My first attempt at a summer reading assignment required all students to read The Hobbit and write an essay. It was a major fail! We had a lot of grumbling and poor outcomes. In an anonymous survey, I discovered that only about a fourth of students said they enjoyed the book; only a third said they read the whole book; and just about all of them hated writing the essay. I blamed the students for their lack of commitment and their blatant laziness. Then, once I got over my initial disappointment and frustration, I realized the problem was not with the students, but with me.
I had good intentions, but I let them down. I set them up for failure. I was deflated. But, that was five years ago. I didn’t give up, and neither should you. It took two pilot studies, lots and lots of researching, and collaboration; nonetheless, in the end, I have a summer reading philosophy that not only works, but one that makes me proud. I hope to save you time and energy by sharing exactly what works for me (hint: choice reading is the key!). Plus, I’ll share one of my editable summer reading assignments to help you get started, so keep reading.
1) Explain your objective to the students in a positive light.
What is your purpose for assigning summer reading? If you start with, “If you don’t do this reading you’ll be kicked out of AP,” or “You have to do this reading to pass your standardized test,” or “If you don’t do it, you’ll start the year with an F,” most students will associate these negative attitudes with reading. Truly, if your purpose is to force your students to read or to “weed out” students from upper-level classes, I caution that you may want to frame it to the students differently.
It’s really all about wording. To me, and probably to our students, those above objectives sound punitive. There is nothing worse in this case than assigning summer reading that actually make students hate reading.
If you frame the objective to your students with positive language, students usually will be more open-minded, and at the very least, it makes us sound more positive to parents and administrators. Here are some examples of objectives I might communicate to the students:
- The objective of this assignment is to encourage you to make summer learning gains.
- The objective of this assignment is to inspire you to find something you love to read.
- The objective of this assignment is to motivate you to enjoy reading.
- The objective of this assignment is to help you get ready for class next year.
Notice the use of positive words? Encourage, inspire, motivate, and help are positive words to associate reading with positivity. If your students know the objective up front and understand how it will benefit them, they are more likely to start the assignment with positivity.
Although wording is a good start, it alone does not determine the success of the summer reading. The reading material and the assignment are where the success comes in.
2) Give them choice!
This is SO important! I’ve written about this before, and I’ll write about it over and over because I can’t stress enough how beneficial this has been for my students. One of the biggest fails of my first attempt was that I tried to make all students read The Hobbit. It is such a specific genre that I completely shut out more than three-fourths of my students who don’t like fantasy. Duh! How could I have overlooked this? My revelation came when my husband who is an avid reader commented that I could never get him to read that book. He hates fantasy. It makes sense! If I had to read a 600-page book on George Washington (which he is currently doing and loving by the way), I would hate reading too. We can’t expect students to love a book just because we love it. That’s where choice comes in.
Since you do have an objective and focus, I recommend choice through a well-researched book list. Giving 100% free choice can be done, but it’s risky. There are a number of things that could go wrong, such as students reading books that are far below their reading level, unrelated to your content, lack merit, or are inappropriate. To combat these issues, a well-researched book list will give options while making the choice focused to your objectives.
3) Collaborate to make an awesome book list.
It can be challenging to come up with these options because let’s face it, we don’t all have time to read every book option out there; however, you don’t have to go at it alone. Talk to your teacher friends who love reading too. My go-to helper is my husband. He helps me come up with cross-curricular options for students who are going to be in his history classes and who love to read historical and political works. For this reason, I strongly suggest to speak to your history and science teacher friends. This way, you don’t have to read every book, but someone from your school did. (As a side note, you do have to be careful with this. I trust my husband’s opinion and I know he won’t steer me wrong as far as appropriateness goes. Just make sure you trust your collaborators.)
Although I don’t have a standard for you, I try to offer at least eight different categories with two options each. If your goal is nonfiction reading, try to base it on topic. If your goal is fiction reading, go with genre.
4) Align your assessment to your objective (and be savvy).
Your assessment should guide students to mastery (or growth) related to your objective. Your instinct might be to go straight for the essay, like I did. This might be a good option depending on your objectives. Say for example, one of your objectives is to form a baseline for student writing. Then, the essay might work. While this is one of my AP objectives for the first weeks of school, writing an essay at home is different than writing an on-demand, timed essay, like they will write on the AP exam. Therefore, this objective doesn’t match my summer reading objective.
You also have to consider yourself when assigning your assessment. This is where the savvy part comes in. To me, there is nothing worse than starting the school year by collecting 100 essays. That’s the mistake I made my first year. If you’re into doing all that grading to start the year, that’s cool too, but it’s not for me. I felt like I was starting the year in the hole, and I didn’t like it.
Here are teacher-savvy, non-traditional ideas for assessment:
- Sticky note scavenger hunt–Give them literary items (mood, tone, irony, author’s purpose, etc.) that they have to find and mark with a sticky note. This is easy to assess through conferencing when the students come back to school.
- Creative thinking project–Check out the details here.
- Journaling–Ask them to journal about their reading. Give them length and page requirements and topic suggestions and tell them to have at it.
- Discussion boards–This is the one I’m doing this year, and I’m excited about it! Essentially, the students will log in to our LMS (Learning Management System) over summer break to participate in asynchronous discussions about their books. You can read all of the details of this assignment by downloading my Summer Reading Assignment Example and Book List below.
5) Send reminders and due dates over the summer months.
I use RemindHQ and Google Classroom to remind students over the summer. This is an easy way to send reminders. If you use Remind, they will receive a text message directly to their phones. I find this to be a really important step because it is so easy to get consumed by the summer slide. Sending out short and sweet reminders will give them a push to stay on target. It will also help you field questions.
Now, I do want to add that I don’t advocate working without pay over the summer. The way I justify it is that it saves me a TON of grading time once the school year starts. It makes my life easier! Plus, I’m willing to do it. I enjoy it, and it’s meaningful for my students. Though, you most likely are under no obligation to answer messages over the summer, I don’t mind because it prevents problems when we come back to school. So, in that way, I do feel like I’m getting paid.
6) Create a backup plan.
What if you have a student who is enrolled in the class (or district) right before school starts? Should the student be exempt from the assignment? Is this fair to the other students? What happens if a student doesn’t have internet or computer access? What if a student can’t acquire a book (for financial or other reasons)?
Only you can answer these questions for your situation, but it certainly doesn’t hurt to have a back up. It will save you time and energy to have this ready to go. My suggestion is to include at least one option that the students can check out from your room that way the kids who don’t have the money or time to purchase or borrow their own book will still be able to complete the assignment. You usually only need one classroom set to do this. I also have an alternative assignment in case a student enrolls late. You can read about my back up in my example assignment.
Please feel free to use my example summer reading assignment in part or in whole! If nothing else, I hope you’ll enjoy our book list for your own summer reading. It has some of our absolute favorites! Although it’s really hard to pick just one favorite from that list, I have to go with The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt. Check it out! If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.