The Problem with Summer Reading

July 25, 2013 | 10 books mentioned 36 5 min read

I imagine the only thing worse than being a kid with a summer reading assignment due in little more than a month is being the parent of a kid with a summer reading assignment due in little more than a month. Has the fighting begun? The daily reminders and the task-mastering and the endless, tedious, summer-joy sucking arguments? We might still have a good week or so before the upcoming school year reaches back into blissful summer time and asks, not kindly, how far along you are in your summer reading assignments.

I teach high school English in a town that has a mandated summer reading program. The program prides itself on being more progressive than most: students are allowed to choose their books, provided that those books are represented in the Accelerated Reader Program database. The kids keep track of how many “points” each book is worth, as determined by the program, and are asked to read a different number of points depending on what level of English they are enrolled in. Students in Standard English must read 10 points, Academic English students read 20, and Honors read 30. Point value is determined, as far as I can tell, by the number of pages. So this means that on average, students are asked to read somewhere between one and four books over the summer to meet the requirement.

cover Then comes September. We don’t quiz them on the first day, or even the first week, because everyone would fail. The policy is that the students have until the end of September to “finish” their summer reading, and by this date, must log into the software in their English teacher’s presence and complete the AR quiz on the books that they read. Most students use this time afforded to them to swap summaries of books with simple plots, to recall what books they might have read with their middle school English classes and never tested on, or to calculate how many three-point Dr. Seuss books they would have to test on to reach their assigned point value. Last year The Hunger Games movie was released, and about 50 percent of my students tested on that book. Students test every year on the Harry Potter books, because HBO runs the films for week-long stretches, giving kids every opportunity to get the plot down.

Watching them game the system, it seems it takes more work to successfully not read than it would to just pick up a book.

Yes, there are ways that I could crack down on the requirements and my watchfulness of their testing practices. But I can’t bring myself around to it. Summer reading assignments are a waste of time, and I’m a busy lady. Not only that, but focusing on the Accelerated Reader point values of books and testing the students on inane and helplessly specific plot points would fly directly in the face of all of the work that I am doing in September to teach my students about being readers.

I have some readers in my classes: they are the kids in September who couldn’t care less about the Summer Reading assignment. They’ll search through the database for two or three of the 10 books they read this summer, and test on those. They’ll do well enough, though they will often be frustrated to earn a 70 percent on a book that they read 100 percent of because they missed question 6: Couldn’t remember what color shoes the protagonist’s uncle bought him before moving away. For readers, AR will just be an annoyance, or at worst a source of unwarranted stress, because they already know how disconnected summer reading assignments are from the true motivations and rewards of reading.

cover cover But my non-readers. I’m spending September trying to teach them the practices of readers. I’m stressing the payoffs, I’m playing book matchmaker, I’m modeling my own practices and talking about my favorite books in my classroom library. I’m telling them how they were born with a love of reading, reminding them of The Giving Tree and The Very Hungry Caterpillar, and Captain Underpants, and telling them that school took this love of reading from them, killed it. And then, gritting my teeth, I’m reminding them that they have to complete their department-mandated summer reading assignment by September 28th.

coverSummer reading assignments and reading quizzes and book reports don’t teach our students how to be readers. They teach them that reading is a school-centered activity. That it is a chore. That they aren’t good at it if they can’t remember insignificant plot points. These assignments set students up to cheat, or to fail, and always to regard reading as a drag.

This is how we breed kids who say they “hate reading.” The very act itself. They don’t like the books they have been forced to read, and so they’ve written off the entire activity, as if being forced to eat their vegetables had driven them to swear off food entirely.

Summer reading assignments aren’t just ruining students’ last few glorious weeks of summer, aren’t just adding to the already arduous load of summer assignments from other classes and adding stress to what should be a period of freedom, aren’t just causing fights at the dinner table and taking away Xbox playing privileges. Summer reading assignments are killing a love of reading.

You read for its own sake. To learn, to travel, to be spooked or heartbroken or elated. To grow.And when you do this, when reading becomes something that you authentically value, you become a better reader and writer without even trying. You start to reach for more advanced reading material, inferring word meaning, connecting with characters and identifying their growth, interpreting nuances of meaning and symbolism with delight and awe. When you write, your sentence structure becomes more complex and sophisticated. You write with greater imagery. You take emotional risks, understanding that good writing is honest.

