Bye-Bye Summer Reading Blues

I am not a fan of assigned summer reading. Those who love to read will read without any requirements from me and they will read what they want to read, not what I think they should read.
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School supplies purchased? Check.
Summer reading done?
First day outfit selected? Check.
Summer reading done?
One last cookout? Check.
Summer reading done?
Found assigned book under the bed and read it at the last possible moment? Check.
All ready for the first day of school? Check.

Long summer breaks from school can be wonderful --- they give all the players a chance to do something different, to take a break from the regimens and demands of formal teaching and learning. Formal because summer can still be a time of learning, just not one that involves tests and grades and high-stakes assessments. And one of the most familiar forms of summer learning is summer reading. Concerned about children returning to school with weaker reading skills than when they left, the so-called reading slump, educators have developed a variety of solutions. They assign single books to read, ask children to read one from a list of books, or even just say they can read any book they want as long as they read something.

Sounds sensible doesn't it? Well, not necessarily. Here are some of the problems I've encountered:

  • The assigned book contains upsetting material. It is one thing to read such a book together while in school and there is a teacher to support the students as they understand it, quite another to ask them to read it completely on their own and then perhaps write about it or talk about it briefly when back in school. I am saddened when I see complaints about summer reading books of this sort because I feel that they are accidents waiting to happen. That is, they are books that are complicated, the kind that kids need to process with adults, they should be in classrooms and they should be read. Just not as a summer reading book, I think.

  • The small list of books contains not a single title that is of interest to the child. This may not be a problem for avid readers, but for kids who are just turning into readers when the summer begins I'm sure nothing is worse than having to read, before school begins, a book that looks long and boring. I can only imagine these kids going through the motions of reading, but getting little out of the book except a whole lot of misery.
  • Finally, there is what happens when the kids go back to school. Some teachers do something of substance with these assigned books, but unfortunately others do very little. They may ask the kids to write something briefly about the book they read, discuss it briefly the first day, or actually they may not even acknowledge it. This creates a cynical attitude on the part of the kids that does nothing to help them when they are assigned another book to read the next summer.
  • I should say (if it isn't clear already) that I am not a fan of assigned summer reading. Those who love to read will read without any requirements from me and they will read what they want to read, not what I think they should read. Those who don't like to read are the worry, the reason for assigned reading in the first place and my feeling is that these kids need something very personal and very open --- their schools and teachers need to set up a way for them to want to read over the summer.

    Those with involved parents and sensitive schools can be helped with individual programs. I've done this with my own students --- working with them to find reading material for the summer that appeals (and this can be nonfiction, comics, magazines, as well as fiction), set them up to be in touch with me about the reading, perhaps encourage them to read together with their parents, and so forth. The bigger concern are those children without such individual school and home support. Summer reading programs that give these kids books, ideally whatever books they want, strike me as the best option. My favorite of these programs is the venerable First Books, a wonderful organization that has long seen the value in kids both selecting and owning their own books. A new report supports this idea. One of the report's researchers, Richard Allington of the University of Tennessee, noted that, "Spending roughly $40 to $50 a year on free books for each child began to alleviate the achievement gap that occurs in the summer."

    For children who have been in school for a few weeks, the summer reading situation is long behind them, but I suspect that many whose first day of school is still to come, are celebrating Labor Day by laboring away, working and working to finish that assigned summer reading book.

    Also posted at educating alice.

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