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Ohio State professors Jerome D’Agostino and Emily Rodgers answer readers’ questions about how to keep kids’ minds engaged while they soak up the fun this summer.

Jo McCulty

How to give kids an educational edge this summer

As kids exit school and summer warms up, research shows, learning slows down. Two professors in the College of Education and Human Ecology have advice and ideas.

Research shows summer knowledge loss is real for kids of any background, say Jerome D’Agostino and Emily Rodgers ’95 MA, ’98 PhD, professors in the departments of Educational Studies and Teaching and Learning, respectively. The good news is parents can combat the dreaded “brain drain.”

The slowdown in academic gains — the pace of learning slows compared with months in the academic year — is more pronounced as grade levels increase, and it is even more pronounced in math than reading, D’Agostino and Rodgers say. Children gain just one month of achievement over three summer months.

These co-authors and research partners share a passion for childhood literacy, having co-administered summer reading programs in partnership with Southwest City Schools, a public school district based in Grove City, about 11 miles southwest of Columbus. They’ve also received more than $50 million in grants to provide professional development to teachers working with struggling elementary school-age children nationwide.

D’Agostino and Rodgers were impressed by the depth of questions posed to them by alumni. Here are a few of their thoughtful answers.

During the summer, or anytime really, what is the best balance between allowing kids time to just “be kids” and keeping their skills sharp so they’re not behind at the start of the next year? — Alexia Ciontea ’07 MS

Our education system, with its long, delicious summer vacation presents challenges for educators and parents because we are keenly aware that the months-long break from school brings with it an inevitable “slump” in skills that becomes apparent when fall arrives. So, yes, let children have their freedom and enjoy the long break. After all, play itself has merit for cognitive growth. But schedule some time each day to revisit skills that were developed in the school year that just ended. You might go back over spelling quizzes that were given during the school year, or practice the multiplication table. Any set of skills your child worked on during the school year would be good to revisit and practice during the summer break. Go back to them to practice and keep them at a high level of expertise so they are readily available when the new school year begins. Visit Teachersfirst.com to get suggestions that teachers themselves use and to find reviews of educational websites.

Is it a good idea to establish a daily routine in summer like during the school year? What is the best way to do that? — Dr. Chris Beinlich ’00 MS, ’00 DVM

Yes! It’s important and helpful to maintain a routine during the long summer break. Aim to spend an hour a day polishing up and maintaining skills from the previous year. Alternate between math, reading, science and other activities. Don’t forget, there is great value in visiting museums, libraries, and other informal learning environments during summer break. Scholastic.com offers lots of ideas for parents; we especially like their “Fun-in-the-Sun Activities.”

It’s easy to get my first-grader to read books but more difficult to get her writing over extended breaks from school. Aside from journaling, how else can I keep her writing and spelling skills intact and growing? How can I assist with penmanship when I may not have the best handwriting myself? — Monica DeMeglio ’02

Writing is very important for several reasons. One, encoding messages (going from sounds to letters in writing) helps with decoding (going from letters to sounds in reading). In fact, writing and reading are often referred to as reciprocal processes. Two, spelling is known to suffer over the summer. There are plenty of writing ideas available online, such as writing an alternative ending to a book that was read, writing a play or blogging. As far as penmanship goes, whether your child is using a stylus on a tablet or writing on paper, check to make sure that letters with similar formation are being written with the same starting points. For example, the letters o, a, c , d, q, should all be started the same way, by making the letter c starting at the top. The letters t, i, j, should all start the same way too by moving from top to bottom. Having the same letter formation for letters that start the same way helps with fluency (speed) in writing and may help with legibility too. Do a check-up by observing your child write the letters of the alphabet and see how letters with similar formation are started. Keep it fun, engaging, and check your child’s product and give feedback.

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What is the best way to increase your child's reading level? Should I use workbooks, computer-generated questions and answers, or just have them read? — Becky Bailis ’92 MA

Whatever catches your child’s interest will be worthwhile to pursue. Some children enjoy creating a YouTube channel (requires lots of reading directions) keeping a blog, reading a comic book series or completing worksheets; all of these activities have merit. The key is that your child is engaged with print in any form and is motivated to keep it going. For younger children, figure out the child’s reading level and go to the library to choose books in and around that level. See if you can get your child to increase about a book level a week. For children in second grade and higher, encourage them to read a variety of chapter books, but know that if your child settles on a favorite author or genre, no matter what it is, embrace it. Try to read the story as well and engage your child in discussion about the books. Children’s skills with reading can not only be maintained over the summer, they can increase.

Is there any amount of screen time that’s good for children? If so, what do you recommend? — Jeremy Gottlieb ’83

A recent study of 20,000 young children by Przybylski and Weinstein (2019) concluded little or no support for claims about harmful links between screen use and young children’s well-being and even called in to question policy statements from the American Academy of Pediatrics to limit screen time. Screen time gets a bad reputation, mainly because many tech activities have little educational merit. But kids need a break from school, so tech games are fine in moderation. Besides making sure that much of the screen time is with academically-oriented games, have them engage in team-oriented games with their friends, which can build social skills as well. The more popular computer games have creativity modes, so encourage your children to build virtual worlds to foster their creative side.

How can I incorporate multiplication and division skills as well as reading comprehension for a busy 8-year-old boy into something athletic and fun? — Addie Natalie ’04, ’17 MA

There are some physical games that require math computation, we found some good ones at mathforlove.com. We also found a good selection of physical activities to promote comprehension, math and science skills at education.com/activity. Subjects range from language to math to reading to social studies with activities from preschool to 5th grade. There is little if any evidence on how well or badly these activities work, but if they are effective at engaging your child, they will have some value.