April 23, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Those Tired Summer Reading Lists. Here’s What to Do.


What does a summer vacation with required reading look like? For 16-year-old Heather Smith, every Friday last summer meant making sure her reading assignment was done. A junior at Golden West High School in Visalia, CA, Smith had to read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms and write weekly journal entries. An avid reader, Smith enjoyed the novels. “It was nice to have a challenge,” she says. Still, the mandatory journal-writing did little to enhance her experience. Nor did the fact that the reading was required for classes. “I’d like them a lot more if it wasn’t made into an assignment,” she says.

Once school began, there was no discussion about the books, Smith says. Moreover, the assignments could be completed easily by using a literary cheat-sheet like SparkNotes.

Jennifer Frantz can’t blame high schoolers for taking shortcuts. The supervisor of language arts at the Parsippany-Troy Hills School District (PTHSD) in Parsippany, NJ, says that while she appreciates Shakespeare, Hawthorne, and Hemingway, summer isn’t the best time to introduce students to these classic authors.

Other educators agree, and advocate for students to have more summer reading options—including more contemporary choices from diverse authors. They say it’s time to overhaul the whole idea of summer reading. Public librarians often dread the moment a child—or parent—walks into the library with the required reading list in hand. “Chances are the books are either old, out of print, or just plain boring for the kid or teen,” says SLJ reviews editor Kiera Parrott, who suggests 10 tips to flip summer reading assignments (see p. 34).

Questioning the classics

“I did not understand Shakespeare until it was taught to me by a great teacher,” says Elissa Malespina, coordinating supervisor of educational technology, media, and multimedia for the PTHSD. “Some of those other classics need to be really taught by someone who can explain the meaning behind what’s being said. The summer reading list might not be the best place for that, because you don’t get immediate help and feedback.”

“I’ve never read Moby-Dick or The Grapes of Wrath, and I don’t feel like I’m missing out,” adds Faythe Arredondo, a teen services librarian at the Tulare County Library in Visalia, CA. “I was still able to go to college and grad school—twice. Reading is so subjective that I don’t think any one person can say that something is a must.”

Frantz’s summer list includes stories that students can tackle with less guidance. “What we’re trying to do is to turn kids on to authors and books,” she says. “In the summer, [for kids] to read on their own, [the book] needs to be something they’re more used to and more interested in.”

What’s the argument for keeping classic novels on the list? Some teachers may feel pressure to push these books because they include the type of vocabulary words found on tests. “The AP Literature and Composition tests and the SAT are still based on classic literature titles,” Frantz says. “Chances are slim that you are going to find the words ‘epicurean’ and ‘affable’ in a modern text, but they are right there in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.”

The fact is that teachers and librarians often have very different ideas about what summer reading should be. While some teachers adhere to a set list of classics and view the list as an unofficial test prep tool, librarians tend to focus on the newest, most popular and award-winning books that kids will enjoy.

“Teachers have materials, assessments, and activities from the past that have worked, so they are more comfortable with that,” Frantz says. “Librarians are on the cutting edge.” So what’s a librarian to do? Frantz asks teachers what they’re currently reading and solicits their feedback on more recent books she is considering assigning. She asks teachers to consider what existing lesson plans could be used with new titles.

SLJ1504-SummerReading-SBTen Tips to Flip

While there’s nothing inherently wrong with asking summer readers to record the number of minutes, pages, or titles they’ve read, librarians may want to consider some alternatives that keep kids both reading and fully engaged in the process over the long summer months. The suggestions below can supplement or even replace traditional methods of counting and recording summer reading activity. Try one, try a few, or come up with your own!—Kiera Parrott

Choose a book you’ve read this summer and…

• Draw a map of the setting.

• Write a short story about what the character(s) would be doing one year later.

• Imagine you could interview the protagonist. What three questions would you ask?

• Redesign the cover.

• Write a letter to the author or illustrator.

• Write a short book review. Remember to include a few sentences describing the book as well as a few sentences about why you liked it—or didn’t.

Take it to the next level…

• Choose two people or characters from two different books who you think would be great friends. Why?

• Choose one book location or setting to live in for a week—it can be fiction or nonfiction. Which book would you choose and why?

• Take a photo of the cover of each book you read. Create a photo collage or animated trailer. (Free programs like Animoto might be a fun choice.)

• Recommend a book to a friend or family member. Which title did you choose and why did you recommend it?

Will this list make you smarter?

Another problem with summer reading lists is that kids looking at them see a narrow, specific demand, says Ellen Riordan, president of the American Library Association’s Association of Library Service to Children. There’s a perception that reading these specific books is a guarantee for success (academic or otherwise) and intelligence, Riordan adds. Her bottom line: “Reading is best and most effective when you create a positive experience around it.”

Josie Parker, the director of the Ann Arbor (MI) District Public Library for over a decade, agrees. “If a person believes that [the list is] the be-all, end-all of what’s available, or that that list is the only list, your child might not be getting what they need,” she says. “There’s a danger in making assumptions about the list.”

The benefits of reading over the summer have been proven by numerous studies, from Barbara Heyns’s 1978 study of some 3,000 sixth and seventh graders, to Karl Alexander and Doris Entwisle’s 1982 research connecting summer learning loss to an achievement gap between students in disparate socioeconomic classes, to Richard L. Allington and Anne McGill-Franzen’s 2013 expansion of these findings in their book Summer Reading: Closing the Rich/Poor Achievement Gap (Teachers College and International Reading Association).

