Summer blogging keeps kids ‘match fit’

Researchers from the University of Auckland’s Woolf Fisher Centre are helping youngsters beat an unwelcome side effect of the long summer break a loss of learning. Research fellow Dr Rachel Williams explains how its blogging project developed.

As hard as it is to believe, yet another academic year has now passed us by. For those working in education, the end of the year is often a time for reflection, celebration, and rest – a time to step off the ‘treadmill’ and recharge batteries before gearing up again for the New Year ahead. The same is certainly true for students.

Schooling really is a marathon, not a sprint.

I am a strong supporter and advocate for the long summer holiday, but I am also cautious about treating this period as a complete break from the important exercise of learning.

Why? Because we are increasingly aware that students who do not use their school skills over summer are at risk of experiencing a phenomenon often referred to as the ‘summer slide’, ‘summer slump’ or ‘summer learning effect’ (SLE). That is, the drop in their learning that can occur between the end of one school year and the beginning of the next. In short, they lose their ‘academic fitness’.

In New Zealand, the SLE is particularly evident among students living in lower-decile communities. There are a number of factors that contribute to this. The most significant are having no access to, or funds to provide, materials that support learning at home, and no access to an adult with the expertise to help. It is not uncommon for some students to neither read nor write at all over summer. This complete lack of practice can dramatically affect performance and achievement.  

Over the past two years, at the Woolf Fisher Research Centre, we have found that students who do not exercise their literacy ‘muscles’ over summer, have a problem. As others continue to learn and make gains, they can fall behind by as much as twelve months in a single, six-week holiday break. This is a staggering loss and a statistic that often sparks incredulity, but sadly our research shows it is all too real.

Literacy ‘atrophy’

A study measured changes in literacy achievement among Year 4-8 students who attended nine low-decile schools in east Auckland. It found students who did not practice or flex their literacy muscles over summer experienced ‘atrophy’ – a loss of literacy fitness that took months of hard work and training to regain.

Concerned about this dramatic loss in literacy learning, the team at the Woolf Fisher Research Centre partnered with the Manaiakalani Community of Learning, to create a summer literacy programme called a Summer Learning Journey (SLJ).

SLJ started in 2015 and was trialled in three Manaiakalani (fully-digital) schools in east Auckland. The results of this pilot study indicated that blogging for as little as 10 to 15 minutes a day enabled students to retain their literacy fitness. When the SLJ was introduced in nine schools the following year (summer 2016-2017), student participants once again maintained significantly more literacy ‘muscle’ than their non-blogging peers.  

Their results in nationally standardised tests for reading and writing were significantly higher than matched peers from the same schools who were of the same age, same ethnicity, same year level, same teacher, and who demonstrated similar patterns of literacy learning over the previous year.

Following these results, the SLJ team joined forces with NEXT Foundation and with the MSA Charitable Trust to expand the programme. It has now been offered to 52 low-decile schools around the country. These schools are located in six regions, from Kaikohe in the north, to Greymouth and Christchurch in the south. Over the 2017-2018 summer a team of 20 people is blogging with student participants, encouraging them to remain engaged with literacy learning over summer.

The hope is that with regular training students will return to school in term one ‘match fit’. It is certainly going to be an active summer for everyone!

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