Summer Reading: Oxymoron or Habit?

  • High School
Scott Cleary

With summer break upon us, students across the nation are getting prompted to do summer reading, whether it is required for a class, a common text for all incoming freshman, or simple encouragement. Concurrently educators are debating whether summer reading should be required, and if so, to what degree. Some students will get the prompt, “Have a good summer. Read a book” from their schools’ reader boards as the bus drives away. Others will receive lengthy task sheets listing heavy tomes as required reading, each accompanied by a writing assignment.

No matter the purpose of the summer reading suggestion or requirement, how does one maintain the spirit of summer reading—to foster the academic habit of reading. If you send your students into summer break with the encouragement or requirement to read, consider these tips to make it a habit, not a dreaded obligation to be avoided for as long as possible.

  1. Give choice. No matter how much you cherish Jane Eyre, almost all your students will loathe it. Most texts appeal to a narrow demographic; therefore, it is imperative to allow students to select what they read over the summer. When I develop my summer reading assignments for my A.P. language and composition classes, I list titles under categories of sports, science/math, history/social issues, music, and art. With five titles in each category, students can almost always find a book they find engaging. A couple titles that get chosen frequently are:

The Sports Gene by David Epstein: What is most notable about this title is that it appeals to many different athletes, from tennis players to football players. And some of the most provocative content relates to women’s sports. A wide array of professional athletes from different cultures are featured, making this a text that represents diverse voices. This book prompted one of my intentional non-reading athletes to start reading.

Lab Girl by Hope Jahren: A beautifully written autobiography, Lab Girl appeals not only science-oriented students, but also to readers who may prefer fiction. Some of the richest discussions in my classes have been prompted by this text as it explores issues relating to mental illness and gender equality in the sciences.

  1. Ditch the writing assignment. If summer reading is meant to foster academic habit, then it should model academic discourse. When I read for the sake of reading, I find more often I process my thinking through discussing it with others. Students who want to process their thinking through writing will do so on their own. Instead of assigning written tasks with my summer reading, I require students to record discussions they have with others who chose the same texts. Some students even inspire family members or friends to also read what they are reading, and they record those conversations. If you feel a writing assignment must accompany the reading, consider making it a dialectical journal in which students make personal connections to what they read. Writing tasks can also be saved until the first week of school.
  1. Pair books with non-written texts to deepen thinking. At the end of the school year when I survey my students about what they liked and disliked about the course, I always ask what their favorite assignments were. A common response is the listening to the Radiolab podcasts and TED Talks that are paired with each book on my summer reading list. Again, I do not ask them to write about connections between the two texts. Instead, provocative comparisons tend to naturally occur during the discussions they record. This is a much more organic fostering of why academics compare texts: to illuminate meaning in each. This activity also lays the foundation for the synthesis writing we do later in the year.

Another reason I follow these tenets of summer reading is to address issues of equity inherent in the task. Recently my department debated the issue of whether we should require summer reading for A.P. and honors level courses. A common criticism of summer reading is that it disadvantages underprivileged students who may not have equal access to the texts and time to read them. While this is a valid concern, I would rather work to address these issues. On top of allowing choice and making the project more time thrifty with omitting writing assignments, I also discuss with certain students strategies for balancing difficult schedules to include reading time, for not fostering the academic habit of reading does an even greater disservice to our underprivileged students.

  • English Language Arts
  • Reading
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