I know because I see it happen. When I take away book reports and reading quizzes, when I eliminate deadlines for finishing books and specific title requirements, my students are free to read books that they choose, and as the year progresses, they choose more and more and more.

“How are we being graded on this?” they ask, at the beginning of the year. “You get full credit just by reading,” I respond, and they stare at me confused for a second longer before shrugging and turning their eyes back to the page.

cover I don’t assign anything to reward or punish them for being readers. What I do, is assess their skills as the year progresses. That’s how I know that that when you read a lot of books you like, you become a better reader and writer without even trying. That’s how I know that my instruction meets the Common Core State Standards for Education without ever forcing them to read The Odyssey, or making them take a test on a book.

That’s why I don’t want anything to do with assigned summer reading.

In June of last year, my students wrote book reviews which I posted on my website organized by genre. Their classmates and my students who followed are able to reference this list for recommendations. This year, my students wrote letters to an author who influenced them. Almost all of the students were writing to an author of a book that they chose to read this year. Many of them were writing: “Your book is the first book that I actually read.” Or: “Your book taught me that I don’t hate reading.”

Because there were no reading deadlines, most of my students were in the middle of a book when the last day of school came around, and so summer reading was something that was just going to happen.

And what if it doesn’t? What if, after reading all year and understanding its value and feeling the sense of ownership that comes with making his own decisions about what he does and learns, a kid still chooses not to read a single book in July or August?

Like I said, I’m a busy lady. This is just not something I can get worked up over. I’ll catch you in September, and we’ll do it right.

Image Credit: Flickr/Martha W McQuade.

is a graduate of Rutgers University where she completed her undergraduate degree in English and a MA in Education. She currently teaches English at Hightstown High School in East Windsor, NJ.


  1. Thank you so much for this article. I’m not an educator but I have a child in elementary and a child in middle school. One is a “reader” one…not so much. I have felt instinctively what you wrote above, but it is so against the grain here in NYC I never dared discuss it.

  2. There are just so many things wrong with this editorial I don’t know where to start. No wonder American students are so far behind. Get over it, it’s just summer reading.

  3. Thank you for posting this. I was always a reader and still read compulsively. My son, however, is a physical kid. He’s a physical learner and reading stopped being fun for him just about the time schools started forcing the issue. I watched “education” turn reading into constant fights and misery because he hated the stuff he was forced to read and penalized for not getting out of it what the teacher’s manual said he should. It brought nothing but angst into our family and I believe it permanently destroyed his attachment to reading, which crippled him in other areas like spelling and general language skills. He’s very articulate and extraordinarily (almost disturbingly) tuned in to human thematics and inferential messages, so it’s not that he doesn’t “get it”, it’s that schools turned education into a factory floor. Show me the line worker who’s interested and inspired by their mechanical, repetitive, meaningless tasks. That’s what we do to our kids. He’s 18 now and got obsessed with the Twilight books – but that’s it. I’m still trying to restore his interest in reading, but he separated from it early on and I fear it may be lost forever.

  4. There are just so many things wrong with the previous comment that I don’t know where to start. At the risk of feeding the trolls, I will start anyway.

    a.) In what way exactly will the rote vomiting out of plot points and gaming the system at the end of September result in American students coming back from their “far behind” position? And behind exactly what? A line of good little trained automatons cramming in and disgorging factoids on demand?

    b.) It’s not “just summer reading.” As Ms. Ross so aptly explained in her sensitive and lovely essay, it is not even a zero-sum game, but instead a practice that runs the risk of turning off potential book-lovers. Kids that might have turned to books naturally, if they were just left alone for the summer to watch fireflies and conduct bird funerals (one of my favorite summer childhood activities).

    c.) No, I will not “get over it,” and neither should Ms. Ross or the Millions readers. We love books, love reading, love stories, and want others to love them as well.

    Signing off from Washington DC, where I am enjoying a break in the heat and wandering around listening to bird calls.

    “Moe Murph”

  5. So much yes to this article!

    I was a voracious reader on my own but I hated reading for school. It was never any fun when it was for school. I understand that reading is essential for childhood learning in almost every respect—but this is not the way to encourage kids to want to read.

