Joey Casas doesn’t like speaking English.
“It’s too hard,” Joey mumbled in Spanish. “I don’t like when teachers make me speak it.”
The 8-year-old is one of more than 14,000 Aurora Public Schools students who is classified as an English language learner. He speaks primarily Spanish at home, which is where he spends a majority of his summertime.
Occasionally, Joey goes to the park or plays with friends, but they also speak Spanish, which means the student usually doesn’t utter a word of English between the end of school and the beginning of the next academic year.
Some educators and parents believe English learners have a deeper learning loss during the summer than their native-English speaking peers, partially due to less practice when they’re on break.
But there’s no national, statewide, or district data that proves this, which can raise several problems for students and schools.
Without knowing the depth of the problem, the nearly 127,000 students learning English as a second language in Colorado could be falling further behind in reading and writing without anyone noticing. And the issue is a tricky one, with factors both in and outside of school impacting students’ language skills.
In addition, these same students may not be aware they’re losing ground and their parents might be unaware of existing programs that can help curb the loss, or even turn it into academic gains with some assistance.
There are case studies where English skills for groups of students are measured before and after summer break, but there’s no large database that measures the problem, said Kathy Escamilla, who is the project director for the Bilinguals United for Education and New Opportunities Center.
Part of the reason the data is limited is because there are some factors that are hard to account for.
For example, some English language learners leave the U.S. during the summer while others don’t, which can affect how much English exposure they get. So measuring their language abilities before and after summer break wouldn’t be accurate unless their exposure to English was also measured, which would be difficult to do.
“It’s very dependent on context, where the kid spends the summer,” Escamilla said. “What affects [summer slide] is your opportunity to continue practicing language.”
And not every student has that opportunity to practice during the summer, especially in homes where the primary language that is spoken is not English.
According to a 2012 study from an assistant professor at the University of California Irvine, students from non-English speaking homes experienced a deeper summer setback in English vocabulary than students from English speaking homes. And an article from 2012 highlighted the back-to-school struggle for Spanish-speaking English learners in Arizona who spent all summer without much exposure to English.
But a majority of the evidence that shows non-English speaking students suffer from summer learning loss more than their English-speaking peers is largely based on studies with small sample sizes or anecdotes.
So how do educators know this problem exists without consistent and broad data?
The issue starts with summer slide in general. It is well documented that students suffer learning losses during the summer. There are dozens of studies that show students score lower at the end of summer on the same math and English tests they take at the beginning of break.
The earliest studies go back more than 100 years, showing that summer slide has been a noticeable phenomenon for more than a century. A more recent study from the 1990s shows that at best students made no learning gains over the summer. But in the worst cases students lost about a month’s worth of reading, language and math skills.
The loss is even more striking for low-income students, who lose more than two months of reading skills, according to other studies.
One way families combat summer slide is by enrolling their kids in summer learning programs. But because English language learners also tend to hail from low-income homes, there can be difficulty accessing programs that cost money.
“I wish there were more [summer programs] that didn’t cost money,” Escamilla said. “A lot of our English language learner families also tend to be poor.”
But as much data as there is on summer learning losses for all students, how it specifically affects students learning English as a second language is not studied with as much fervor.
Even with a lack of data, educators and parents of students who are learning English know the problem is more pronounced for these kids.
One of these parents is Flor Vasquez, who came to the U.S. 12 years ago from Puebla, Mexico. She has three children who attend Swansea Elementary in northeast Denver and all of them are in the English Language Acquisition program, which tries to help non-English speaking students transition to full-time English instruction.
During the summer, her children don’t practice their English skills at home as much as she would like, Vasquez said. One of the challenges the family faces is that she is also learning English. Her first language, and the one she is most comfortable speaking in, is Spanish.
“[My kids] are pretty good at speaking [English], but not good at writing,” Vasquez said. “They don’t read or write as much during the summer. We’re all kind of learning English together. But it’s harder for them to learn when school is out.”
Vasquez and her three children all attended a summer learning program at Swansea held by Scholars Unlimited, a nonprofit organization that tries to improve literacy among high-risk students by offering afterschool and summer programming that incorporates reading and writing. This summer, about 700 Denver Public Schools students in 12 schools participated in the Scholars Unlimited summer program.
In addition, parents of these students could also participate in the program if they wanted to learn English.
