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Beating Brain Drain

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For children, summer means outdoor sports, picnics, and of course, no school! Teachers and students work hard all year long – and everyone deserves a break from education over the summer. However, this two-month break can often have some pretty devastating consequences.

Researchers at Johns Hopkins University discovered that children tend to lose approximately two and half months worth of material over the summer. That is, rather than retaining the material they have mastered during the school year, students who do not flex their academic muscles over the summer revert back to the skills they had in April as opposed to June. Researchers call this phenomenon “summer brain drain.”

In The New York Times, Harris Cooper of Duke University notes, “There is growing concern about the summer vacation’s possible negative impact on learning. Many educators argue that children learn best when instruction is continuous. The long

summer vacation disrupts the rhythm of instruction, leads to forgetting, and requires time be spent reviewing old material when students return to school in fall.” That means that without any intervention, children can begin the next grade reading and doing math at a lower level than the previous year. Additionally, because reading and math are cumulative subjects, when the students have to relearn what they have previously mastered, this further sets them back.

Often, it is the students who can least afford to lose the reading gains they’ve achieved during the school year who fall the farthest behind when they return to

the classroom after a summer away from formal literacy instruction. On the other hand, studies have shown that with a minimal amount of effort on the part of parents and children, it is possible to have modest gains in skills over the summer. What this means is that over the course of grades one through six (when basic skills are ingrained and solidified), summer loss or gain can contribute to more than a year and a half decline or growth in skills.

Battling “Summer Brain Drain”

So, how can we as parents and educators ensure that our children continue to use their brains over the summer, but do not regard the reading and math that they do as “work?” How can we teach our children that learning can and should take place outside of the classroom in addition to in the classroom?

Choice. Usually in school, children are forced to read the books that their teachers assign, whether the subject appeals to them or not. Denise Pope, a co-founder of Challenge Success, a research and student intervention project, explains that motivation plays a central role in engagement with learning and, subsequently, student achievement. If students are given choice and voice in the learning process, for example, they are more likely to want to learn the material and more likely to retain it. Therefore, allow your child to choose his own reading material over the summer – and offer a wide selection so that he can find books to his liking. Give your child plenty of choices when it comes to topics to read about – but don’t assume that you know what she is interested in reading. Elementary-aged children jump from one interest to another with lightning speed.

Goals. In order to keep her motivated, give her a target number of books she should read. For instance, she should read five books over the summer to maintain any progress she made in reading during the school year. Work on getting her to read twenty minutes each day, steadily increasing to thirty minutes by the end of the summer. This reading time can be done after “bedtime” when your child would normally be asleep, making her feel like reading is a special privilege.

Involvement with others. Everything is more enjoyable when you do it with someone else – learning included. Adults have book clubs to discuss literature and men learn with chavrusahs. Reading often seems like a solitary experience, but it need not be that way. There are many ways to guarantee that reading can be a shared experience: read with your child, set up a literary café with her peers (complete with book themed foods), and find reading opportunities around you on the street.

Switch off. If she has required summer reading, be sure to balance the books she is interested in with the reading-list books. Have them both on hand so that she can switch between them.

In order to ensure that your goals are met, incorporate some rewards based on reading. As opposed to physical rewards, the most beneficial reading rewards are experiences:

Take a book-based trip. If your daughter reads a book about the circus, consider attending one. If she reads a mystery novel about a stolen painting from a museum, go visit a museum and look at the paintings that spark her interest. The whole family can get involved with these trips as well. This sends the message that adventures and excitement begin in books – but can be carried over into everyday life experiences.

Make book-based foods. Depending on the book that your daughter is reading – choose a food that the characters eat and have a cooking adventure together. For example, if your daughter is reading Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, attempt to recreate some of the fantastical candies that are featured in the magical story. Alternatively, if she is reading Louise Fitzugh’s Harriet the Spy, concoct your own tomato sandwiches that are so delicious – they might be stolen too.

Another great way to get your child involved in reading (and to show her the power of reading) is to get her involved in reading to others. If you know of a local elderly relative, neighbor, or friend who is housebound, consider setting up a weekly “reading session.” Your daughter could perform a mitzvah and also learn that her proficient reading can positively affect others.

Of course, the summer is about the warm weather, family time, and relaxation. The key is figuring out how to make those pleasurable parts of summer merge with some educational activity. This way, when your children get back to school, they won’t be faced with “brain drain” and can pick up right where they left off. Or, if done right, you never know, they may even get a head start on the rest of the year.

Happy reading!

About the Author: An acclaimed educator and education consultant, Mrs. Rifka Schonfeld has served the Jewish community for close to thirty years. She founded and directs the widely acclaimed educational program, SOS, servicing all grade levels in secular as well as Hebrew studies. A kriah and reading specialist, she has given dynamic workshops and has set up reading labs in many schools. In addition, she offers evaluations G.E.D. preparation,, social skills training and shidduch coaching, focusing on building self-esteem and self-awareness. She can be reached at 718-382-5437 or at rifkaschonfeld@verizon.net. Visit her on the web at rifkaschonfeldsos.com.


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