But having a required list, as opposed to free choice, has not been proven to increase reading or comprehension. Stephen Krashen’s The Power of Reading (Libraries Unlimited, 1993) affirmed that free, voluntary reading yielded benefits including better spelling, writing style, and grammatical development. “Reading for pleasure improves stress levels and test scores,” Arredondo says.

Re-thinking themes

Instead of zeroing in on lesson plans geared around specific plot points or characters in books, Riordan suggests that schools can focus on themes. For example, Frantz knew that there was a unit on British literature for students in their junior year, so they read Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (Doubleday, 2003) instead of a Dickens novel.

The diversity of student backgrounds was also a consideration. Since many of the kids might not understand the Catholic jokes and allusions in Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes (Harcourt, 1996), Frantz replaced the memoir with Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist (HarperSanFrancisco, 1993). The students have responded positively.

Choice—or chore?

“As high schoolers, we like to think we have some freedoms rather than have someone spoon-feed us what we’re supposed to know and what we’re supposed to think,” Smith says. “If it’s a choice of what to read, I’d be more open.”

Arredondo sees many students who view their vacation assignments as a chore. “A lot of the teens coming into the library are only there to read what they have to,” she says. “They take no enjoyment in the offerings, and I feel it kills their love of reading.”

“Relatability is a big factor” in what kids want to read, Smith says. In a summer book club, collaboration between her school and a local public library, Smith read John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars (Dutton, 2012) and the group saw the movie together. Themes such as good versus evil, family relationships, and peer group conflicts tend to resonate with students, according to Frantz.

Malespina tries to make voluntary reading appealing before a student even opens a book. “You want [to create] as much choice as possible and you want to make the whole rollout of it as interesting as possible,” she advises. When Malespina facilitated summer reading as a librarian at South Orange (NJ) Middle School, one of her strategies was to use technology to create interest in the material. “We did an iBook, with book trailers and author websites and blurbs. We made a whole booklet,” she says.

If the focus is on a positive association with the act of reading, then are lists of approved books even necessary? “I don’t think they are,” says Arredondo.

Frantz also sets her sight far beyond the list. “I think it is necessary to foster lifelong reading,” she says. “I believe in connecting reading to everyday life, and not just school or assignments.”

Okyle-Carly_Contrib_WebCarly Okyle is a writer at Entrepreneur.com. Her work has appeared in School Library Journal, Time.com, and YourTango.com, among other publications.

This article was published in School Library Journal's April 2015 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

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  1. Thank you! I am forwarding this article to our local principle. Years ago, my son was required to read The Black Pearl by Scott O’Dell the summer before 6th grade. I could see his once enthusiastic interest in reading beginning to flag and this book pretty much killed it. It might be an “important” book, but it’s also dull as dishwater. The goal should be to keep kids reading and to find value in it. It doesn’t always have to be stated as an intellectual endeavor – even when reading is just a pleasurable way to pass the time on a lazy summer day (if we even have those anymore), learning is taking place. Kids can absorb spelling, punctuation and syntax while enjoying a story of their choosing. There’s no need at this point for them to tackle the human condition.

    • Kevin A. Lewis says:

      There’s also a tendency to settle into an acceptability comfort zone that doesn’t challenge anybody; I recall some recent while back while working at Borders (turn of the century, thereabouts ) a mom from some backhills part of Arizona told me about a teacher in her scholl who finally admitted what a crashing bore Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was and substituted Bram Stoker’s Dracula instead on her summer reading list, as it holds up much better in spite of the Victorian worldview. It was a popular choice until a nutty consortium of parents all petitioned the schoolboard to remove it from the lists because: 1. The Catholics thought it blasphemous and satanic. 2. The born-again crowd thought it was too Catholic. and 3… A small group of atheists thought it promoted belief in God. Needless to say, Dracula quietly disappeared off trhe list and students are still yawning their way throught Frankenstein to this day. The woman’s family hustled her off the sales floor as she was talking, so I never found out just where this took place, but I incorporated the story into the YA book I was working on at the time, so the anecdote wasn’t lost…………………………

  2. Janet Zacharias says:

    I think summer reading needs addressing, but if I give my students the option of choosing the novel of their choice for summer reading, what prevents them from trying to pass off something they’ve already read in another class or on their own as a new reading experience? How do I evaluate their feedback if I have not read their choices? I agree that many of my students do not do their summer reading, although I change it up frequently and add as many new titles as I can. I never assign classics, as I agree we need to work through them together. Anyone have ideas?

    • Heather Marchetta says:

      Book talks are a great way to get children interested in a book they might never pick up. Read an exciting page with a lot of enthusiasm – really ham it up. The kiddos may pick up the book just because you were excited about it. Our local library performs book talks at the schools every year to get children excited for the summer reading program. You could invite your public or school librarian to perform a book talk for your class, or turn it into a collaborated event by getting teachers involved as well.

  3. Mari Chapman says:

    My kids summer reading lists are ones we stew over, I try to remind them that they need to have some fun when they read as well! A good habit I learned makes the reading time fly by! We all have fun reads picked out to start the break, for me it’s It’s a Ball by Morgan McGrady. The kids are into some new novels, should be a fun summer for all of us!

  4. We have had good feedback on using http://www.readingportfolio.com as a way to keep a verified reading list for summer reading. It’s low key and you can choose a book you WANT to read. It is only 13 and over since we record with a camera and spot-check the results. One thing we have realized is that you have to have JUST read the book to pass a quiz.