Newswise — MANHATTAN, Kan. — School may be just about out for the summer, but a Kansas State University education expert says it's important for children to retain what they've learned in the last school year.

"Many kids return to school in the fall with reductions in reading rates and fluency — and it affects kids in poverty at even higher rates than other students," said Laurie Curtis, assistant professor of curriculum and instruction. "However, there are important things parents can do to stop summer learning loss and even help their children improve over the summer."

Rather than instructing children to sit at a table and complete workbook exercises, Curtis advises parents to weave math, reading and oral language into activities that their children find meaningful and fun.

Math can tie into a trip to the grocery store, where younger children can point out shapes and older children can help determine which products are cheaper. Many card games and board games also provide opportunities to practice math skills, she said.

Parents can prioritize reading when cooking and baking with their children by having them read the recipe. When visiting museums, they can make sure to stop at signage and read placards that accompany exhibits. Reading also can be encouraged through summer reading programs, but Curtis said not all reading programs are created equal. She said the best programs allow children to choose what they read, rather than having them read a list of preselected materials. 

"Choice is really important, because if students can pick out books they find interesting, they will be more likely to read them and engage in them," Curtis said. "Also, if they're interested in the topic, they will be able to read at a much higher level because of background knowledge and because their interest will help them persist through bigger words and longer sentences."

Oral language skills, which are built through conversation, are foundational to reading and almost every kind of learning, Curtis said. However, with busy lifestyles — including drive-through meals instead of dinner-table conversation — many of today's children may not be as exposed to rich conversation as previous generations. To help build oral language skills, Curtis advises doing fun activities, such as board games and outings across town, and talking afterward about what they experienced.

As the author of "Literacy on the Move: A Journal for the Journey," an article about how to soak up maximum learning from summer vacations, Curtis said reflective oral processing can transition into writing if children journal about their vacations or fun activities. Children also could write simple how-to documents, such as an explanation of how they built "that really cool block tower," she said.

She acknowledged that some smartphone apps and computer games provide learning opportunities as well, but cautioned that children who are permitted to have plenty of screen time may have less physical activity and less conversation. She also warned against allowing children to spend time online without adult supervision because of inappropriate content they can come across.

"If you're going to rely on an app or computer game, then play it along with your children, rather than using it as a babysitter to keep them busy," Curtis said.

If parents have time for nothing else, Curtis said the most important things they can do is read to their children, especially if the children are in grade school, and let their children see them read — which is helpful for children and teens.

"It doesn't matter what parents are reading — it could be a magazine, the Bible or a fiction book — but the fact that they're taking time out of a busy day to read models the value of reading for a child of any age," Curtis said.