Summer is a wonderful time to relax and enjoy fun in the sun with our children. Summer also offers an opportunity to reinforce lessons learned during the school year and learn a few new skills. Most parents can spend more time with their children (think long car trips!) and use this time to boost their children's academic skills and to learn more about their abilities-all in a fun way.

Reading comprehension standards in schools emphasize specific skills: using background knowledge, making connections and building vocabulary. Parents can find ways to work on these skills that are fun and different from school work.

Background Knowledge

Family experiences build a child's background knowledge through trips to a beach, the mountains or another state or country. They can also be more local experiences, such as a trip to a museum, historic site, zoo or a farm, or even a ride on a train or subway. Experiences can also include at-home activities, such as baking cookies, planting a garden, setting up a bird feeder, taking a walk around the neighborhood or caring for a pet. All of these activities provide children with real-life experiences that help them understand what they are reading in a variety of books.

With an adult's guidance, a child can make connections and build vocabulary while participating in any of these activities. Making connections simply means thinking about how new ideas and facts connect to a child's life and to other knowledge. So talk, and encourage your child to talk, as you participate in activities. Answer his questions, discuss the steps involved, name the tools (or the plants or animals or birds) as you walk or work. Adjust your activities and discussions to your child's age, and aid in making connections by reminding him of other similar experiences, facts he knows or books he has read on the subject.

Some other ideas for adding to background knowledge and making connections:

  • Read books together. Discuss and/or act out the story and look for other books by the same author to compare. Read books on a favorite topic (dinosaurs, cars, etc.) or about places you will see on your vacation.

  • Tell stories from your own childhood or encourage relatives or friends from other states or countries to share experiences that are different from your child's and relate to events in a book he is reading.

  • Visit an ethnic restaurant, then look up the country on a map or explore the origins of the food.

  • Go to the airport or a train station to watch arrivals and departures, then look up the destinations on a map or read about different kinds of planes or trains and how they work.

  • Take a walk in the woods or a park, collect different kinds of leaves and make a scrapbook to identify the different trees.

In other academic areas, parents can also find ways to stimulate their children during the summer. These can be adapted to almost any age level and can be incorporated into day-to-day activities or trips. These ideas do not include technology so they can increase family communication.

For beginning readers, work together to write words on cards and label objects around the house. Make a picture/scrapbook for a younger sibling or relative by cutting pictures from magazines or catalogs and labeling them. Learn a new vocabulary word each day, display the word and meaning on your bulletin board, award a prize for the family member who uses the word the most during the day. Play alphabet or word games in the car:

  • Find things that begin with a designated letter.

  • Look for alphabet letters in sequence on signs or license plates.

  • Take turns with the phrase, "My name is Alice and I am going to Alaska with a load of Apples." Continue through the alphabet.

For writers of all ages, make a book-write or dictate a story and illustrate it. Write letters or emails to grandparents, other relatives or school friends. Keep a journal. Use pictures from vacations or important events and write about them or just write about thoughts and feelings. Make up a treasure hunt for another child. Write clues (in complete sentences) giving directions for finding the next clue, then hide a small prize at the end.

Math is all around us. To build math skills, make a list of items around the house for a young child to count (doors, toy cars, stuffed animals, etc.). Let an older child collect and keep track of coupons for grocery items. Then he can help you shop and keep the amount saved from each coupon. Bake cookies-or something more healthy. Figure out how to make half the recipe or double the recipe. Plant a garden. Read about plants and how far apart they should be. Let your child measure and figure out how many will fit into the space. Let an older child help plan a car trip, study maps, figure the best route, figure miles between towns.

Summer is also an ideal time to build skills with intensive one-on-one instruction in a specific area. If you notice, or teachers indicate, a need for remediation, reinforcement or enrichment in reading, writing or math, consider finding a qualified tutor. Tutoring in the summer can be more flexible, and children are often better able to focus when they have not been in school all day.

Summer offers a golden opportunity for parents to help their children with academic skills in ways that are fun and practical. Learning more about your child and working with him to expand his abilities doesn't have to feel like homework. Using this time together will benefit both you and your child.

Janice E. Jones, M.Ed., is a tutoring supervisor at TLC-The Treatment and Learning Centers.