If Kids Can’t Read What They Want in the Summer, When Can They? | Opinion

Assigned summer reading lists can seriously hinder kids’ long-term interest in reading. Donalyn Miller makes the case for giving children agency to choose what they read.

I love summer. I enjoy the heat and longer days, eating drippy ice cream cones and my twice-a-year hot dog, and dozing in a pool lounger all afternoon. As a teacher and mom, summer offers more opportunities to hang out with my daughters and grandkids, take some road trips, and whittle down my overflowing piles of books to read. Like many teachers and librarians, summer is prime reading time, and I cannot wait to discover books to share with young readers, tackle that epic fantasy I put off for six months, and stay up late binge-reading entire books. 

As a parent, I can tell you my daughters and granddaughters haven’t always shared my enthusiasm for summer reading because of onerous reading assignments, summer reading programs, and required reading lists sent home by their schools just before summer vacation begins. 

These assignments, lists, contests, and incentives stem from a valid concern: many children do not read enough over the summer. Reading is the only activity consistently linked to summer learning (Kim and Quinn, 2013). Eighty percent of the gap between children from middle-income and low-income homes accrues during the summer months (Alexander, Entwisle, and Olson, 2007). No matter the academic gains children make during the school year, if they do not read much over the summer, their learning often stalls or regresses.

When summer reading backfires

On the surface, summer reading assignments and programs appear to address this concern—ensuring that all children will read at least a few books over the summer and head off potential learning loss. The problem? Assigning books for summer reading can’t guarantee that reading takes place, and could have a negative effect on young readers’ long-term reading interest and motivation. Sending an eighth-grader home with Lord of the Flies to read over the summer is unlikely to improve their reading ability or their enthusiasm for reading. If required summer reading doesn’t really work, what does? Access to books and the ability to choose what you want to read are the two factors consistently linked to both reading achievement and the development of intrinsic reading motivation. 

Required summer reading presumes that all children have access to the books, computers, the Internet, or school supplies necessary to read and complete assignments, which puts our neediest children at a disadvantage from the start. The primary reason many children don’t read much over the summer is not a lack of motivation or interest. They don’t have any books to read. Too many children, disproportionally children of color in urban and rural communities, live in book deserts without access to books at home or school (Neuman and Celano, 2012). For many children, their only consistent book access is their school library and teachers’ classroom collections. When school closes for the summer, that disappears. The best summer reading programs guarantee children’s summer book access through book donations and giveaways, summer library checkouts, or book delivery initiatives like bookmobiles and Little Free Libraries (Miller and Sharp, 2018). 

Children who choose their own books over the summer read more and report greater reading motivation and engagement after summer ends (Allington & McGill-Franzen, 2012). When schools require students to read specific books and complete reading assignments during summer break, we communicate that reading for school matters more than young readers’ personal reading interests and reading identity development. 

A 58-year-old book? Cue the eye rolls

Sarah, our younger daughter, read five or six teacher-assigned books every summer throughout high school. Required to read texts such as Fahrenheit 451 and complete the accompanying projects and packets left her little time to read the young adult books and graphic novels she enjoyed, or to read deeply about topics of personal interest such as music or herpetology. When we co-opt young people’s reading for school assignments all summer, we push their reading lives further into the margins. Now a college junior, Sarah reads more books for pleasure these days than she did in high school. I am relieved her reading life survived. Too many kids graduate from high school and breathe a sigh of relief because they never have to read another book. 

Emma, our oldest granddaughter, who is entering sixth grade, has to read Where the Red Fern Grows this summer and complete a project about it. Cue the eye roll. In 2019, why are we still assigningto quote Marley Dias, the founder of #1000BlackGirlBooksanother book about “white boys and their dogs?” I read and enjoyed Wilson Rawls’ famous book when I was a fifth grader in 1977.  This assignment lacks currency and doesn’t reflect the wide variety of voices and perspectives Emma needs to read and that we encourage at home. When I see a required reading assignment for a 58-year-old book, I suspect Emma’s future teachers don’t know that much about the incredible books currently being published for kids her age. It’s not a promising sign that Emma will experience an engaging or relevant reading year in her sixth-grade class. 

Let kids, not school own their reading lives

If reading always belongs to school, when do young readers develop ownership for their own reading lives? Educators have a lot of academic reading goals for students, but if all of a child’s reading goals sit outside of the child, reading sits outside of the child. If we want our children to become readers for a lifetime, they need lots of opportunities to read widely from books of their own choice. That’s where personal interest in reading begins and ends. When schools dictate every book a child reads all year long, we communicate that reading is a school job—not an activity you should find personally meaningful beyond what it does for your grade in English class or your scores on reading tests. If kids can’t read what they want in the summer, when can they?

If you still feel compelled to create a summer reading list, work with students to create a list of their booktalked titles and favorites in a Google spreadsheet and share it with families in print and online form. Lists should be balanced to include a range of genres, reading levels, formats, voices, and cultural and historical perspectives. Talk with families about the importance of summer reading and remove tangible barriers to book access. Given books, time, and encouragement to choose, more children will read over the summer and return to school still wanting to read.

Donalyn Miller is an award-winning Texas teacher and the author or coauthor of books and articles about engaging children with reading. Her latest book, cowritten with Nerdy Book Club co-founder Colby Sharp, is Game Changer: Book Access for All Kids (Scholastic, 2018).

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Toni Cameron

I have seen parents and children fight about reading so many times due to school requirements or a parent's belief that only non-fiction is worth the kids time. I wholeheartedly support letting kids pick what they enjoy during summer. Occasionally, when faced with restrictive parents I suggest a compromise of pick both a required read and a short fun read as a reward. Another suggestion for school requirements is 20 minutes a day or X amount of hours over the summer with grade appropriate book report. That would at least fill that teacher need to know the kids are reading but still give the kids freedom of choice about what they read.

Posted : Jul 08, 2019 03:42

Kathy Lasley

While I agree with the overarching opinion of less structure/wide variety of reading options, the snarky comment about a white boy and his dog is unnecessary. Kudos to the teacher who sees the value in literature - including older books! This was one book that was assigned. Leave room for the distinct possibility that this same teacher will also be introducing all kinds of other genres. Finally, 7 year old studies being quoted? Community centers, Little Free Libraries, and multiple summer programs all provide lots of resources for all summer readers in 2019.

Posted : Jul 06, 2019 03:22

Sherri Spelic

Re-reading this article with my 11 y-o who says: "You're an awesome author and you make great arguments which is why I agree!" Thank you for clarifying why student choice is so crucial for developing lifelong readers.

Posted : Jul 03, 2019 07:05

Stephona Hubbard

Absolutely, Donalyn! Talk about taking the fun out of reading - assigned summer reading does it. I saw first-hand with my daughters the interest and enthusiasm plummet when outdated, seemingly irrelevant books were assigned for them to read over the summer. Like you, a couple were books I had to read in school, and I couldn't relate to them then! Prayerfully, more feedback like this will prompt educators and administrators to adapt. Thank you for stating this so eloquently!

Posted : Jul 02, 2019 10:55

Anne Abernathey

We have changed our approach to summer reading programs at our small town library. Tweens and teens get a log - but they receive a stamp just for showing up and checking out print materials or audiobooks. No keeping track, no writing down pages or book titles. Our motto at our school book talks: "It's Summer. Read what you like!" We've had good participation - and better than that, kids who keep coming back to the library week after week.

Posted : Jul 02, 2019 01:37

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