids love to get mail, so a kids’ magazine can be a great choice. Comics and graphic novels are good options, too.

To make reading social and build skills, parents can read harder books aloud. It’s great to make that an everyday habit. Audiobooks can also be a great choice when you’re busy or on long car rides. Reading aloud to younger siblings is good, too.

If your child needs to build reading skills, talk to their teacher. They might offer workbooks or suggest tutoring. It’s still summer though, so take it easy. Twenty minutes of tutoring twice a week is better than an hour once a week.

For young kids, it can help to make flashcards of tricky words before they start a hard book. This gives them practice reading them in advance.

For kids of all ages, it helps to discuss a harder book before they read it. That way they don’t lose track of the story.

Summer means a much-needed break for kids, but it can also mean a break in learning and, in many cases, a regrettable loss of newly developed reading skills.

The so-called “summer slide” is particularly problematic for kids who are already struggling with reading. If you don’t want to risk a child losing ground over the summer, it’s important to make sure he has opportunities to practice his growing reading skills. Summer doesn’t need to stall your child’s progress, and it can even be an opportunity to gain reading fluency and enthusiasm.

Find some good reads

The first thing kids need to keep reading during the summer is easy access to books. During the school year, most of the books they read may be assigned for class. Summer gives you the chance to spice things up by introducing reading that is more fun and tailored to your child’s interests. The library is always a good place to start looking for children’s books. Many libraries keep lists of good books broken down by reading level to help guide you. Reading experts also suggest following the “five finger rule” when choosing books: have your child open up a book and read the first page. For every word she doesn’t know, have her raise one finger. If she has more than five fingers raised at the end of the page, the book is probably too hard.

Choosing books gets trickier when kids are older and have developed more definite tastes—including, for some, an established aversion to reading. Recommendations from librarians can still be helpful here, since they see a wide range of kids and know all the resources the library provides. Also, their suggestions might surprise you. A child who likes to play sports might find books more interesting if they are biographies of famous athletes. Remember, traditional story-driven narratives aren’t appealing for every kid. Books about computers or animals or science will sometimes capture attention when a novel does not.

Don’t limit yourself to books, either. Kids like getting mail, and a magazine subscription in their name to a children’s magazine like National Geographic Kids or American Girl provides a variety of new things to read each month. Many kids who avoid traditional books also find that they enjoy reading comics, which can be slightly more accessible and still offer a solid reading experience. Graphic novels for kids like the enormously popular Diary of a Wimpy Kid series have converted many an unenthusiastic reader.

Reading at the right level

Summer reading books shouldn’t be so easy that they are boring, but they also shouldn’t be so challenging that they frustrate a child. It is important for kids to experience the confidence that comes from succeeding with a book. The best part about summer reading is that it gives kids the opportunity to build up positive experiences—reading doesn’t always need to feel like work.

Teachers and tutors who have been working with your child during the school year are another great resource for recommending books. They’ll be more attuned to books that are at your child’s “independent level”—books he can comfortably read by himself—and books at his “instructional level,” which are a little more difficult. Kids actually need to experience both.

Keep reading out loud

A great way to expose kids to books that are slightly outside their range is by reading more difficult books aloud. As a general rule, it is good for kids to read things at their independent level and be read to at a higher level because it helps to build vocabulary and actually makes the listener a better reader. Learning and educational specialist Susan Schwartz says reading aloud is actually one of the best ways parents can help improve reading skills. “Never stop reading to your kids,” Schwartz says. “You should read to your children every day, especially during the summer. Not only is it a fun, immersive experience for your child, it’s also a learning one.”

Schwartz recommends The Read-Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease as a great resource for parents looking for good stories that lend themselves to being read out loud. Books on tape are also good for immersing kids in harder books, and they are ideal during car rides or while you are cooking dinner. You could even turn off the television and listen to an audiobook for some family entertainment. Schwartz also suggests using audiobooks to listen to a popular series like the Harry Potter books, which can be a tough read for some kids.

Whenever possible, it’s a good idea to make reading more interactive. Reading is generally a solitary endeavor, and likely a lonely one if you’ve been struggling in school, but it didn’t start out that way. “For most kids, their first experience with reading is sitting with their mom or their dad reading to them, and they’re surrounded with lots of love,” notes Matthew Cruger, PhD, the director of the Child Mind Institute’s Learning and Development Center. “What you want to do is continue that first positive experience.” That’s part of why reading aloud every day to kids is so important. But your child should be reading out loud, too. If there are any younger children around, it’s a great idea to have your child practice reading a storybook to them. You can also take turns reading pages with your child.

When a child is reading independently, it’s good to discuss what he’s reading. Kids will appreciate the interest, and it doubles as a way to monitor comprehension. Talk about the characters and the problems they are facing, and encourage your child to ask questions and reread tough parts with you. Consider reading the book at the same time as your child for a better conversation.

Most public libraries also have a summer reading program, which is another great way to make reading more interactive. The programs typically offer built-in incentives like prizes and pizza parties as a reward for kids who participate.

An opportunity to build skills

Some kids need extra reinforcement to keep up their reading skills. Ask your child’s teacher or reading specialist if they would recommend any specific skill building during the summer. They could suggest doing certain workbook pages or might recommend tutoring. Schwartz says she loves tutoring kids in the summer because “it’s the perfect time to develop mastery. Summer gives kids greater opportunity to focus.” But remember, it’s still the summer so you should try to take things easy. Schwartz actually finds that tutoring a child twice a week for twenty minutes is much more effective than tutoring them once a week for an hour. Kids are better able to concentrate and less likely to get frustrated during shorter sessions.

If your child is reading a tough book at home, there are a few skill-building things you can do yourself to increase comprehension. For younger children especially, Dr. Cruger suggests that parents go through a storybook first to make flashcards with vocabulary words from the story. That way kids can learn the words ahead of time. Then parents can group the flashcards into different orders, making simple phrases and sentences. This drill gets kids very familiar with the words appearing in the book—essentially you are practicing reading the book ahead of time. Then, when it’s time to sit down and read, your child will already have the necessary vocabulary and reading should be much easier.

For older and younger kids, it’s also a good idea to discuss a difficult book before reading it. Dr. Cruger notes, “Kids can get caught up decoding a hard book and they’ll miss out on the story itself. It’s easier to follow along when you already know what to expect, and you’re much more likely to get something out of it.”

Whether you decide to practice drills, try tutoring, or just join the library reading challenge, the most important rule to summer reading is to be encouraging. Help your child have fun, positive reading experiences, and you’ll see his skills mastery and confidence grow, too.