Rethinking Summer Reading

There is actually really good reasoning behind summer reading programs. School Districts put together summer programs to address one of the bigger problems the education industry faces. While it is famously called the “Summer Slide”, the somewhat playful name is actually a euphemism for something that is detrimental to many kids–a decay or loss of reading skills.

A group of researchers from John Hopkins University conducted a study that showed that students from lower economic backgrounds slipped during the summer months. It was found that, during the school year, students of all economic backgrounds increased reading levels/skills equally, but the economic difference showed in the summer, presumably because lower economic students didn’t have as many opportunities to read. Follow up studies have generally concluded that most students experience reading skill loss during the summer. 

The data doesn’t lie. There is, undoubtedly, a problem. Schools must do something to help all students retain more of their skills in the summer. It is our problem.

Like most well intentioned, misguided actions in the industry, educators responded with a summer reading program. The idea of reading in the summer isn’t the issue. It’s the execution of the idea that is the problem. The execution is about giving “more” rather than addressing the true cause of reading loss and, more importantly, a disinterest in reading, especially at the middle school level.

The Typical Summer Reading Program

Once the “Summer Slide” became a thing, most Districts hastily created a program of summer reading lists. Each grade level was given a title list. Kids were able to choose in the sense that they weren’t be assigned a specific novel, but kids were mostly limited to lists of books that adults say are “high interest”. Sure it’s a choice, but if you don’t like anything on the list, you are out of luck. Essentially, to those students, the message is, “we don’t care if you like it, just read it.”

After being forced to read a book, students are often asked to demonstrate that they read the book. It’s one of those conundrums that all teachers of English face. How can we put students in situations that allow them to successfully demonstrate that they have read. For summer reading programs, this usually comes in the form of annotations, response logs, or any note taking device. While there are some people who take notes or highlight when they are reading for pleasure, the majority of people don’t. We don’t interrupt progress to put a sticky note in the novel to remind us that there was something important there. We simply read, take in a good story, and get something to take away into our lives.

Even worse, most districts have summer reading tests during the first week of school. These tests usually take the form of an essay exam. So, most kids are getting a grade for reading based on their ability to write something that they were not taught in the first place. Does any of that make any sort of pedagogical sense? Does that sounds like a way to get kids to like reading or does that sound more like reading as a punishment? And, perhaps more importantly, does that sound like a positive start to the year?

Why It Doesn’t Work

Perhaps the most simplistic argument as to why the typical summer reading programs don’t work is the simple fact that it sounds an awful lot like homework. It has evolved into a chore for students, rather than an experience that could foster a love for reading. It is about coming up with the proof, gaming the test at the beginning of the year, and making sure that you give the teacher exactly what they want. It becomes more about looking up summaries, group chats to exchange notes, and to fulfill requirements. This is more about compliance–just like homework–rather than skill development or creating a culture that can foster a love of the written word.

A bit more complex argument is the fact that the education industry has thrown a summer reading assignment to address a skills problem. This is false logic at its finest. It is similar to the a teacher wanting students to become better writers by giving them assignment after assignment, rather than giving lesson after lesson during the writing process. Assignments don’t equal teaching. Assignments don’t address skills; they are measure them. Therefore, a summer reading program doesn’t help develop skills, prevent skill loss, or anything having to do with skills. At best, it could, conceivably help maintain skills, but as currently constituted, it doesn’t give kids the opportunity to even do that.

If Districts are truly interested in preventing skills loss during the summer, an investment must be made in summer programs where students receive skill lessons and reviews. There must be something other than giving an assignment.

That, however, does not mean that summer reading can’t serve a big purpose. In fact, if done correctly, it could actually be the asset it was intended to be in the fight against skills loss. The lens has to change from it being an assignment to it being a tool to help develop a love of reading. If that love can be developed, students will read more. Reading more will help maintain skills.

Creating A Culture

If the goal is to develop a love of reading, which in turn will allow students to retain reading skills, a summer reading program cannot be about compliance. It must be about allowing student choice. Students must be given the freedom to pick what they want to read. They must be permitted to read different genres, different mediums, and different styles. If a student wants to read a classic, excellent. If a student wants to read a blog, also excellent. If a student wants to read a contemporary fiction piece, also excellent. If the goal of the summer reading is to have kids actually read, don’t we stand a better chance of that happening if they are actually reading something they enjoy?

