Studies conducted in the United States are unanimous: the summer holidays have negative effects on the learning process of reading skills and mathematics. However, little was known about these effects on other education systems and other areas of learning. Recently, Frauke Meyer, Esther Yao and Kane Meissel have contributed to filling this gap by examining the summer learning effect (SLE) on the learning of New Zealand's children, particularly in writing, a usually under-researched domain. They added to this objective the purpose of examining the socio-demographic characteristics (such as gender, ethnicity and socio-economic profile) that influence the effect of holidays on learning to write.
Two questions arise. Can a short holiday period influence learning? If so, to what extent?
The evidence about the SLE had already sprung from studies with students from the USA, a country where the holiday period is 12 weeks. In New Zealand, the summer break is half the time, six weeks.
The authors of the study in New Zealand analysed this potential effect with a large number of children (N = 4390) from the 4th to the 7th year of schooling (from 8 to 12 years old), from 60 public schools. The sample included groups of different ethnic groups (23.5% European, 28.5% Māori, 34.6% Pasifika, and 13.5% other ethnicities). Students came from schools with varied socio-economic backgrounds: very low (58.8%), low (17.1%), and average (24.1%). Participants were tested longitudinally at three times: at the beginning of the school year, at the end of that year, and at the beginning of the following school year (i.e. immediately after the summer holidays).
Writing was assessed at all three times using a standardised test, with reference levels aligned with the New Zealand curriculum. The performance at the beginning of a school year was expected to be the same as at the end of the previous school year. Gender, ethnicity, and socio-economic status were considered in the analyses as predictor variables of writing performance.
Although students made significant progress during the school year, half of this progress was lost during the six weeks of the summer holidays.
The analysis of the results was based on the estimates of four Linear Hierarchical Models. The first model (M1) analysed the writing performance trajectories, i.e., the individual growth of students' writing performance, during the school year and during the summer holidays. The second model (M2) studied the impact of student characteristics (gender and ethnicity) on writing progress during the summer. The third model (M3) referred to the influence of the socio-economic environment of schools on writing performance trajectory. The last model (M4) simultaneously examined the influence of student and school characteristics on writing performance.
The results of the estimates (M1) revealed that at the beginning of the school year the performance of the sampled students was inferior to the expected norm by more than half a standard deviation (see Fig. 1, Phase 1). During the school year, students progressed by about half a standard deviation. That is, by the end of the school year students had come close to the performance they were expected to achieve at that time. However, during the summer holidays (see Fig. 1, between phases 2 and 3), there was a drop in performance of about half the gain achieved during the school year. Thus, although students made significant progress during the school year, half of this progress was lost during the six weeks of the summer holidays (see Fig. 1).
This recent evidence suggests that even a short summer break of six weeks will have a major negative impact on writing skills progress during the school year.
Can sociodemographic characteristics influence performance by decreasing or enhancing summer holiday losses?
Girls performed (M2) better than boys at the starting point, but the growth trajectories throughout the school year and the effect of the summer holidays did not differ according to gender.
Students belonging to ethnic groups presented (M2) at the starting point lower performances than those observed in European New Zealanders and, although their progress was similar or even higher than that of the latter, they recorded more significant losses during the summer holidays. This result suggests that although schools had an effect in mitigating differences between groups during the school year, these continued to be observed after the summer holidays.
Pupils from very low socio-economic level schools showed (M3) worse performances at the starting point than those from low or middle socio-economic level schools. However, the progress of lower socio-economic students was greater during the school year, but the loss inherent in the summer holidays proved to be more intense than that of middle socio-economic students.
The authors report that the differences in socio-economic status are difficult to separate from ethnicity (M4). Students from ethnic groups were mostly from poorer communities. However, differences in socio-economic status remained, even when the authors statistically controlled the effect by ethnic group (M4).
Is the SLE verified in writing performance similar to that documented for reading and mathematics?
