In Defense of Summer Reading Freedom

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I am a huge fan of reading.  And a huge fan of summer.

But I am not a fan of Summer Reading Requirements for kids.

That’s not to say I don’t think kids should read in the summer time.  I do.  At my house, you’ll find us all settling in with our books & sweaty glasses of iced lemonade at about the same time every afternoon.  So if that’s your idea of a summer reading program, then forget what I said about not being a fan.  It’s that other kind of Summer Reading I’m talking about.  The kind with capital letters and mandatory lists.

I’m a teacher, so I understand the reasons that some schools hand out lists of what has to be read over the summer months.  They have to do with testing and accountability and achievement gaps and the list goes on and on. But I think there are much more compelling reasons for schools to keep their standardized noses out of kids’ summer reading.

  • One-size-fits-all lists are a recipe for failure.  Kids in the same grade read at wildly different reading levels, and handing them all the same book as required reading is like giving them all the same size sneakers, no matter how big their feet might be. There is no “perfect book” for seventh graders or for tenth graders or fifth graders.  Not even the one that the teacher loves so much.  The reality is that any one-size-fits-all book requirement is going to be too easy or too little for some kids, too much and too difficult for others.  If our goal is to create readers, this is not the way to go about it.
  • People have rights as readers.  Think about it.  You’re probably looking forward to some summer reading yourself, right?  I’ll bet you have some titles in mind, and I’ll bet that some books will pop up over the next few months, too — books that your friends recommend or books you read about online.  But wait….  On June 24th, someone gives you a list.  “This is what you’ll be reading this summer,” they say. “Okay?”
No.  Not okay.  Not even if it’s a list of, say, twenty titles and I get to pick any five I want.  Twenty titles? Out of all the books in the world?  I get to choose from these twenty?  Really?
  • Summer is a time when our kids actually have the luxury of extra reading time, and if they’re passionate about what they’re reading, they can read for hours on end.  We can’t do that in school (as much as it’s a lovely thought).  But summer readers only show that kind of passion when they have choices.  As teachers — and parents — we need to respect those choices.
I live in a fairly small community, and sometimes, parents approach me in the dentists’ office or the waiting room at ballet lessons to talk about concerns over their kids’ reading.

“I’ve been wanting to talk with you about Jane,” they’ll whisper, leaning forward as if they’re about to confess her addiction to heroin.  “She reads those…those….Clique books. What should I do?”

“Get the rest of the series for her,” I’ll say.  “The library has all of them.”

I’ve had this conversation more times than I can count, with slight variations.  You can substitute graphic novels, Gossip Girls, R.L. Stine, Manga, or any number of books that kids love, that their parents have judged as less than literary.  And sure…there’s an argument that those books are the crack of the reading world.  But guess what?  An addiction to reading is what we’re after here.  And rabid, passionate reading can mean huge growth for kids’ literacy. I was reminded of that this week, grading my English final exam, a reflective essay in which students discuss their growth as readers.  One student wrote:

I used to read mega-slow, and by mega, I mean ultra-mega slow. But then I picked up the Clique series and it’s like everything changed. I couldn’t put down that book at all. So I kept reading and then I noticed I was reading at least 60 pages in one class period.

That’s what we in the education world call fluency.  And it’s an essential element of literacy — one that we can’t always develop as well as we’d like in the classroom because it takes time.  Lots and lots of time reading books that kids love. Books that might or might not be on that Summer Reading list with the capital letters.

So what’s the alternative?  If you don’t send home a list of classics and give a test in the fall, how will you know kids are reading?  Well…you won’t.  But the truth is that half of them aren’t reading that list of classics anyway, so there’s not all that much to lose by going with a more progressive summer reading model.  Ask parents to commit to a daily reading time at home.  Teach kids how to request the newest YA titles through inter-library loan.  And if you really like lists, what about letting kids make their own, based on your suggestions and recommendations from classmates?

There are some great summer reading idea lists floating around – here’s one that Josie Leavitt over at ShelfTalker pulled together from reader suggestions after lamenting the state of summer reading lists. And here’s a list of recommendations from  at Not-Your-Mother’s-Book-Club.

And one more…courtesy of my students.  I love teacher Cindy Faughnan‘s end-of-the-year assignment and stole it last year to use with my own 7th graders.  I use their suggestions of “The One Book to Read This Summer” to make a list of recommendations that I send home in their portfolios.

