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).

Comment Policy:
  • Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  • Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  • Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.
  • Comments may be republished in print, online, or other forms of media.
  • If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.

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

Leslie Croce

I loathe the idea of summer reading lists. By all means, ask the children to read and maybe even make a suggestion or two, but that's it. Even, perhaps, give each child a blank book in which he can keep track of his reading or comment if he wants to - but only if he wants to. (And ditch all those horrible reading program tests, while you're at it)."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 assigning—to quote Marley Dias, the founder of #1000BlackGirlBooks—another book about “white boys and their dogs?” Because it's a good book?Because why would you judge a book by the race or sex of the protagonist, as if that's a really good way to choose a book and not at all racist or sexist?"I read and enjoyed Wilson Rawls’ famous book when I was a fifth grader in 1977."Then why would you want to deny your granddaughter that enjoyment? "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. "Ah. A "wide variety of voices and perspectives" should never, ever include the voice and perspective of a white boy. And because it happens to be older it therefore "lacks currency," sort of like we can't recognize any truths universally acknowledged in works by, say, Jane Austen, or any memorable characters or familiar situations in books that are more than ten years old. I don't see how it is relevent when it was written, since it's new *to the reader.*"I suspect Emma’s future teachers don’t know that much about the incredible books currently being published for kids her age."Or maybe they know them and think not a few of them are utter sludge. Or maybe they know that the newer books are the ones getting pushed, and think that it would be a shame if children missed out on reading excellent older books just because they are older.

Posted : Jul 01, 2019 11:52

David Pinto

david_e_pinto@yahoo.caA June 25 column by Alison Hanes, City Columnist for The Montreal Gazette, was headlined Celebrating some classics, and my daughter's love for reading.This poignant rely reply, headlined Let children read what interests them, appeared in The Gazette on Saturday, June 29.-0-Alison Hanes's description of her daughter's love for books made me envious. It also made me realize how important a teacher's influence can be. Although I read to her from birth. my daughter was a reluctant reader. Her interest grew when she discovered animal stories. She started to read. However, her teacher in Grades 5 and 6 destroyed her budding love for books. This teacher informed my daughter that animal stories were not appropriate and that she had to choose something else for a book report. My daughter stopped reading and has not gone back to it. She is now 23 years old. Please, teachers, as long as they are reading, let them read what interests them. This was one of the main reasons I took my child out of this school. I will never forgive this teacher for closing a whole world to one of her students.

Posted : Jul 01, 2019 11:51

Raissa Falgui

That must have been a really packed reading list not to give the child enough time to read her own thing. I rhink it's best to have the kind of list she suggests plus freer activities. Like a reading journal to submit to next year's teacher to give him an impression of them. Kind of like in Walk Two Moons.

Posted : Jul 01, 2019 09:26

Karen Wilson

Well said. I agree that there needs to be a space in time for young readers to choose what they want to read. If someone tells me they don't like to read, I usually reply, maybe you just haven't found the right book for you. Then there is also the thought that audiobooks are not reading. Having a child who struggled early on with reading, I immediately thought of using audiobooks along side the hardcopy. It's been working like a charm. I can't get books to her fast enough and she enjoys reading. Many educators would gain a lot to read your article and seek to make changes, where young readers are encouraged to choose what they'd like to read accompanied with some of the classics.

Posted : Jul 01, 2019 05:48

Ashley David

I'm not sure why the child can't read the book for school and the book of their interest. This article simply justifies laziness. If patents what more current books then get them, but of course the real problem is that low income parents don't do these things and the author is trying to suggest the State parent low income children during the summer also? While low income parents are in charge during the summer their children slide; the solution is more government intervention because we know the parents are incapable, for whatever reason--justified or otherwise, they are incapable.

Posted : Jun 30, 2019 03:00

Barbara Bell

Amen! I’m an “old” teacher, and I spend my summer reading lots of the current books written for youth, and I love it! There are so many!! It helps to be able to make recommendations to my students and find great read alouds. Kids need to have choice during the school year too. Your books are wonderful and do a great job of driving this philosophy. Thank you!

Posted : Jun 29, 2019 07:10

Lisa O

BRAVO, great article!!! Reading should be fun and not a chore. These boring, out-of-date books that are assigned reading only make children want to avoid reading & books.

Posted : Jun 27, 2019 07:49

Barbara Jones

There were many excellent points expressed in this article particularly regarding readers' choice and access. However, I do take exception to what I consider the misrepresentation of the book Where the Red Fern Grows. First of all, this book, considered by many to be a classic, has withstood the test of time which makes judging it by the criteria of currency as unsuitable. Likewise, it is about so much more than "white boys and their dogs" beginning with the fact that, the main character is half-Cherokee. Without going into further detail, I would urge both the author, and her source, to reconsider their stand based on a recent reading of the title in question.In my opinion, this topic would have been better served by additional examples and inspiration for modifying summer reading assignments and initiatives.

Posted : Jun 26, 2019 05:40

Chelsea Cahill

This article says everything we've every wanted to say about access to books and the importance of giving kids choice when it comes to developing a love for reading. We'd love to share this on our website's blog page in hopes that more people will see it and read it - is there a way to link this article to our webpage? Book'em is a non profit that brings free books to low income youth in Nashville.

Posted : Jun 25, 2019 06:31


I couldn’t agree with you more. Children should get to choose the books they want to read during the summer. There are so many great choices. Let’s help children find the books they want to read.

Posted : Jun 22, 2019 08:15

Bridgette Crockett

I personally love Fahrenheit 451 and Lord of the Flies and have shared them with my middle schooler. He enjoyed them and went on to read other classics. He also reads Jeff Kinney and Lincoln Pierce. What is wrong with balance? And why does the author of this article feel the need to perpetuate a negative attitude towards any book? Isn't the goal to let kids explore widely and decide what they like? They may never realize that they like Bradbury if mom is rolling her eyes at the thought. As a librarian, I cringe when parents act this way in the library.While there are recently published books that are very good and show diversity we should not simply dismiss anything published a few decades ago simply for its age. These books have stood the test of time and sadly, I am sure the majority of books published today will not. Sure, there are gems out there but there are also gems from the past waiting to be discovered. For instance, there are many works from women and writers of all ethnic groups finally being published today that never got the recognition they deserved in their time. These can - and should - also be explored. Terrific writing and literary themes should be taught to children so they can recognize it when they see it. We should raise our standards for ourselves and our kids.

Posted : Jun 19, 2019 07:43

Mike Jung

Thank you for articulating this so thoroughly and so well, Donalyn.

Posted : Jun 18, 2019 06:35

Rebecca Erwin

Thank you for this article! I agree so much that summer should be a time to just let kids read whatever they want. Even if that means reading the same Dog Man book over and over again.There is this need in education to document and track everything. How about just letting children read what they want without worrying about stickers or logs? My nieces are 9 and 11. This summer they both decided they didn’t want to participate in the summer reading program at the public library. I know they are reading because we talk about books constantly, and they see their mother and me always reading as well. Let those conversations about books be the way to keep track.

Posted : Jun 17, 2019 07:18

Ashley David

You such

Posted : Jun 30, 2019 03:00



We are currently offering this content for free. Sign up now to activate your personal profile, where you can save articles for future viewing