What subjects to study this Summer...
It probably isn’t reasonable to expect that your student will be reviewing their times tables willingly every single day. It’s equally unlikely that they can drop academics all until the last week of Summer vacation and start the school year off on steady footing! A more balanced approach would be to isolate the most pivotal skill sets your student is currently cultivating and find ways to target those quickly and effectively. Below, we’ve outlined the three most impactful subjects that will keep students sharp without overwhelming them during their break:
“Learning is like rowing upstream-not to advance is to fall back.” -Chinese Proverb
Foreign language study offers a cornucopia of cognitive benefits to support students’ wider academic outcomes. These benefits include improved memory, concentration, processing skills, task management, critical thinking capacity, creativity, and problem-solving capabilities. Students who have studied a foreign language have been shown to outperform their peers on standardized testing in every subject all the way through the ACT and SAT, indicating the cognitive benefits obtained through foreign language study transcend time and material. There is a debate as to the optimal window for introducing a foreign language, but many studies indicate starting a foreign language before the age of 12 is ideal. Foreign languages are therefore a wonderful way to support elementary and early middle school students’ performance!
There is one significant skillset that foreign languages indirectly support, and it happens to be a subject many schools are dedicating fewer resources and time to teaching: grammar. As more writing curriculums prioritize developing critical thinking skills over all else, and technology automating grammatical corrections becomes more accessible, grammar is often one of the first lessons to be dropped in the course of a school day. Of course, critical thinking skills are one of the goals of an education, and apps like Grammarly and Scriben are exciting innovations! Most parents, however, still want their students to receive adequate instruction to solidify a fundamental grasp on grammar, and foreign language classes are increasingly becoming the only area facilitating discussions surrounding vocabulary, parts of speech, conjugation, verb-tense, etc.
We know studying grammatical principles in another language will enhance students’ awareness of grammar in their own native tongue. Our tendency to compare new grammatical structures to familiar templates when studying a foreign language directs our conscious attention back to grammar in our first language. Recent brain imaging scans have shown that when we are exposed to novel grammatical patterns, the same areas of our brain involved in processing our native language are activated, indicating new grammatical ‘repertoires’ are forged to bolster our mastery of grammar. These scans also suggest pre-existing neural networks are reinforced when observing grammatical patterns in a foreign language resembling those in our native language. Such results indicate that studying grammar in a foreign language both expands and fortifies the neural pathways that contribute to our understanding of the English language. Thus, linguistic awareness doesn’t happen unilaterally, but is actually a mutually reinforcing process enhancing our performance in areas like grammar and communication.
Of all the skills we learn in school, reading comprehension might be the one we rely on most throughout life. It’s no surprise that your child’s reading level is one of the metrics their teachers will be looking at closely when they return to school! Regular reading practice is vital over the summer months. For children grades pre-K and Kindergarten, this means exercising phonological awareness, phonemic awareness, and early phonics. Children in grades 1-3 should regularly be studying structured literacy and phonics to support decoding skills and reading fluency. After this, students transition from ‘reading to learn’ into ‘learning to ready,’ so grades 3-4 increasingly dedicate focus towards higher fluency levels and reading comprehension. As students finish elementary school and enter middle school, more learning will happen through reading assigned outside of class. Thus, their ability to adequately access ideas and information in every subject will hinge on their reading comprehension skills. Ultimately, like foreign languages, reading is a skill that underpins achievement across subjects and grade levels.
Predictably, the most efficacious method to support reading comprehension is daily reading. Research indicates that 15 minutes of reading a day is the minimum a student should complete in first grade, but this amount should certainly increase as students matriculate. Students who read twice as much (30 minutes daily) don’t simply learn twice as many words, but their receptive/expressive vocabularies are actually over nine times broader. This trajectory is even more drastic for students who regularly read more than 30 minutes daily. However, it isn’t just about quantity, the quality of reading sessions is equally crucial. Students who regularly encounter challenging texts in their zone of proximal development, with consistent assistance from an instructor, experience even larger expedited gains in reading comprehension. This makes starting a daily reading practice one of the most critical habits a child builds. It’s best to instill this habit early; given the exponential nature of reading benefits, these gains are hugely productive and very difficult to recapture once a student falls behind!
Everyone agrees math is important, but few people offer a fully articulated explanation as to why it’s important. Often, when students ask how often they’ll actually have to use math as adults, the response usually begins with “If you choose to work in [insert STEM field of your choice] one day…” or “When you do taxes, or buy a house…” These are seldom a very convincing or compelling justification in the eyes of a student. Luckily, there is a better answer.
Regular study of mathematics improves reasoning and problem-solving skills in all areas of life by exercising the breadth of cognitive functions supporting these processes. Researchers have found when students step away from studying math, the key chemicals supporting plasticity in the brain drop in regions handling logic/reasoning, memory, problem solving, and learning. Studying mathematics facilitates students exercising important cognitive skills including semantic memory, visual-spatial processing, executive controls (including attentional processes), working memory, and conceptual thinking among others. It isn’t necessary for students to study math because they’ll be regularly solving the same problems in adulthood, rather, it’s necessary for students to study math because it fuels the brain development which will enable students to reason, plan, and tackle challenges in any area they plan to pursue. In short, as long as humans depend on our problem-solving skills, math will be a foundational and necessary practice.