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Make reading books a priority to stop holiday slide's effect on schools.

Primary school students are already six weeks into their holiday break, and secondary students not much less than that. With schools staying on break until early January, this makes this holiday break the longest ever for Kenyan children. It is the same length as the school summer holidays in North America and Europe, and carries with it the same setbacks on learning achievements - what has been dubbed the 'summer slide' in academic literature.

As children sail through their holidays, few of them are reading and writing. Some, because they feel holidays should not be about more school work. Most, because they do not have the resources at their fingertips to keep learning.

Regardless of the reason, the effect is the same; during school holidays, kids regress in learning, and are on average two months behind when they go back to school. This loss of learning occurs because children are no longer practising, so their brains are not working, and slowly lose the content that was learnt over the year.

A study from John Hopkins University found that two-thirds of the reading achievement gaps in ninth graders was directly linked to a lack of access to learning material during school holidays. This effect was found to be even more severe on low-income children, which is not surprising as they would have even less access to material.

Other studies have confirmed this, showing that the summer slide affects children of affluent families less than poor families, because of increased access. In many cases, affluent children will actually gain in reading outcomes over the holiday, while poor kids regress.

It is important to consider the economic implications of this effect. If children arrive at school two months behind where they left off, it will take teachers two months to simply catch up. The school year adds up to approximately nine months of teaching, which means that nearly one quarter of that time is spent getting the children to the level they were at when school closed, and where they should have stayed if they had resources at home.

To address this phenomenon, educators were asked the question - what is the magic number? How many books should a parent get their child to read during the holidays? Research by Scholastic showed that reading just six books over the long holiday (two months) can help prevent a child from regressing. This number is a good starting base, yet for many children in Kenya it is unattainable as books are expensive and many parents struggle to pay school fees, leaving little for textbooks, let alone reading books.

Given this reality, the most practical solution is for children to access their school libraries during the holidays. In a study on the summer slide, researchers found that there was a group of low-income children where the effect was offset, and this was because their parents took them to libraries over the school holidays.

Yet currently in Kenya, it is estimated that only two to 30 per cent of schools actually have libraries. There is no standard to determine whether these libraries are well equipped, and no rule mandating that they stay open during the holidays so that children can access reading material.

When contemplating the data, it is clear that access to reading books must become a policy focus in Kenya. Uwezo's latest report found that two-thirds of Kenyan children in standard three cannot read at standard two level. It noted that this figure hasn't budged since they started their research in 2010.

Of course it is true that many factors can contribute to learning outcomes, and it is imperative to identify the issue to create a programme to address it. But here is one issue that has been identified - children don't have reading material.

By investing in school libraries, and using parents and community volunteers to keep them open during the holidays, Kenya might actually be able to save money by reducing or eliminating the learning slide that consumes so much of the school calendar.
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Publication:The Star (Nairobi, Kenya)
Geographic Code:6KENY
Date:Dec 18, 2017
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