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6 Tested Strategies for Successful Summer Reading

End of the Year, Reading
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.

Check out these six tested strategies to engage your students in successful summer reading! Plus, download a free editable summer reading assignment and book list! As a bonus, this book list has teacher must-reads too!

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:


  1. The objective of this assignment is to encourage you to make summer learning gains.
  2. The objective of this assignment is to inspire you to find something you love to read.
  3. The objective of this assignment is to motivate you to enjoy reading.
  4. 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:
  1. 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.
  2. Creative thinking project–Check out the details here.
  3. Journaling–Ask them to journal about their reading. Give them length and page requirements and topic suggestions and tell them to have at it.
  4. 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
Check out these six tested strategies to engage your students in successful summer reading! Plus, download a free editable summer reading assignment and book list! As a bonus, this book list has teacher must-reads too!
Happy reading!

Doc Cop

How to Create Excitement When You Introduce Choice Reading

Featured, Reading

Snapchat is ultra-popular with students, so I knew anything that made the app’s influence educationally appropriate and meaningful would be a hit. This led me to create my new favorite resource: Book Snaps!


Book Snapchats are a great way to engage students in a deeper understanding of any work! They can be used to introduce options for choice reading, or students can create their own as an enrichment analysis activity. They also make fun classroom decor. Use the free template to create your own!

Book Snaps are an interactive and engaging activity for ANY book! The Book Snap is comprised of a snap (a picture) that represents the work and a caption (a quotation from the work). They are perfect for introducing a snapshot of a book during a choice reading unit, like The Critical Thinker’s Novel Study, or an enrichment activity to engage students in higher-order analysis. As a bonus, they look beautiful printed and displayed around the room for trendy and meaningful classroom decor. Keep reading for my free template so you and your students can make your own.

Introducing Book Options

To introduce the book options for our choice reading unit, I used my own clever Book Snaps. They were perfect to give students a snapshot of the book without judging it by its cover.

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I wrapped each book in black paper, like a gift, and created a Book Snap for each book (more on that below). Once I had my Book Snaps ready to go, I taped them to the corresponding wrapped books and placed each book with a group of desks. (I also added a short summary of the work to accompany the Book Snap.)

Book Snapchats are a great way to engage students in a deeper understanding of any work! They can be used to introduce options for choice reading, or students can create their own as an enrichment analysis activity. They also make fun classroom decor. Use the free template to create your own!

Students moved around the classroom to each station to learn about the books and pick their favorite option.

Enrichment Activity

These Book Snaps also make a great activity for students as an additional analysis for your choice reading assignment or any reading assignment. You can download the template here:

Ask students to find a picture that represents a “snap” of the book and a corresponding quotation for that picture. I advise students to use Open Educational Resources (OERs), so that they are only using images with a Creative Commons Zero (CC0) license, which means they are completely free to use without attribution. Unsplash and Pexels are our favorite OERs for this project. They should add emojis and hashtags that would enhance that Book Snap. The beauty of this activity is that even if you’re doing a whole class novel, you are certain to have MANY different Book Snaps.

Below is a demonstration for how to create a Book Snap. You can show your students for a quick tutorial.

Once they’re completed, I ask students to present an explanation for their Book Snaps to the class. I ask them to tell us what they did and why. My AP Literature students create Book Snaps as a review for the Open-Ended Free Response Question on the AP exam. They work really well for this review because the visuals and quotations make them particularly memorable. Maybe they’ll even remember that Book Snap quotation to impress the AP readers!

Don’t forget to display your Book Snaps around the room. I love how they look on cardstock or photo paper.

Check out the first post in this choice reading series, “How to Engage Your Readers With Choice Reading: The Set Up,” here.

Happy Snappin’!

How to Engage Your High Schoolers with Choice Reading

Learn how to engage your high schoolers with choice reading!
I am so excited to bring this series to you today. I have been researching choice reading since the spring of 2014, when my English department decided to create a summer reading program. After our pilot trial during that summer, I gave in to my instincts and started reading about choice reading units versus whole class novel units. With several successful attempts at choice independent reading under my belt, I gained confidence in my conviction that I could be on to something big with this choice reading idea, which led me to read more and more on the subject. 
Still, it wasn’t until I read Donalyn Miller’s The Book Whisperer that I decided to tackle a true choice reading unit in class during the school year. My initial take on the book left me feeling somewhat defeated, though inspired. I felt that much of the information in the book was specific to younger levels; therefore, I was left with more questions than answers: 
How would I ensure that my students were picking books that were appropriate? 
How could I possibly read enough books to offer direction and advice to over 80 students? 
What would they do in class on the days that they weren’t reading? 
How would I challenge them to think critically about their reading if they were all reading different books? 
How would I encourage active reading?
How would I assess their understanding of the book?
In this blog series, I will explain how I answered these questions and in doing so, created one of my best and proudest educational endeavors. I hope you will find my experience helpful. More than anything else, I hope you find it inspiring. If something I did inspires you, like Donalyn Miller did for me, then my English-teacher heart will be content.