    Ironically, I never read any of the assigned books for my classes in junior & high school—but I’ve read every one of those books on my own just for fun (and because I think it’s important to be well read) since then. The mere act of assigning the book automatically made me not want to read it.

    Over the years, I’ve spoken about this phenomenon with many people—friends, coworkers, classmates—and I’ve been struck by how many people had the exact same experience in school. Moreover—it tends to be the most well-read and best educated people who felt this most acutely.

    When the people who love reading the most hate reading for school… that should tell us something.

  6. Most of the people that enjoy reading try to read all year round. It seems that summer is most difficult time to read because there are so many outdoor things to do. However, reading is a good way to relax and unwind for all age groups.

  7. Hurray for your wonderful piece! My rising 10th grader has to “read” Red Badge of Courage, and it’s a real struggle for me to get him (and keep him!) in the reading game at all. This choice isn’t helping. I agree especially with your point about how summer reading recasts reading as “school work”–as in, compulsory. As in, not for me. As in, someone else’s work.

  8. The problem, as books like Daniel Pink’s *Drive* and Kelly Gallagher’s *Readicide* bring home, is that you can’t build internal motivation to read with external rewards and punishments. You need to get students to learn to enjoy reading and to have an authentic interest in what they read. And the only way to do that is, as you suggest, to work hard at matching books to students. Looking back at my own experience as a non-reader who became a reader, it was all about finding the right books, and I was fortunate to have teachers like you who helped me do that. Ultimately, parents may be the best situated to help, and I have tried my best to get my 10-year-old son to read by buying him plenty of books that seemed to interest him — from the “N.E.R.D.S.” book series, to “Origami Yoda,” to to “Charlie Joe Jackson’s Guide to Not Reading” (which is really the sneakiest one of all). Last summer he plowed through the whole “Hunger Games” series on his own — and by the Fall he was reading the whole “Lord of the Rings” series and then the “Earthsea” books. The other day I found him reading “Beowulf.” Said he was “into it.”

    Keep up the good work.

  9. Hurray and huzzah! It seems to me that between assigning “leveled” reading (e.g. AR and Lexiles) and summer reading, the american educational system is doing everything it can to stifle pleasure readers. I’m an author of teen fantasy. At a bookfest, a boy asked me how many points my book was worth in AR. “I don’t know,” I said, “but let me tell you a little bit about the book.” “No, thanks,” he said, and wandered off to find a book he could be scored on.
    I’ve taken the test on my own books, and managed to pass. But there was nothing about theme, or motivation, or character–it was all the kind of detail that I quickly forget, even though the book itself stays with me.

  10. Yes yes yes! I thought words could never adequately express how much I hated the abominably STUPID AR program when I was in middle school, but you have expressed them! Our AR program lasted all year round. We were required to go to the school library once a week and pick out at least 2 books. There was this tiny little dinky section in the back for AR books and I cannot even count how many times I heard my classmates complain about the selection. Nevertheless, despite the myriad books around them, no one EVER checked out any books from the rest of the library. Why would they? Those books were worthless because they didn’t have any “points.”

  11. “and telling them that school took this love of reading from them, killed it. ”

    You are doing them no favor saying this. Just stick with booktalking and sharing how exciting books can be and everyone has their own taste in books, and giving them choices. As a school librarian, I have found this works well. Also, though, you may have to create some sort of incentive to motivate kids to read. No one does anything without a motivation to start them on the good path. What that motivation is, is the trick.

  12. I am a children’s librarian in the public library. The Youth Services Department works hard at getting youth to become life long readers. We want to encourage children to enjoy books. If a child only reads one book a summer, I want it to be a book that they chose and enjoy. Their is a place for the classics but it’s not required reading on summer vacation.

  13. Thanks for this article. I have always intensely agreed with mandated summer reading assignments and am relieved that our school doesn’t require it (yet). If it does, you can bet I will be writing the board and complaining. As for James’s comment above, he is the one who is way off. I could babble on about this, but suffice it to say that American students are not behind because they are not being forced to study during the summer; they are behind because the school system itself is deeply broken and inherently flawed. At best, mandated summer reading is a very weak band-aid that does nothing to heal the wounds and actually causes harm. I don’t even agree with the “read 30 minutes each day” rule that many teachers use in elementary school. There are better ways to grow readers.