Creating a culture of reading can be done if we actually commit to having students choose. Elementary teachers get this right. Kids generally love to read. My fourth grade daughter is devouring book after book, series after series. So many of her peers, both male and female, are doing the same. Just today, I had the opportunity to visit one of our district’s elementary schools. A group of kids were in the library. They were excited about getting their weekly book.

Why is all of this true? Elementary schools do an excellent job of creating a culture of reading. Kids are allowed to choose their own novels. They are allowed to talk about their books in class. Their literacy blocks are filled with lessons that develop skills, but their reading time and selections are left up to them. The majority of kids love to read.

Then, secondary education gets involved. We assign them books. We may even add some “outside” reading so that they are reading more, but we, as an industry, hand out a class set of books and expect them all to read it. We systematically kill a love of reading with this practice. And, not only do we assign them books, we assign them packets, we make them put a million post it notes in the books, and then we give tests. Suddenly, reading is a chore. It is a punishment. Is it any wonder why it is avoided by many?

So, the traditional summer reading program, obviously, doesn’t work. It doesn’t develop skills. And, it certainly doesn’t develop a culture of reading. But, that doesn’t mean summer reading should go away.

My district was like the majority. We gave the summer reading list. Kids had to come in with notes. They took a test. They got a grade. We moved on.

Luckily, I work with a group of progressive thinkers. When I first became the English Department Coordinator, I asked if we could rethink summer reading. I was given permission to explore options. We came up with a Summer Reading Challenge. The philosophy behind this approach is simple. Summer Reading should be about reading what you love. We teachers do that. Non-teachers do that. What shouldn’t students?

Our students are challenged to read at least one thing this summer. They are permitted to read any genre, any medium, and any style. We don’t give book lists. We do give links to book reviews, but we don’t assign a grade level list. We encourage reading blogs, reading about sports, or any other area of interest. We encourage to read the popular fiction books. We encourage the classics. That all underscores the message, “Read What You Love.”

Students are not required to submit anything. They can, however, submit a review of the book, magazine articles, blog posts, graphic novel, poetry, etc. to our online review form. Reviews can take any form they want. Most write a review, but some created a review website. Others created an audio review. Others created posters. And, some even wrote reactions. Again, they had choice. The funny thing is that a large portion of our middle school and high school students submitted at least one review. We didn’t require it, but they read and were willing to share that they read something they enjoyed.

To make it even more fun, our excellent PTA kicked in a Barnes and Noble gift card for the student who submitted the most reviews for each grade level. For the past three years, one of my favorite nights is presenting the awards at our Board of Education Meeting to our excellent students from grade seven through twelve.

Our challenge is our effort to develop a love of reading. We want to develop a culture that allows students to read about things that they are passionate about and care about. If they are interested in what they are reading, they will be motivated to read more. The more a student reads, the more likely their skills will remain intact. While that last part isn’t the goal of the program, it certainly is a great byproduct.

A culture of reading can be established with giving students choice. That choice will result in reading for enjoyment. That enjoyment turns to motivation. That motivation turns into skill. That skill allows for great work to be done in the classroom when we assign them pieces to read. But, that culture can only be established when we give up trying to control what they read, how they read, how they show they read, and why they read. Instead, we can allow them to make choices, enjoy their choices, and to grow because they are choosing to grow.

Closing Thought

It is important to define the intention of summer reading. Because we do not want it to take on the qualities of homework and its misguided applications, we must, as an industry, resolve that summer reading’s purpose is to establish a culture of reading, not to directly prevent a loss of skills. Creating and fostering that culture of reading will have benefits across all areas and on all levels, including AP. When adults realize that reading isn’t the punishment that it was during their school years, they enjoy it as an escape or as a means to learn something about an area that they are passionate about. Why doesn’t the same thought process and logic apply to students?

It actually does. We simply have to give them the opportunity.