Whole Class Novel Versus Choice Novel 

There are compelling arguments for both whole class novel units, a unit in which the whole class reads the same novel, and choice novel units, a unit in which each student chooses a novel to read. In my nine years of teaching, I have facilitated whole class novel units and choice novel units. While there are certainly challenges to both endeavors, I found one really significant issue with whole class novels: some students simply hate the book. I chalked it up as a “get over it” experience. I could be heard rationalizing something like, “Sometimes in life you’re going to have to do things that don’t particularly spark your interest.” “Consider it a learning experience.” “Most students love this book!” or “How could you not like it?” Ouch! Did I really say that? No wonder, I had students who claimed they didn’t like reading. To combat these students whom I was sure weren’t reading the assigned out-of-class work, I forced in-class reading on them. I hated popcorn reading as a student, and I hated it even more as a teacher. If I was going to get students to like reading, stressing them out about mispronouncing a word in front of the class surely wasn’t going to do it. 
It wasn’t until I was on the other side of the classroom that I finally could empathize. Because reading is one of my strengths, I rarely found a book that I couldn’t chug through, even if I didn’t like it. However, one year, I was tasked with teaching As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner. Plain and simple, I hated that book. It was a struggle to teach a book that I could barely force myself to pick up. As much as I hated it, it was a pivotal learning experience for me. Now, I could see how I was alienating some students during our whole class novel units. 

This is not to say that whole class units do not have a place in the English classroom. For example, I love whole class drama units. To me, they lend themselves to whole class study for the engaging way roles can be assigned and acted out. Whole class novels absolutely can be done effectively, but from this point on, I knew I wanted to try something different. 

The Set Up

Defining the Objective

When I first began this endeavor, I struggled to visualize the choice novel unit in my classroom. My vision was blurry because I struggled to define just what they were to do. As with any novel unit, I knew I wanted my students to be engaged in a higher-order analysis of the work. I also knew if they hated the book, were unmotivated to read it, and therefore, not reading it, it was impossible to get them to dig deeper. Sure, I could force the book on them in class, but just how engaged would they be? The answer is not at all. Been there, done that. I had to define my objective.
Using a backward design approach, I broadly defined the goals of the unit:
  1. inspire students to enjoy reading
  2. engage students in creative and critical thinking related to their reading
With these two ideas in mind, I had a new focus and could start to take on the challenging questions related to the book choices. I encourage you to start with your overall goals for the unit. Yours certainly could be different from mine; however, I found that these two goals serve most classes and grades.

Creating a Book List OR Establishing the Parameters

Book List

Due to the number of students who would be participating in this unit (60 students across four classes), I soon realized that absolute free choice was out of the question. I didn’t have the resources (books or time) to service that many students. Alas, I hit what I thought was a devastating road block. 

However, just because I couldn’t give the students free reign on their choices, didn’t mean I couldn’t give them a choice; it didn’t have to be all or nothing. The answer was simple: a book list. The decision to use a book list solved a number of problems. A well-researched book list would give them choice, but I wouldn’t have to worry about complexity or appropriateness. With that many students, I wouldn’t have the time necessary to review each selection. The challenge was giving enough choices. Here is the criteria I used to when constructing the book list:
  1. The book has at least 20 copies available.
  2. The book represents the curriculum. (My class is British Literature.)
  3. The book fits a unique genre (different from the other selections).
  4. The book is age appropriate/approved by the school board.

I searched every inch of the high school to find sets of books that could work for this project. I decided on eight options that represented different genres, including love, heroic, adventure, Gothic, mystery, drama (as in dramatic action, not a play), psychological, and nonfiction. (Obviously, the nonfiction option was not a novel, but it was about Jack the Ripper, so it fit the British content, and it met the other criteria. In retrospect, I’m really glad I included a nonfiction option for students who really would rather read nonfiction.)


My AP students will be participating in this unit after the AP exam. It will be the perfect creative culminating unit after the stress of the rigid AP exam. I only have 22 AP students total so a true free choice assignment is much more realistic. Even still, using the experience with my other classes, I’ve already created a set of parameters:
  1. The book must be on the approved book list set forth by the school board. (If you do not have an approved book list, this one might read, “The book must display literary merit.” This is something that is subject and will require your approval; however, I would still give them a chance to argue their case.)
  2. The book must be age appropriate.*
*By age appropriate, I am referring to complexity. I do not use page numbers as a requirement, but rather focus on the appropriate complexity for their age group.
Because our district has a number of classroom sets of books that would fit this description, I will offer them these choices. However, if students would like a book that I do not have copies of, they are responsible for arranging their own copies.

Designing the Reading Survey

The purpose of the reading survey is to ask students about their interests so you can help them make a reading choice that they will enjoy. It also helps me make some recommendations if a student is on the fence about two choices. This reading survey works well if you ask general questions about the students reading (and watching) interests. I include watching in my survey because I do not want them to feel defeated if they haven’t read much in the past. They can’t really know what books like, if they haven’t read much before, right? By asking them what they like to watch, I can get a feel for what they might like to read. I personally love using Google Forms for the reading survey because my information is saved in a Google Sheet for easy access.

My reading survey is included in The Critical Thinker’s Novel Study Bundle in both digital and print sources.
(Being that we did this project in March, I already knew my students well enough to develop this list. However, you may want to give a reading survey before you create the book list if you are starting this project before you feel confident about the trends for the year or age group.) 

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Click here to keep reading about how I used Book Snaps for an introduction to the choices and a student-led enrichment activity. While you’re there, don’t forget to download your free Book Snap template!

Happy Reading,