Maria Valle, the site coordinator for Scholars Unlimited at Swansea, said students who don’t speak English often have parents who also don’t speak the language — which can be an especially difficult hurdle to overcome during the summer, she said.
“I’m more than sure [students who are English language learners] are more affected by [summer slide],” Valle said. “In talking to the parents, we have to let them know that everything they learned during the school year is going to be lost during the summer if they don’t continue to read and write [in English]… but parents aren’t able to help them, they don’t speak English and they don’t know how to help their kids.”
Even students themselves notice the problem.
Rainah Trujillo and Margarita Fonseca are both 9-years-old and attend schools in Denver. They both speak English and Spanish at home.
“I didn’t used to like writing but now I do,” said Rainah, who speaks mostly in English with her parents but mostly in Spanish with her grandparents.
Rainah admitted that if she hadn’t attended the Scholars Unlimited summer program, she would most likely not be reading or writing during the summer. Margarita echoed the same sentiment.
Joey, the ELL student from Aurora, stands in stark contrast to these girls. Since he doesn’t participate in any programs during the summer he doesn’t read, write or speak English for nearly three months.
A possible solution
These kids exemplify one of the main contributors to summer slide: availability of programs. While they participated in a summer program that keeps them writing and reading in between school years, that’s not the case for most students.
“There are limited opportunities for kids to engage in the kind of things that enrich your vocabulary and continue to propel your language learning,” Escamilla said.
Summer programs don’t even have to be specifically geared toward learning English or take place in a school setting to be beneficial, Escamilla said. For students learning English, simply engaging and practicing the language by talking and playing with other students can help stave off summer slide, she said.
“You can learn [English] by playing board games, you can learn English by being in little league and being on a team where everyone speaks English and you have to understand all the rules and you have to interact with kids,” Escamilla said. “There are all sorts of context and ways to learn English.”
But these programs come at a cost — literally. According to data from Afterschool Alliance, an organization that raises awareness of how important after school programs are, the average cost of summer programs in 2013 was $250 per child. If this applied to Vasquez and her three kids, they would have had to pay $1000 to keep learning English during the summer.
In addition, summer slide doesn’t just affect students during the summer, but the following school year as well, when these learning losses spill over.
In a survey from the National Summer Learning Association, 330 teachers out of a sample of 500 said it takes them three to four weeks to re-teach their students material from the previous year and 120 said it takes them even longer.
This can have a discouraging effect on students learning English, said Valle, the bilingual site coordinator.
“They have to start all over [the beginning of each academic year] and they get frustrated because they are coming again and again and making the progress but losing it,” she said. “They think ‘Why do I have to do it again?’”
But with some help from outside programs, these students might not have to “do it again.”
In addition to the summer program offered by Scholars Unlimited in Denver, Emerald Elementary in Broomfield works with the YMCA to host the free Cultural Awareness Through Creative Horizons (CATCH) camp.
While not specifically geared toward English language learners, the camp is free and targeted toward at-risk students in a historically white and middle-class community, such as those who are economically disadvantaged or behind in reading and writing.
More than half of the students at Emerald receive free or reduced lunch. In addition, about 45 percent of the students are Hispanic and almost a quarter are English language learners.
“It’s a really nurturing environment for kids to come into CATCH camp,” she said. “If they can have that summertime where they have fun, low pressure opportunities to practice English that’s not the high stakes experience of raising their hand in the classroom when you’re not sure if you have the answer right, I think it helps build this more trusting community for the kids.”
The feedback and data from these programs reflects the potential benefits.
According to teacher surveys at Emerald, students who participated in outside academic programs, including CATCH camp, saw an improvement in homework completion, participation and behavior.
In addition, commentary from parents on surveys indicated that they saw improvements in their children’s reading and homework.
And the Scholars Unlimited summer program reflects the same pattern seen at CATCH camp.
Students are given a reading comprehension assessment before and after the program to measure their English skills. Data from 2014 showed students made significant gains in literacy skills. A majority of the students were at or above grade level in reading, writing and speaking English by the end of the program.
If the data holds true for this summer, students won’t only avoid summer slide, but actually make gains in their language skills.
“We have many students who are new to the U.S. At one point we had 21 languages spoken in this school,” Reuss said. “Children and their families love these programs. These students are exposed to opportunities they wouldn’t have had otherwise. They love coming to summer school…it’s just a shame it’s not offered everywhere.”