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Learning Loss Isn’t Just for Summer Anymore

by David Engle | Apr 23, 2020 | 5 min read

You’ve probably heard the term “learning loss,” a phenomenon that’s been studied in great detail since the beginning of the 20th century. Learning loss is generally equated with summer vacation (the “summer slide”) and comprises the knowledge that many students “lose” while they’re not in school for a few months. Rarely, if ever, do you hear the term used during the school year. But this is not a typical school year.

COVID-19 has closed schools indefinitely in just about every state, and more and more are shutting down for the remainder of the school year. So, for the first time in…possibly, ever…children are in danger of experiencing learning loss DURING the school year.

If you’re unfamiliar with the concept of summer learning loss, it’s a real thing. Meta-analysis of more than a dozen studies conducted over the past 45 years indicated that “the summer loss equaled about one month on a grade-level equivalent scale, or one tenth of a standard deviation relative to spring test scores. The effect of summer break was more detrimental for math than for reading and most detrimental for math computation and spelling.”¹

More recently, a study of more than 500,000 students in grades 2 through 9 in an unnamed southern state revealed that the students, on average, lost 25% to 30% of their entire school year learning over the summer. Here are some other eye-opening statistics based on various studies:

  • Most students lose two months of math skills over the summer.²
  • Children in grades 3 through 5 lose approximately 20% of their reading gains and 27% of their math gains over the summer.³
  • 90% of teachers spend at least three weeks re-teaching previous year’s lessons at the start of each new school year.4

Now, let’s look at the situation we’re facing today. Most schools have been closed for three weeks to a month at this point. When schools first closed due to the coronavirus, most did not have a formal, instruction-based remote learning plan in place. However, some schools reacted fairly quickly to put some type of learning plan into place. For those schools, during the first couple weeks of school closures, most school days consisted of homework, some type of online study, and other “busy work” so students had something to do during the day at home. It turns out, that was probably a wise course of action.

Because, even if there was no formal instruction or teacher-student interaction, having this type of work to do during the time that it took schools to set up actual remote instructional learning was more than likely enough to prevent any type of learning loss from occurring.

But, while many have implemented at least some form of “remote” or “distance” learning, quite a few school districts still don’t have a plan in place and have not begun any type of remote schooling at all. Right here in Pennsylvania, Philadelphia is only just now launching a remote learning plan, with new learning not starting until May 4. The hesitancy in moving toward remote or online schooling is one that Philadelphia shares with other major cities across the country–they did not feel that all of the city’s students were equipped for that setup, and determined that moving forward in that scenario would cause education inequity among students, especially in many lower-income and rural areas, where electronic devices and internet access are not as accessible; this is a situation known as the “homework gap.” In Philadelphia’s case, putting off remote learning gave the city extra time to provide free internet access and laptops or Chromebooks to those who needed them.

But what happened to all of those students’ knowledge during the month-plus that they were not in school and not learning remotely? Well, it started to fade away. Not entirely, but enough to set them further behind kids who had been participating in some type of remote learning. How much? It’s hard to say exactly, but if an equivalent of one month of learning is lost after a full summer off, it’s fair to say that a week or two of learning has probably been lost during this unexpected, month-long break from school. And while that may not seem like an extraordinary amount, it’s still another week or two that these students are behind others who have been learning during the same period of time.

So, what can you do to prevent learning loss if your child has been out of school for an extended period of time?

  • Supplemental learning. A child doesn’t need a full school day to keep his or her brain sharp. That’s why supplemental learning materials are so helpful. Take Elephango, for example. This amazing website provides individual lessons on a wide variety of topics. Each lesson is educational, exciting, interesting, stimulating, and fun! Even just one or two of these lessons each day will help prevent that knowledge loss. Additionally, materials like easy-to-follow workbooks, activity books, writing challenges, and skill sharpeners go a long way toward preventing brain drain. Curriculum Express is a great resource for these materials, offering thousands of choices for all grade levels.
  • Play! Not video games. But games that require more thought and problem-solving skills. This can include board games like Scrabble, Boggle, Clue, Monopoly, and chess for older kids; Candy Land, Go Fish, and other age-appropriate games for younger students. Anything that stimulates the mind and encourages brain power is a good choice. The right toys fit that description as well–especially building toys like LEGO and Lincoln Logs. Plus, there are tons of learning apps and games available for free download.
  • Puzzles. If your child is looking for something to do, puzzles are the perfect choice right now. Not only do they get the brain going, they also take a lot of time! And during a period in which society is more or less bereft of entertainment options, a time-consuming puzzle is the way to go. This doesn’t have to be limited to jigsaw puzzles though; crosswords, word searches, and word jumbles are educational and entertaining as well.
  • Go outside. Now, this should obviously be done with social distancing practices firmly in place, but it’s ok to get outdoors and enjoy some fresh air with the family. Take a bike ride, go for a walk, have a catch, shoot some hoops. Whatever is available to you, take advantage of the nice spring weather. The sunshine and air will do the mind and body a world of good.
  • Read! Now is a good time to encourage reading…and not be picky about what the topic or material is. Books, magazines, comic books, graphic novels. ANY type of reading (at an age-appropriate level, of course) is beneficial, so let your kids read whatever they’re willing to get their hands on.
  • Journal. I don’t need to tell you that we’re currently living through one of the scariest, strangest times this world has ever experienced. As stressful as it is, encourage your child to keep a journal or diary of what it’s like living through a global pandemic. Not only will this exercise keep your student’s writing skills sharp, but it allows them to express their feelings, release some stress, and keep what is sure to be an interesting and historical account of an event that we’ll hopefully never see the likes of again.

Keeping the brain stimulated and challenged is a major key in preventing the learning loss that can occur during the summer and, of course, during unique situations the coronavirus pandemic has placed us in today. While formal education may be limited, and internet access may be hard to come by for some, there are still plenty of ways to keep kids thinking and learning so they don’t start falling behind. Because the future is so uncertain right now (Will there be summer classes? Will schools even be ready to open by the fall?), the best thing to do is work some time into each day to ensure your child is learning in some way, shape, or form.

1 Cooper, Harris, Barbara Nye, Kelly Charlton, James Lindsay, and Scott Greathouse. “The Effects of Summer Vacation on Achievement Test Scores: A Narrative and Meta-Analytic Review.” Review of Educational Research 66, no. 3 (1996): 227–68.

2 Afterschool Alliance. (2009). American after 3 pm: The most in-depth study of how America’s children spend their afternoons. Retrieved from 2\

3NWEA. (2015). Retrieved from NWEA 2015 MAP Norms for Student and School Achievement Status and Growth,

4 Surveyed by the National Summer Learning Association. Retrieved from and sites/ and sites/ and org/resource/resmgr/Publications/Impact_on_Teaching_and_Learn.pdf



David Engle
Hello, and thanks for reading! I’m David Engle--dad, husband, sports fan, and writer/editor. As a father for the last 18 years (father of two for the last 14), I consider myself to be pretty well-versed in all things related to education, childhood, and parenting, and I'm thankful for the opportunity to share some insights and knowledge with fellow parents. I have been a professional writer and editor for a quarter of a century (it pains me to admit that) and have been writing in the educational space for a number of those years. I reside in southern New Jersey with my wife, two kids, two dogs, and three cats. Never a dull moment.
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