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Saying No to Summer Reading

The summer between my sophomore and junior year of high school is memorable because those two glorious, sunny months were marred by a particularly challenging assigned reading text: The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. During our annual vacation at a state park, I sat in a canoe with the book and tried to slog through each chapter while my family cavorted. To this day, I cannot bring myself to like Steinbeck, and I blame the teacher who thought it would be wise to ask students to read such a complex book over the summer. Once I became a teacher, I assigned summer reading for years with mixed feelings that became increasingly skewed toward not doing it at all. There are plenty of reasons not to enforce a reading requirement in the summertime, just a few of which are shared below.

It Sends the Wrong Message           

Productive struggle can be beneficial at times, but setting up the experience of reading as one example of such struggle does not have enough validity during summer vacation. Assigned reading often holds negative associations for kids, perhaps because we tend to turn reading into a task rather than a pleasure with accountability measures like reading logs or quizzes. Reading is not a punishment, so why do we constantly act as though it is? As much as we want to stretch students in both their desire to read and in their ability to push their limits with more challenging texts, trying to accomplish that goal over the summer sends the message that reading is not only always meant to be cumbersome; it is also not our job to help students with academic growth when we are apart for the break. Instead of trying to up the reading game when we are not with students, let’s think about waiting until we are together. And speaking of...

Students Should Not Struggle Alone           

One summer, I tutored a boy who was grappling solo with his summer reading assignment: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. He was far too young to really appreciate the intricacies of the plot or beauty of the prose on his own, and my support made things only marginally better. Providing students with challenging texts can be a great way to boost reading skills, but not over the summer when students are working by themselves without adult support. Instead, encouraging kids to simply engage in the act of reading is a more realistic way to keep literacy skills sharp. No matter what the book, magazine, or graphic novel they choose, we must bear in mind that unless we are around to provide support, students will benefit more from reading books they have a natural interest in looking at than anything we could provide.

What Are We Looking For?           

Returning to school after a summer away can put the weight of the world back on kids’ shoulders surprisingly quickly. In secondary settings, it is standard to give students assignments based upon their summer reading almost the moment they enter our classrooms. It is fair to question how we use summer reading to enhance our instruction. If our goal is to provide a baseline pre-assessment for both reading and writing skills, that same goal can be accomplished by asking students to read shorter texts in those first weeks of school and respond in writing to what they see. On the other hand, if our goal is simply to see who complied with the summer requirement vs. who did not, we should rethink whether we assess students for achievement or behavior. If the latter, what are we really looking for? Is our goal to measure behavior or growth? Thinking about our “why” and making sure we look for the right performance and standards-based data is a helpful way to frame our purpose with summer reading.

Choice Texts Are Better           

Adults often form their summer reading lists with glee, anticipating lazy hours under an umbrella with books they enjoy. This summer, I certainly have a whole stack of books I want to read. Our students might have the same desire, but if they’re loaded down with required reading, they are less likely to engage with the books they have chosen. In the spirit of starting the year with the clear communication that we value student choice, let’s think about letting students read freely over the summer. Does that mean we assign a choice text? Not necessarily. We could simply encourage students to read without making it a task. Either way, that extra bit of flexibility will pay off in building meaningful relationships come late August. Plus, we could ask students to share what they read with one another in an engaging way, paving the way for academic discourse.           

With every educational decision that comes as a struggle (and there are many of them), we have to ask ourselves where the value is for students. If our rationale does not prompt kids to build stronger intrinsic motivation that helps them succeed in our classes, it makes sense to wonder if we are really doing any good. Summer reading may be beneficial in some situations, but it has become a reflex in too many schools. If we have the option to jettison the practice this year, let’s give it a shot and see whether we can try some more student-centered strategies for engaging young readers.

Written by Miriam Plotinsky, Education World Contributing Writer

Miriam is a Learning and Achievement Specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, where she has worked for nearly 20 years as an English teacher, staff developer and department chair. She is a National Board Certified Teacher, and recently earned her certification in Education Administration and Supervision. She can be followed on Twitter: @MirPloMCPS

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