Three Rules for a Fabulous Summer Reading Program

Pick awesome books, offer choice, and value student voice. Read more tips from a 2016 SLJ School Librarian of the Year finalist.
Students chat and make a poster about the summer reading pick A Death-Struck Year by Makiia Lucier Photograph courtesy of Laura Gardner

Students chat and make a poster about the summer reading pick A Death-Struck Year by Makiia Lucier
Photograph courtesy of Laura Gardner

Six years ago, we changed our summer reading program at Dartmouth (MA) Middle School to emphasize choice. Our goal: to offer a selection of high-interest, engaging, and fun books in the hopes that kids would actually read one. The result: 90 percent now say they like the books they choose, according to teachers. Reinventing our summer reading model was a lot of work, but we’ve seen it pay off in a stronger school reading culture, more buzz about good books, and a great start to each school year. Here’s how we do it.

1. Pick awesome books

Summer reading is on my agenda all year, and our literacy committee—the literacy coach, reading specialist, ELA lab teacher, and I—meet once every cycle to choose books and organize the program. We select new titles every year, spanning realistic fiction, science fiction/fantasy, mystery and historical fiction, and memoir. We go for variety in terms of diverse characters, male/female protagonists, reading level, and book length. The only rule: every title must be available in paperback, since we buy them for students. Around January, we develop discussion questions for each book so students will feel a sense of direction while reading and anticipating book discussions in the fall. Our 2017 list is almost final.

2. Offer choice!

Next, I invite students to booktalks and book buffets. Kids move from table to table, browsing each title. We interlibrary loan extra copies so we have at least four of each. After students chat with friends and make their choices, we compile the selections in Google Sheets. Some students read more than one book, which is awesome! We have all titles in ebook and digital audiobook format on MackinVia, and kids can also check items out for the summer. Next we ask seventh and eighth grade teachers what titles they prefer and match them with like-minded student groups. Some years, one book is wildly popular, such as Dan Gemeinhart’s The Honest Truth (Scholastic, 2015), the focus of four book groups. We try to limit group size to 20, but sometimes we’ll assign two teachers to 30 students.

Thanks to our Parent Teacher Organization, a discount from our local Barnes & Noble, and a bit of money from the district, we can buy a book for every seventh and eighth grader. It’s an exciting day when the books are delivered! My student library volunteers sort them by ELA teacher and student name. We insert bookmark-sized pieces of card stock with discussion questions and information about ebook apps.

3. Value student voice

It’s so rewarding when students talk about the book they’ve chosen and read together. I was with a small group that selected Makiia Lucier’s historical novel A Death-Struck Year (HMH, 2014), and our discussion ranged from self-interest versus the public good to speculation about what happened after the book ended. We give teachers discussion questions, chart paper, and markers for their book meetings. Along with free-ranging discussions, they create a visual to display at our Open House for parents. We also asked students to recommend readalike titles to help our literacy committee start book ladders for ELA teachers.


Back when we assigned specific books, teachers estimated that only around 60 percent actually read them, as opposed to 90 percent now—and the vast majority today say they enjoy their selection. These books and their sequels circulate heavily in the fall. Why? Word-of-mouth recommendations make kids want to read more.

1609-SLOTY_Laura-Gardner-TN2016 SLJ School Librarian of the Year Finalist Laura Gardner is teacher librarian at Dartmouth (MA) Middle School.

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