Summer is upon us, and with it, the specter of “summer slide.” Research shows that students can lose as much as three months of reading when they are not in school, and a large amount of the achievement gap between low-income and higher-income students can be attributed to a lack of access to learning during the summer. Here are three programs that are helping students avoid the summer slide—and maybe even have some fun in the process.

‘STEMulating’ Students’ Creativity

During the school year, Beth Harrison, a STEM teacher at Mount Lebanon Elementary (SC), is known among her students as the “coolest” teacher in school. She’s earning that reputation by hosting a handful of “STEMulating” camps in July. The camps are aimed to engage, encourage, and inspire students to consider STEM-related career paths and teach them the critical thinking skills they need for any career path they choose.

The theme for the 2016 camps is computer science. Students will be using Blockly programming to create programs for Ozobots, and will create music apps and programs using Goggle CS and Scratch. Students will also use what they’ve learned to create name bracelets and necklaces using binary code.

Campers will use Defined STEM, a project-based supplemental curriculum aimed to expose students to new career options, to complete individual tasks related to their projects. For example, in keeping with the computer science theme, students may complete supplemental tasks associated with being a communications engineer or computer manufacturer to further their understanding of those career paths.

At the end of the camp, students will take a two-day excursion to nearby Charleston, South Carolina, to tour the Boeing Dreamliner aeronautical engineering plant. The trip will show aspiring engineers where the “magic” happens and helps them see what they’ve learned at camp in action.

“Summer learning programs and camps can make a huge difference in stopping the summer slide,” said Harrison. “Involving kids in hands-on experiences and encouraging them to have a purpose for creating tangible items is what they will remember and take away from the camps. Seeing their creations come to life helps them develop critical thinking skills, which helps not only in STEM, but all academic areas.”

Harrison said that students who attend summer STEM programs typically return to school in the fall with an advantage in math and science. For those not able to attend camps, Harrison posts various STEM opportunities and activities on the school Facebook page so parents can offer their kids STEM-related activities while school is out.

“The number one thing I hope students take away from camp is inspiration,” said Harrison. “By participating in the ‘STEMulation’ camps, these young students will take away what they learned about computer science this summer and continue to pursue STEM career paths long into high school, college, and beyond.”

The ‘Five-Book Dive’ Aims to Create Lifelong Readers

This summer, Austin Independent School District (TX) is combatting the summer reading slide by challenging its students and staff to take the “Five-Book Dive” by reading five books of their choice before the beginning of the 2016–2017 school year. The district is weaving this challenge into summer school programming such as LitCamps, where students have time to read within the engaging environment of a camp.  

For students who can’t attend in-person summer school opportunities, the district has partnered with personalized learning environment myON to provide students with access to thousands of e-books. Students got access to myON in May so that they could practice using the site before leaving for summer vacation. Some schools even challenged students to read five books before they left for summer break.

Rather than assigning one book for all students, Administrative Supervisor of Language Arts Claire Hagen Alvarado said, “We’ve taken a differentiated approach with the ‘Five-Book Dive’ to meet the needs of all levels of student readers.” Alvarado expects that students will select books that they can read easily and that they want to read. Superintendent Dr. Paul Cruz collaborated with the district’s librarians and the Language Arts team to provide recommended reading lists for each grade to help readers get started. The Austin Public Libraries are helping to promote the lists, provide access to the titles, and offer free computer and WiFi access for students who need them.

With their myON accounts, students will be able to download up to 20 books on many types of devices to read offline. But the most challenging part is matching students with books that they want to read. “Matching kids with books is the art and magic of language arts teachers and librarians,” said Alvarado. “Students will read more when they are interested in what they are reading and when they can read with fluency and comprehension on their own.”

So instead of offering prizes for most pages or books read, Alvarado said, “We find that the best way to inspire students is to connect them with books that they love and want to keep reading when they are not in the classroom. We aim to build lifelong readers, which means that students read for entertainment or information instead of reading for a prize.”  

Fun Helps Readers RISE to the Occasion

In Utah, the nonprofit RISE Institute for Literacy is providing a summer reading program for students who will be entering first through fourth grades. During the four-week program, students will have in-person lessons two hours per week and have 24/7 access to Reading Horizons software. This access will actually continue throughout the 2016–2017 school year.

According to Laura Axtell, an educational specialist at Reading Horizons, each week, students will rotate among four sessions: Literacy-based activities, Response to Reading activities (writing), Literacy Games, and Software Lessons. Each program session will end with a “guest reader” who will read aloud and provide an extension activity. Students will earn coins for completing items on the software during the program and at home, and will be able to use the coins they’ve earned to purchase items from the RISE “store” at the end of the program. Students will also be able to play the software games at home on weekends.

In Axtell’s experience, Reading Horizons motivates students to read more because “they experience rapid progress and success creates greater motivation.” The Reading Horizons method is “sequential, multisensory, and interactive,” but also enjoyable, so “children are learning without realizing it.”

According to Axtell, “Summer reading instruction is most effective when the focus is on quality instruction that is engaging and fun. Rather than the amount of time spent, summer reading is about meeting students where they are to support their reading development and introducing them to the joys of reading.”