The harmful SLE verified in writing performance in this study now published by Meyer and colleagues (and previously observed by Meyer et al. in 2017 with 2nd grade German children) is substantially higher than the one usually reported for reading and mathematics1.
Previous studies had already suggested a differential SLE by area/domain of learning. Previously observed losses were typically higher for mathematics than for reading. In the current study, writing is seen as even more impaired.
Why is writing more negatively influenced by summer holidays than reading?
The answer to this question lies primarily in the type of skills required for the development of the writing ability. Reading and writing share cognitive processes, but are independent. As stressed by Meyer and colleagues (Meyer et al., 2017, 2020) writing relies more on recalling than recognition. For example, «a reader can remove the meaning from the text without full knowledge of each word. However, a writer must have in memory and remember each word to create the desired content and meaning. These memorised information and procedural skills seem to be more easily lost in periods of time when they are not actively practiced or remembered» (p. 19). This is particularly relevant in the case of children who are starting out in writing and emphasised by the fact that writing is less practised than reading during the summer (see, for example, Meyer et al., 2017).
Thus, it is thought that the losses associated with summer holidays are more pronounced in domains involving memorisation and procedural skills (mathematics and word writing) than in domains requiring conceptual understanding (mathematical concepts, reasoning and reading comprehension). In addition, there are more resources and activities for reading than for mathematical problem solving or writing practice in families and the community (Cooper et al., 1996; Meyer et al., 2017, 2020).
In order to try to mitigate the summer holidays effect revealed by this study, the authors highlight the role of families and schools in the educational process. In this sense, it is fundamental that families not only have access to community resources regarding education, libraries, and other services, but also motivate children for writing activities; and also that schools provide resources so that this learning process, and in particular writing activities, are included in family practices during the summer holidays.
Promoting motivation and involvement in literacy activities during the summer has the potential to mitigate youth losses in various domains of learning.
1 In a meta-analysis of North American studies published by Cooper and collaborators in 1996.
Camacho, A., & Alves, R. A., «Fostering parental involvement in writing: Development and testing of the program cultivating writing», Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal,30(2), 2017, pp. 253–277.
Cheung, A. C., & Slavin, R. E., «The effectiveness of education technology for enhancing reading achievement: A meta-analysis», Center for Research and Reform in Education. Baltimore, MD, 2011.
Cooper, H., Nye, B., Charlton, K., Lindsay, J., & Greathouse, S., «The effects of summer vacation on achievement test scores: A narrative and meta-analytic review», Review of Educational Research,66(3), 1996, pp. 227–268.
Duffy Books in Homes, (n.d.), Duffy books in homes.
Kraft, M. A., & Monti-Nussbaum, M., «Can schools enable parents to prevent summer learning loss? A text-messaging field experiment to promote literacy skills», The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 674(1), 2017, pp. 85-112.
Lewisch, I., «Mathematik 1. Ferienheft: Fit ins neue Schuljahr [Mathematics 1. Vacation booklet: Fit for the new school year]», Linz: Veritas, 2009.
Meyer, F., Meissel, K., & McNaughton, S., «Patterns of literacy learning in German primary schools over the summer and the influence of homeliteracy practices», Journal of Research in Reading, 40(3), 2017, pp. 233–253.
Meyer, F., Yao, E. S., & Meissel, K., «The summer learning effect in writing in New Zealand», Reading and Writing, 2019, pp. 1-28.
Paechter, M., Luttenberger, S., Macher, D., Berding, F., Papousek, I., Weiss, E. M., & Fink, A., «The Effects of Nine-Week Summer Vacation: Losses in Mathematics and Gains in Reading», Eurasia Journal of Mathematics, Science & Technology Education, 11(6), 2015.
Williamson, R., & Jesson, R., «Log on and blog: An exploratory study assessing the impact of holiday blogging on student literacy achievement», English Teaching: Practice & Critique,16, 2017, pp. 222–237.