  14. Seems to me her problem isn’t so much with summer reading, but the teaching methods that are commonly used. It’s not going to kill kids to read a book or two over the summer. Perhaps make those the books of their choosing, so it’s a more fun activity. Fact of the matter is, kids need to read books. If they don’t like it, tough. I didn’t particularly like reading The Lord of the Flies or Animal Farm, but they had good messages and lessons to learn. It was a chore, and I hated that I couldn’t read for fun. But there were others that would never read at all if it wasn’t forced on them. Like vegetables, books are good for you and should be consumed (especially when young). I wish the author would have made her headline reflect her point of view a little more, instead of saying there is a problem with summer reading. Her issue really seems to be the way that reading is graded.

  15. Did you mean to make books sound like vitamins? Books are art, beauty, truth, and they should be experienced and celebrated, not consumed like vegetables.

  16. How can an article all about summer reading and reading in general misspell SUESS?

    Dr. Seuss!

  17. I still remember back in fourth of fifth grade having to keep track of the hours that I spent reading. Finally, after being stressed out my mother asked the teacher to excuse me from the program. Since then I’ve earned a doctorate and several masters degrees. I have also had five books published and in the course of researching my sixth this summer I not only read in English but also in Hebrew. I submit that this is evidence of the wisdom of the author’s point.

  18. Our job as teachers is to teach students how to pick books they love to read. It’s a bit more difficult to individualize that instruction, but it’s so important. I take students into the library, talk to them about their interests, and then help them find a book, a series, an author, a topic they can follow – just like we do. Summer reading assignments take away the joy of reading. The kids have to stay in a lexile or AR band. How many of us take War and Peace to the beach? Students can’t read deeply about a topic and/or in a genre and/or by an author because the AR companies don’t make 6 tests by one author available. And as for the points, why should the Honors kids read more than the kids who need to “catch up”? What are we saying to students when we assign them more points than the next kid? There is so much wrong with summer reading the way schools do it. I’m glad you had the courage to address the issue.

  19. I am an elementary school media specialist, and we are preaching the same message. At our school we have a voluntary reading program called Just Read. The teacher commit to giving their students 10-30 minutes a day to read whatever they want to read. This is especially important because most of our students do not speak English at home. Summer reading is vital to our students, but we emphasize free choice daily reading and reward them for reading logs, not with tests over specific books. It seems to be working, we are a successful school in spite of poverty. I will be using some of your comments in my annual Just Read information session next week, okay?
    So I say, AMEN.

  20. Read James Herndon’s classic How To Survive In Your Native Land.

    He forever changed the way I teach (or rather, don’t teach) reading.

  21. I agree that forced reading during the summer months is painful for so many students. I agree that AR is a TERRIBLE way to test reading comprehension or teach kids to become readers. My only issue comes with the title of your piece “The Problem with Summer Reading.” As a librarian, the phrase “Summer Reading” immediately makes me think of the Summer Reading Program held at my library and thousands of others across the country every summer. These are voluntary programs that celebrate reading! That (usually) let kids pick out whatever they’d like to read and explore those books on their own time at their own speed. So would it be safe to say that the real problem is with reading assignments set over the summer months?

  22. I always hated assigned reading in middle and high school. I learned nothing from being forced to read “Lord of the Flies” or “Ethan Frome,” a book I’d never heard of before sophomore year English and probably haven’t heard mention of since. Reading the works of Shakespeare and other playwrights was the worst. It did nothing to make me want to read the classics like my teachers wanted. I love theatre and in my mind a play should be performed. On paper it is dry and lifeless to me, conveying none of the themes or emotions the playwright intended. It made about as much sense as handing out sheet music in band and asking the students to quietly read and comprehend the notes on the page in lieu of performing it.

  23. Amen again! I wonder what would happen if more authors realized what is happening to the teaching of literature in the schools???

  24. Thanks so much for understanding. I am a student myself in high school. This summer reading is indicating that all the hard work and effort 8 hours a day for 10 months isn’t good enough. Can’t we just have a dam break already!! Like enough already. I don’t want to be worrying about school over my summer break. The school does not give us a break. They want to keep us busy and sit in the house all day doing school work instead of spending time with family and friends. The assignment is just a waste of time. I am seriously thinking of using Sparknotes and not reading the book.

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