The summer slide in reading – and beyond

Photo: SHUTTERSTOCK
Photo: SHUTTERSTOCK 

OPINION: As more and more research mounts up to show that children experience a slide in reading ability during the summer break and that some regress by as much as six months, I have been thinking how best to communicate why it is vital we address this.

It is vital because reading skill takes time to develop and any setback in your progress puts you at risk of falling permanently behind. Reading matters so much for educational achievement in all subjects and in whatever work you do, from sweeping leaves or working on an assembly line to professional jobs like engineering.

If reading is difficult for you then finding work and keeping employment is a constant worry with job sheets, instructions, and all kinds of other written information that surrounds you in the media and comes through the mail.

In past years, I wrote opinion articles for newspapers about the "summer slide", talked about it on television, and helped to run summer schools for children needing help with reading. This was like throwing drops of water on a fire – it helped a little, but not enough.

Contemplating what more is needed, I recall a successful nationwide programme that aired on National Radio in the late 1970s, designed to help educate and encourage parents to get their children reading (which I evaluated as a fledgling researcher).

The developers of the programme took more than 12 months to research it and interviewed many well-known reading personalities at the time. It provided parents with insights into the ways young children learn to read, along with ideas on activities to encourage reading, pointers for choosing and sharing books with children, and suggestions on how to help those who had difficulties.

The programme received a lot of publicity on television and in newspapers, along with brochures, posters, car stickers, and a free booklet for parents with a summary of the programme.

Fast forward to the 21st century with the ongoing and worrying decline in reading achievement, it can feel as if social media is the enemy of reading – particularly of actual books.

But I believe if we were to run another reading education programme for today's parents offering similar knowledge and practical tips on how to nurture a love of reading, we could do it so much better.

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The power of social media is such that we could reach every parent in the land through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, as well as through television, newspapers, and radio. I think it would really help the many children who find reading difficult and who are slipping through the cracks of the system.

It would also help many children who could achieve so much more if they had parents who understood how we learn to read, and how to instil that search for knowledge and inspiration through reading.

You may be thinking I am too optimistic about social media. It sometimes seems a threat to reading, with digital distractions taking over the hearts, minds and lives of children (and their parents), but I feel social media could be a solution rather than a problem. We can now read books on smartphones and tablets, which means we can make books accessible to those who cannot afford or access hard copies, something that has held back many families in the past.

The summer slide is just one roadblock to becoming a good reader. There are others, such as not learning how to read words fluently and not having access to books.

What matters most is having parents who know how to inspire their children to love reading and help them overcome difficulties.

If we want our children to do well we have to teach them well, and we can start right now if all of us (parents, children, everyone) reads at least one real book this summer. If it is a good book it will bring you joy, you will think about it, talk about it to anyone who will listen, and it may even change your life. Please say "no" to the summer slide.

Tom Nicholson is a former professor of literacy in education and currently a Distinguished Friend of Massey University.

The Dominion Post