For as long as I can remember–as a student, as a parent, and as a teacher– summer reading has remained a mysterious entity. In theory, the value of summer reading is clear. It makes sense that kids should be reading over the long summer break: it slows summer slide, it presents the challenge to take on a text independently, it offers topics that kids might not otherwise explore. A kid can read at her own pace and can discuss what she reads with her family. Educational studies support summer reading.
But like most things in life, theory doesn’t always sync with reality. Kids often wait until the last possible minute to actually do the reading. Then it is rushed and becomes far less meaningful than it could be. Parents sometimes end up having to nag their children to get to the reading, so instead of those rich conversations, summer reading becomes a source of family contention. Teachers frequently do not know what to do with the reading kids have been asked to do while out of the classroom and it ends up–at best– an add-on to existing instruction, a tacit game of Make Believe: kids pretend they have carefully read the assigned texts and teachers pretend to believe the kids. Then everyone moves on.
But there are ways to make this reading relevant.
First, the texts must be explicitly embedded in curriculum, chosen for the value added to instruction. They must be simultaneously challenging and accessible, no easy feat. Finding the right readings demands attention to curriculum design. The texts then become the first unit of study, seamless entities of the year that is to unfold. On this note, I would also limit the assigned texts to one for middle school students, two to high school kids.
Second, teachers have to be willing to devote more than passing acknowledgement of the texts. Again, this is no simple task given the increasingly complex instructional demands teacher face annually.But with the right text and well-designed exercises, summer reading can support Common Core state standards. This means allowing for two to three weeks of meaningful activities that can be vehicles to introduce/review themes of the year. This is why choosing texts becomes so important. If the assigned reading is going to be a lead-in, an organic element of instruction, then the time involved is productive. This also means that at some point every student will need his/her own copy of the text. In a middle school English classroom, if treated as a unit of study, summer reading can take kids back to the five basic literary elements: plot, setting, conflict, character and theme. Summer reading can allow chances to explicitly apply reading comprehension tools and activities: graphic organizers, annotation and close reading, word attack skills. With the right text, summer reading is the threshold into the academic year.
Finally, and I know I will get hate mail about this part, teachers must be prepared for the fact that kids may not have read the texts or that if they did read, they didn’t necessarily “get it.” This is reality. So it is important to create instructional activities that will give these kids a chance to catch up. When kids can read or re-read without fear of penalty, everyone gets off to a positive start. Activities that call for basic plot recaps can support all readers. Graphic organizers focused on conflict and character serve a similar purpose. The unit can culminate in Common Core style short and extended responses that provide base line writing samples to start the year.
It is true that when kids see that their work is valued they are more likely to respect the assignments. This might be one way to validate summer reading. It is also a way for teachers to make productive use of this work.