An Alternative to Traditional Summer Reading

5 Jun

Our Head of School hates summer reading. He has banned it.

Before you think ill of him, he’s a former English teacher who cares deeply about engendering a love of reading in all students. His position? Assigned summer reading does more harm than good.

Our students, then, are required to read the equivalent to at least three novels over the summer. They decide what they read. They can even read magazines, blogs, or other genres as long as this reading approximates the length of three books.

We want our students to read habitually, and we want them use summer reading time to explore their passions. When they return from summer break, we spend some time talking about their summer reading (and I have them write about it). We do not, however, quiz them or assign major projects. The program is largely run on an honor system.

Now, I KNOW some students fail to complete any summer reading. Yet, far fewer students slack off than one would think. The majority of the students choose appropriate, engaging work, and as a result, many more students enjoy summer reading.

It’s important to note, too, that the majority of the students I teach do NOT consider themselves natural readers or writers. Many of my students have language-based learning issues that require some form of accommodation. A choice-based system, especially for this population of reluctant readers, makes even more sense.

Over the three years we have used this summer reading policy, I consistently receive feedback from struggling readers about how it has helped them. I have also found that all students are more likely to continue to have a positive attitude toward our choice reading throughout the school year because they have been given the chance to develop their own reading habits.

Betty writes: “At the end of every school year, there’s only one thing I actually dread that’s upcoming in the summer, and that’s summer reading. Some of the books that I’ve had to read in middle school were absolutely dire, probably the most uninteresting stories I’ve ever had to sit through. The fact that I’m not an avid reader and that I don’t enjoy it in general makes it all the worse. The Beaver summer reading policy helped me as a reader in many ways, mostly by letting me be engaged in the texts that I got to choose on my own.”

Jackson writes, “In most cases when I read an assigned book over the summer, I only read it because I have to. I tend not to be very engaged and just read to finish the book. In addition, I usually take the lazy way out while reading an assigned book. I might end up skipping parts of the book, which does not happen if I am reading a book that interests me. When I read a good book, tt usually makes me want to read more books and expand my knowledge. I think this goes for a lot of kids out there that are in the same boat as me.”

Carl writes, “I have never liked to read very much, but the summer reading policy allowed me to be interested and actually like what I was reading. Beyond that, it also made me want to read…I read the book American Fencer, and I was very interested in this book because he was going through a process of international and Olympic fencing, which I would like to do someday.  I think that I am the only one in the class that would be interested in the book, so it would not get assigned by any teacher.  Because I was able to read a book that I was interested in, there were times during the summer that I wanted to pick up a book and read instead of doing something like play video games.  If we were assigned books I would have tried to procrastinate and avoid reading as much as possible.”

These three students (changed their names, of course) grew so much this year, and they are representative of the type of student I love to teach…an interesting, independent student who just doesn’t really “get” English class without some help. While each of them is still not likely to consider himself or herself a “reader,” each approaches reading with far less dread than one year ago. I know that my work in the classroom has helped shaped their improved attitude toward reading, and I’m happy that our summer reading policy nurtures this enthusiasm instead of squashing it.

It really is impossible to choose the perfect summer reading book to assign every student, so I think we should stop trying. Instead, set a total book (or page) goal, and let the students choose their own texts. We can tackle the dense stuff during the school year. Such an approach will do more to engender a love of reading that lasts well beyond our time with each individual student.

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