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Willmar teachers offer suggestions for avoiding 'summer slide'

Hannah Holien, left, and Kenzi Cox read aloud Wednesday in Nick Claseman’s second-grade classroom at Kennedy Elementary School in Willmar. Claseman was part of a group of Kennedy Elementary teachers who gathered this week to talk about the “summer slide” — a period where students focused on summer activities can experience diminished classroom skills when they return in the fall — and how to avoid it. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

WILLMAR -- Teachers call it the "summer slide."

They watch bright, energetic children walk out the door in May, but when they return in September, their abilities may have diminished.

Why does that happen?

"They're not reading, and nobody is pushing them to read," said Nick Claseman, a second-grade teacher at Kennedy Elementary School in Willmar. Though he's taught just three years, Claseman said he's already seen evidence of the slide, just as his more-experienced colleagues.

Claseman was part of a group of Kennedy teachers who gathered this week with Patti Hoaglund, Kennedy's reading instructional coach, to talk about the summer slide and how to avoid it. The teachers in the group had experience ranging from 3 to 46 years in education.

All of the teachers said they have witnessed the slide themselves. As a result, the beginning of a school year is often taken up with review of concepts students learned the previous year but have forgotten. Some review may always be necessary, but schools would like to keep it to a minimum.

Hoaglund, who has worked in education for 46 years, said it's important for parents to read to their children, even through middle school, and to encourage them to read.

The teachers said their suggestions are not the only ways to keep kids on track in the summer but their ideas could be a springboard for families to find their own ways to keep kids' minds engaged outside school.

Reading is the key to preventing the slide, the teachers said, and they had some suggestions for math and writing, too.

All of them urged parents to be aware of and try to limit the time children spend looking at television or computer screens.

For kids who claim to not like reading, the teachers had suggestions for keeping skills sharp without children noticing. Lots of daily activities can be used to sneak in a little reading time.

Plan a menu. "Have kids plan a menu," suggested Maria Husted, a reading interventionist at Kennedy and a former classroom and substitute teacher. Planning a menu will have them digging through cookbooks for recipes, writing out grocery lists and helping with the shopping. Measuring ingredients even brings math into play.

Read in front of your kids. It's a good idea for parents to model reading for their kids, so that they learn that it's something people do their whole lives, said Angie Michelson, a fifth-grade teacher.

Husted said she sometimes wished she could give an assignment to parents - take the book that first got you excited about reading and share it with your kids.

Kids can also read to parents while they are cooking, gardening or doing other work around the house.

Set a reading schedule. Some families find it works to schedule a time every day for reading, perhaps 20 minutes after lunch each day, said Kristy Gratton, a first-grade teacher. "Try to schedule a time where it can be a routine."

For older kids who are interested in sports, have them look up statistics in a newspaper sports section, Michelson said. They can look for magazine articles or books about favorite players.

For little kids, "give them a newspaper and a highlighter," Hoaglund said. They can search for letters they know or words they recognize.

If there are no books in the house, go to the library. The Willmar Public Library has all sorts of programs for children, and librarians can help children find books about their favorite subjects. The teachers said they have taught their students how to choose a book at their level by reading just one page. After reading a book, talk about the story, to gauge comprehension.

If English is not your first language. Go ahead and read to children in your native language, it's the reading that's important. Talk about what's in the books. Hoaglund said it can be good for children learning English to read poetry, too.

Flash cards and playing cards. To keep kids fluent in math, flash cards are a great tool, the teachers said. It's easy to find math-related card games online, too.

Playing card games can also help children build their social skills by interacting with others, added Jean Petterson, a retired teacher who worked in the district 32 years and is now an interventionist.

Hoaglund suggested doing "two-minute math" by getting out flash cards during commercials while the family is watching TV.

Flash cards don't have to be top-of-the-line to be effective. They can be homemade, printed out from the Internet or purchased at a dollar store.

Math on the go. In the car, Husted said, count by 2s or 5s or practice counting up to a certain number, depending on the age of the kids. Count all the red cars you see or other things along the road.

Kids can keep track of the number of minutes they read in a month or during a vacation, too.

Keep a journal. Petterson said keeping a journal is a good way to keep building on kids' writing skills. She suggested having children write a little about their day each evening. Parents could sit down and do it with them, she added.

Write letters. Gratton said writing letters is a good summer activity for kids. They can write to grandparents or other relatives or send notes telling their teachers what they are doing in the summer. Dovetailing reading and writing, kids could write to the authors of their favorite books.

Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

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