Whether it’s a family vacation to the beach, a trip to explore a new city, or just a week or two enjoying some couch time at home, there’s no denying the benefits of school holidays. Time off of work and school has been shown to ease stress, improve mental and physical health, and even strengthen familial relationships. But how long do we let our children relax and play before asking them to do homework? How long is too long to go without learning?
In the US, there is considerable debate on the subject, with policy makers calling for a change in the traditional schedule, to avoid the “summer slide,” or “summer learning loss.” According to the National Summer Learning Association, a nonprofit focused on closing the achievement gap, this happens more quickly than we think. In fact, the organization claims that by fifth grade, summer learning loss can leave students two to three years behind their classmates. It has also been shown that tasks become harder after just a couple of weeks out of school – evidence that it is essential to incorporate some sort of learning activity during shorter breaks, including the upcoming winter holiday.
“Just like exercising, we have to continue to massage our brains,” says Barbara Boyer, Shanghai American School (SAS) Pudong Campus Middle School Librarian, “and reading is the best way.” This sentiment is echoed by most educators and organizations striving to maintain learning over holidays, advising students to read more. “[But] it’s less about reading challenging materials as much as it is encouraging that love,” Boyer cautions.
Research finds that reading for pleasure not only enhances literacy and vocabulary acquisition, but it increases empathy and improves overall wellbeing, according to The Reading Agency organization in the United Kingdom. Additionally, evidence shows that reading for pleasure also lowers levels of stress and depression and the possibility of developing dementia later in life. A range of social benefits has also been revealed.
As far as what children should be reading, most librarians and teachers will advise to pick something challenging, but not too challenging. Emily Williams, Shanghai Community International School (SCIS) Pudong Campus Librarian, advises students adhere to the “five finger test.” “They open to a page in the middle of the book, read a page and put a finger up for every word they don’t know,” says Williams. “If they have no fingers up, it’s too easy; if they have five up it is definitely too hard. I tell students to aim for two-three fingers – maybe four if they’re up for a challenge.”
However, Williams reminds students and parents that regardless of what level they choose, ultimately the most important thing is whether or not they enjoy the book. “The first thing I do, when asked for a recommendation, is ask the student to tell me about a book they really enjoyed,” she says. “I listen to the student’s answer and try to identify which genre they liked, any details that were important to them and what they enjoyed about the characters.” From there, Williams finds potential matches and encourages them to get recommendations from friends as well, stating “other kids are my best resource.”
This is a great first step to getting kids to read for enjoyment, but we must also encourage children to read a variety of genres in order to decrease the learning gap. Boyer suggests integrating nonfiction with fiction, whether it be a newspaper, a biography or social commentaries, in order to fully engage and challenge students. “[But] keep in mind that reading nonfiction is a very different experience than reading fiction,” she says. “We shouldn’t expect students to read at the same level in all genres.” She offers the analogy of exercise classes, asking, “Aren’t we better at some exercises than we are at others?”
Finding books that are of interest, that are the right reading level and varying genres, making sure our children are reading for pleasure every day (not only on vacations) and keeping them engaged is key for stopping a backslide in learning. To foster additional learning, parents can get involved by talking about the books and helping their children understand what he or she is reading. Reading aloud to children, or asking them to read aloud, supports oral and listening comprehension skills, and is an opportunity for family bonding. Student literary circles or paired reading is another option for older students.
So while it is important for kids (and adults) to relax and unwind on school breaks, it is essential that they understand that reading can, in fact, be a holiday. Author Marcel Proust may have put it best when he said, “There are perhaps no days of our childhood we lived so fully as those we spent with a favorite book.”