Deadly Little Secret by Laurie Faria Stolarz
Lock and Key by Sarah Dessen
The Kingdom Keepers by Ridley Pearson
Three Willows
by Anne Brashares
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
Right Behind You by Gail Giles
The Wizard Heir by Cinda Williams Chima
Fear Street Series by R.L. Stine
Code Orange by Caroline Cooney
American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang
The Magic of Xanth by Piers Anthony
Uglies by Scott Westerfield
Fools Gold by Jude Fisher
Marked by P.C. & Kristen Cast
The Chronicles of Vladimir Tod by Heather Brewer
The Land of the Silver Apples by Nancy Farmer
Ranger’s Apprentice by John Flanagan
Cryptid Hunters by Roland Smith
Peter and the Starcatchers by Dave Barry & Ridley Pearson
The Chosen One by Carol Lynch Williams
Interworld by Neil Gaiman
Among the Brave by Margaret Peterson Haddix
Song of the Sparrow by Lisa Ann Sandell
One of Those Hideous Books Where the Mother Dies by Sonya Sones
Click Here to See How I Survived 7th Grade by Denise Vega
The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart
Here Today by Ann M. Martin
Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson
Twilight by Stephenie Meyer
The Named by Marrianne Curley
Animorphs by K.A. Applegate
Elsewhere by Gabrielle Zevin
The Clique Series by Lisi Harrison
Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants by Anne Brashares
Freaky Green Eyes by Joyce Carol Oates
The Black Tattoo by Sam Anthoven
So Hard to Say by Alex Sanchez
My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult
The Ivy Chronicles by Karen Quinn
Maximum Ride by James Paterson
Wicked Lovely by Melissa Marr
Inkheart by Cornelia Funke
Schooled by Gordon Korman
Tunnels and Deeper by Roderick Gordon

It’s a mighty diverse list, I know.  They’re a diverse group of kids.  Would any one of these books work for all of them?  I can think of a few that might work well as a class read-aloud, but not as an independent summer read.  Kids need choices.

I hope your summer is filled with icy lemonade and great books — that you choose for yourself.

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  1. Posted July 15, 2011 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

    Kate — I agree with every syllable of what you wrote here. I think we make a lot more inroads by creating a culture of reading in our schools and laying the groundwork for its continuation into summer than we do by handing out lists and threats of how we’re going to assess summer reading. Much of what schools do in the name of supporting summer reading actually does more harm than good. I plead guilty to being a part of that in the past, and I’m trying to make up for it now.

    Still, I’m worried worried worried about the non-readers. We make progress during the school year, but in the summer they do not have a culture of readers and reading in their environments, and they slip backwards. Summer reading requirements don’t do anything for those kids except put them even more behind the others when school resumes.

    I’m so thankful that my own daughters read and read every day. Most afternoons you can find our family lounging in the backyard with books or Kindles.

    Thanks for this important post.

  2. Bree Dayley
    Posted July 16, 2011 at 12:46 am | Permalink

    Brilliant! Nothing else to say.

  3. Posted July 17, 2011 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

    Do teachers have a “reading list”? My son asked his fifth-graders to create one for him and then, during their free reading period, he’d read along with them, and he said it taught him a lot about what kids like to read as opposed to what he thought they ought to like to read, plus the books were fun. For my part, I edit a youth-written publication and I read some of the books the kids review simply based on their enthusiasm. (I think I need to pick up a Gallagher Girls book next.)

    But “required” reading? Eeesh. I agree with you. Requiring reading is a good thing but requiring specific books? No, for all the reasons you listed and because it would have been the quickest way to get me to put it off until a week before Labor Day.

    • Posted July 20, 2011 at 10:24 pm | Permalink

      I love what your son asked his students to do! I share book recommendations with my 7th graders all the time, too – I love reading what they’re enjoying.

  4. Jan Hamilton
    Posted June 7, 2012 at 10:50 am | Permalink

    You are so right about choice in reading and that one size cannot possibly fit all. Why is this difficult for so many to understand? We need to let go of the past. This is such an exciting time to be a literacy teacher. Thank you, Kate, for saying so well what many of us believe and for this opportunity to join our large community of educators in valuable conversations.

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