Brian Foutz
I've been a high school teacher for over 30 years. I've taught a variety of social studies courses in that time. Currently I'm doing AP US History and AP Research. I've also been a reader for the AP US History exam. I serve on our school's administrative staff in the curriculum office, but teaching is my passion.

For most high schoolers, summer vacation is a time for sun, fun and frolic. These months might also include a bit of work in the form of a short-term job or a stint in summer school. A lucky few might even be required to complete a reading assignment or project during the break. Most teenagers, however, would never voluntarily do prep work for the upcoming school year.

The Summer Slide

There is a problem when students put their brains on vacation, though. It’s called the “summer slide.” This is when students start a new school year at a lower skill level than where they ended the previous year. We don’t want to believe that our brains atrophy like unused muscles, but there is literally a century’s worth of research that shows summer learning loss is a real problem. In 2017 Quinn and Polikoff did a major review of the literature on this topic, and their summary stated that:

(1) on average, students’ achievement scores declined over summer vacation by one month’s worth of school-year learning, (2) declines were sharper for math than for reading, and (3) the extent of loss was larger at higher grade levels. Importantly, they also concluded that income-based reading gaps grew over the summer, given that middle class students tended to show improvement in reading skills while lower-income students tended to experience loss (Quinn, et al.).

The message here for AP students is that they would probably benefit from doing some reading and math practice over the summer. It might be tempting for those from the middle and upper classes to say the research exempts them from the summer slide, but let’s think about that for a moment. Students in these groups are more likely to go to camp, visit the library, travel, take a mini-course, etc. All of these are opportunities to use school-related skills. The point I would like to emphasize is that no matter the socioeconomic status, it’s far better for a student to intentionally flex his or her brain than to hope a variety of summer experiences will keep the old bean from going soft.

The Importance of Schema

Not convinced about the summer slide? There is perhaps a stronger reason for AP students to do summer reading–the development of schema. This is a fancy term made popular by Piaget, the groundbreaking child psychologist. Schemata–the even fancier plural form–represent the building blocks of thinking. In other words, building schemata is like creating cubby holes in the brain that will help organize future learning. Reading is the best ways to do this. More specifically,

When students learn to make connections from their experience to the text they are currently reading, they have a foundation, or scaffolding, upon which they can place new facts, ideas, and concepts. As good readers read, they think about what they are reading and consider how it fits with what they already know. In this way, they build upon the schema that they already have developed (“Activating Prior Knowledge”).

Building schema is important for people going into AP classes. These are college level courses that involve skills and concepts that are a step or two beyond the knowledge base most high school students have developed. Students can widen their base by being well read. This builds background and context, making it easier to absorb new information and make sense of it.

Final Advice

I still remember one of my first history lectures in college. A fellow student asked about the mindset of the people in the time period we were studying. I had never heard the term “mindset,” and I felt left out of the discussion. Because I was not very well read, my transition to college was tougher than it had to be.

I encourage AP teachers to help students by requiring a project or reading assignment over the summer. Likewise, I encourage AP students to set goals for building background knowledge, especially if they haven’t been required by a teacher to do something over the break. History students can read up on one or two important time periods (e.g., a popular history on the American Revolution). English students can sample plays, poetry and literature they’ve never read. Science students can read one of the “For Dummies” books. These are just a few general suggestions. If students want more specific ideas, they should ask their AP teachers for recommendations. At the very least, this will show initiative and earn them some admiration from their instructors.

Summer is definitely a time for relaxation, but students shouldn’t stop thinking and learning. As the old public service ad said, “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.”


“Activating Prior Knowledge.” TeacherVision, Sandbox Networks, www.teachervision.com/reading-comprehension/activating-prior-knowledge.

Quinn, David M., and Norman Polikoff. “Summer Learning Loss: What Is It, and What Can We Do about It?” Brookings.edu, The Brookings Institution, 14 Sept. 2017, https://www.brookings.edu/research/summer-learning-loss-what-is-it-and-what-can-we-do-about-it/#footnote-6.

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