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Tips on Shaking Up Your Summer Reading Program

by Barbara Zinkovich

*This article originally appeared in the March 2014 issue of Kids & Books.*

Summer Reading. Those two words can invoke a sense of dread if you are a teacher, parent or student. Since the goal of a summer reading program is to avoid the inevitable deterioration of reading and writing skills over the longest school break of the year, isn't there a way to do it that won't entail misery all around? Last spring my school, Derby Academy, decided to shake up summer reading to see if we could change the prevailing attitudes and encourage students to pick up a book before Labor Day sales hit the stores.

What we used to do

Previously, K-8th grade students had a required "core" book to read over summer. Students chose the remaining number of books (a number determined by grade level) from specific subject and genre lists, including nonfiction.

Spearheaded by a group of teachers who read Donalyn Miller's The Book Whisperer and championed by me, our school wanted to give more choice to the students. After reading The Book Whisperer, the English department chairs embraced its core message: that students need to spend more class time reading and less on other tasks.  Summer reading fell into a pattern of reading/assessment/student accountability. Our students read from lists, then had to keep a record of what they read and were told they would be responsible for "something" once school was back in session.

Another catalyst that resulted in my school questioning our practices in and out of class was a visit by author and professor Marc Aronson, who spoke to parents and teachers about boys and reading. After this visit, I realized our summer reading lists didn't contain materials that appealed to boys like magazines, manuals, websites, and narrative nonfiction. Our hope was that all of our students would not only read more in the summer, but enjoy reading more. So, we got together and made some decisions.

Derby Academy third grader shares personal feelings about his summer reading.

How we changed

Collaboration. Our English department, reading specialist, and I created a summer reading statement, which we published on our website to publicize this shift in approach. The primary and elementary grades kept their core book titles, emphasizing the selection's link to school curriculum (poetry, insects, and state history).  All other summer reading could be student choice.  I worked with each grade level to create a Shelfari of recommended books and embedded it into our summer reading page on the school website. Students wrote one or two sentences about what they liked about the book.

Discussion. We made sure to include a discussion about our summer reading philosophy at our end-of-year parent gatherings.  Overall, most parents were pleased with the decision. They talked about how summer reading had become a battle and added anxiety as the beginning of school approached. A few, though, thought changing the required reading might affect the rigor of our school's academic program. Some students and parents like to have quantifiable goals ("Read 15 books over the summer").

Journals. Our school bought blank white books for students to record reading, in whatever way they chose. In each class, teachers and librarians brainstormed with students about ideas on what to include in journals.  ("Teacher: 'How can you use your journals?' Student 1: 'I can keep a list of books I like and don't like.' Student 2: 'I can draw a picture!'") Our reading teacher gave students a copy of the poem "Hello, Summer" by Greg Pincus for students to put in their journals as inspiration before summer.  Students of all grade levels were encouraged to begin a list of books they wanted to read over the summer. 

Emphasis on reading. In both English classes and in the library, we told students that what really mattered was reading every day, rather than the number or type of books read. How can you compare reading Harry Potter with a smaller novel like A Taste of Blackberries? Or a long but not very challenging book? Our goal: to remove limitations on reading!

Resulting student conversations proved interesting.

"I can read what I want?"


"Even comic books?"

"Yes." (This answer resulted in some sidelong glances between students as they clearly felt they were "getting one over" on the grown-ups.)

"Do I have to read a certain number of books?"

"No, just try to read 20 minutes every day."

"What do I put in my white book?"

"Whatever you want! Keep a list, draw a picture of book characters, cut out summaries and reviews from websites and paste in your book, rate your favorite . . . just be ready to share when school begins in August."

August display featuring 4-8th grade students' summer reading journals.

And the results are in…

When school resumed, we surveyed students about their summer reading practices and they shared their summer reading journals with teachers and classmates. The survey results showed that 50% of the students reported they read "more or a lot more" than they had in previous summers and 89% preferred choosing their own books. While some parents would rather have a list and believe that their children need the structure of a required list, overall the school community was pleased with the new policy.  One fourth grade teacher said, "My students enjoyed viewing and reading/listening to the different books that their new and old classmates read. This helped build connections between students and was a great ice-breaker for us as a class when school started. I hope we have journals again next summer!" 

A parent told me that her son and a friend made a "book club."  Since they enjoyed similar genres, they read the same books and then met together. The parents added a bonus: at the end of the summer, they took the boys to an outdoor park as a reward for their participation.

One other question on the survey was particularly telling, but not surprising. When asked how students found books to read there was a smattering of answers that included parents, online sources, or our time-consuming, school-prepared reading list, but most students chose "friend recommendation." Word-of-mouth is how many adults find books to read and our students are no different. 

With summer reading just around the corner, we're evaluating how things went.  This year, we decided to have an on-site book fair the last month of school.   We will also examine whether or not to keep the remaining core books or to have complete student choice. I know what I hope for! At the end of last school year, sixth-grade student Annabelle asked again, "So really Mrs. Z, I can read what I want?"

"Yes!" I replied.

"Oh, bless you!"  

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Barbara S. Zinkovich, a former classroom teacher, is a National Board certified library media specialist at Derby Academy in Hingham, Massachusetts.