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Summer Reading: Yes or No

summer reading

Like most kids in America, my children have summer reading homework to complete before they head back to school in August. Last year, my son was given a non-fiction book that he struggled with enormously, and which I suspect he gave up on before getting no more than one or two chapters in. This summer, his incoming English teacher selected a graphic novel, and he breezed through it quickly and enjoyed it enough to chat about it with me afterward. On the surface, his experience might verify that kids prefer graphic novels to works of non-fiction, and perhaps that is true a lot of the time. But there is a deeper lesson to be learned, and that is about how teachers expect students to engage in content when they are out of proximity for an extended period. 

To figure out whether summer reading accomplishes a worthwhile learning goal, we need to explore a few questions. Is it reasonable to assign students more challenging texts when teachers are not with them? Should text rigor be maintained at a high level in the summertime? What is the goal of assigning summer reading? Every teacher and school should determine the answers to these questions before giving students independent reading to complete on their own. 

Benefits of Summer Reading

The phrase “use it or lose it” applies whenever we think about exercising a muscle, be it mental or physical. For students, continuing the act of reading no matter the text helps them retain literacy skills over the summer and into the incoming academic year. Research confirms that with just 15 minutes of reading any text at all per day (and yes, graphic novels and magazines count), kids will continue to benefit from whatever skills they developed in the previous school year. Therefore, the idea of summer reading does not have to be restricted to a specific required book, nor do teachers necessarily have to create long lists of options for reading unless they choose to do so.   The key to making sure students hold fast to their skills is to normalize the idea that all reading has legitimacy. Certainly, teacher-assigned texts also have purpose and meaning, but there is a place for self-selected summer books as well as teacher-driven options.

Drawbacks of Summer Reading

In the summer, students typically work in isolation. Without the expertise and support of teachers, it can be hard to make meaning of unfamiliar texts, especially ones that include less accessible language or a greater degree of complexity. That does not mean that students should not be expected to complete rigorous summer work. However, we put kids at a disadvantage by expecting the same level of understanding and contextual comprehension without teacher guidance. In addition, without the traditional extrinsic motivators that students often receive in classrooms during the year such as check-ins or grades (not necessarily a good thing, but still part of most classroom structures), it can be difficult to find the inner drive to complete a reading assignment until the last minute. As a result, students may grow discouraged and become frustrated not just with the assigned text, but also with the teacher whose class they are about to enter, which starts the relationship off on the wrong foot.

Best Practices for Success

If a school decides to move forward with summer reading, a few best practices help ensure that the process is smooth and productive for students. First, the possibility of choice is one of the biggest determinants of success. Even if one or two reading selections are predetermined and cannot be flexible, giving kids the opportunity to pick something to read will grant them a greater sense of responsibility for their own learning journey.  Another way to maximize success for summer reading is to provide multiple ways for students to access content. For example, not everyone has technological tools at home, so having resources available in both hard copy and electronically ensures that all students have what they need.  In addition, providing a way to help students who did not have support over the summer can build trust at the start of the year. Finally, instead of jumping right in with summer reading on the first day, giving students a week or so to orient themselves or get help with the work provides additional support before they are held accountable.

Incorporating Summer Reading into Instruction 

While some teachers like to spend weeks on summer reading-related instruction while others barely touch on it, it’s important to think about how much time and attention should be devoted to making work done in the summer months part of instruction once the year gets underway. Generally speaking, summer reading should probably be brought to a close after the first month of school has gone by, but before that, there is no right or wrong approach to how much a teacher chooses to do. What matters more is intention. For example, does summer reading connect to upcoming learning goals or other course content to give students a way to make larger connections from one set of ideas to another? Does it set the tone for more rigorous and challenging concepts? If teachers plan the progression of outcomes carefully, students can benefit much more significantly from the practice of summer work.

While there are many possible ways to look at whether summer reading is a valid practice, everything teachers do is backed by intent. When we make thoughtful instructional decisions, students tend to be more successful. When something happens just because that’s the way it has always been, the results are less conducive to learning and achievement. It might be hard to make generalizations that dictate if summer reading is a useful practice, but whatever we decide, let’s do it because we want to ensure that students retain literacy skills for further growth into the coming school year.

Written by Miriam Plotinsky, Education World Contributing Writer

Miriam Plotinsky is an instructional specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, where she has taught and led for more than 20 years. She is the author of Teach More, Hover Less and Lead Like a Teacher. She is also a National Board-Certified Teacher with additional certification in administration and supervision. She can be reached at or via Twitter: @MirPloMCPS.

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