The Ultimate Summer Reading Program 

What does the ultimate summer reading program have in common with the American dream? Well, if you’ve ever taught American lit, you already know this story most likely ends in tragedy.

Picture this: A summer reading program that promises opportunity for any student who is willing to put in the hard work. A summer reading program that will undoubtedly pay off as long as the teachers behind it are willing to put their blood, sweat, and tears into its design and implementation. A summer reading program that smells like suntan lotion, sounds like seagulls, and skyrockets reading scores.

But does such a summer reading program thing exist? Is there a summer reading program that actually works, or are we all just chasing a hopeless dream, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past?

As it turns out, the vast majority of English teachers are not happy with the summer reading program that is implemented in their school, nor will they ever be. By and large, this is accepted as business-as-usual: the summer reading program is akin to the second circle of English teacher hell.

Let’s get this out of the way: the purpose of this article is not to break you of the chains that summer reading programs are always certain to impose. Truth be told, I am right there beside you, trapped in the endless infernal cyclone, lusting after the right books, the right assignments, to make my school’s summer reading program worthwhile for students. But seeing as we’re trapped here together, we may as well take a moment to admire the landscape and perhaps trade notes.

Summer Reading Program Purpose

The Purpose Your Summer Reading Program Should Serve

In order to have any semblance of a successful summer reading program, one must first determine the program’s intended purpose. As it turns out, there are a number of quite popular, quite important, and quite different purposes that a summer reading program might serve. Here are three of the most prevalent:

Purpose #1: Staving off summer learning loss.

Summer learning loss is essentially the loss of academic skills and knowledge over the course of summer break. This phenomenon is well documented in educational research, where it has also been highly correlated to socioeconomic status. Summer learning loss is said to account for about two-thirds of the literacy achievement gap in high school students, considering all of those summer months add up to years by the time they’re seniors. This is the most common “issue” that summer reading programs seek to address.

Purpose #2: Fostering a love for reading.

What better way to make your students more literate than to turn them into readers? (And by readers, I don’t mean one who can read – but rather, one who does, on his or her own accord, because they find great pleasure in it. You know the type. Readers.)

Purpose #3: Jumpstarting the curriculum.

Not enough time in the school year? Why let the tradition of summer vacation bog down the rigor of your curriculum when your summer reading program can pick up the slack! This purpose close to the hearts of many AP teachers who are preparing their students for tough end-of-year exams, and is most successful when targeting students who are capable (i.e. willing and able) of reading complex materials on their own for sustained periods of time.

10 Summer Reading Program Ideas

Ten Summer Reading Program Ideas That Work

Now that you have some semblance of a purpose in mind, let’s consider some of the most popular and compelling summer reading programs to get our kiddos hitting the books.

1.  The Traditional Summer Reading Program

What it looks like: Students are assigned a book to read over the summer, and are somehow tested on their work at the start of the school year.

Pro’s: This is as traditional as it gets, and as such, there should be little confusion in its implementation. Assigning a single book to students creates a universal starting point for September, and makes assessing reading (i.e. making sure students actually read) fairly straightforward. It is without bells and whistles, and it gets the job done.

Con’s: In most cases, asking a large group of students to read a single book is going to present a slew of problems. There is absolutely no way a heterogeneous group of students is going to be appropriately challenged with the same text – it will, without a doubt, be a cakewalk for some, and impossibly difficult for others. The same goes to be said about interest; some students will inevitably hate the assigned genre while others will love it.

As far as testing is concerned, well, here we have the most universal complaint about summer reading… that is, students who don’t necessarily need schools to support their literacy practices over the summer are the ones who are reading (begrudgingly or not) the assigned book, while most others are not. And what happens when students don’t read a book? They fake it til they make it (and earn a grade they don’t deserve on the September test), or, they fake it and fail (and start the year off with a failing grade – precisely the feeling we should be striving to avoid creating for our most struggling readers).

2. The Traditional Summer Reading Program Redux

What it looks like: Students are assigned a book to read over the summer, just as they are with a in the traditional approach described above. The difference is in the assessment; rather than to test students in September, students are assessed based on work (an essay, a project) they are asked to complete over the summer and turn in on the first day of school.

Pro’s: The same pro’s as the traditional approach described above are applicable here, with the addition of a differentiated assessment model. Here, we are able to take some pressure off of the concern associated with starting the year off with an anxiety ridden reading exam that promises trouble.

Con’s: For teachers, this means starting the year with a heap of essays (or projects, or something) that promises to inundate on day one. (The problem here is not with having to grade essays, but rather, with the implications this workload has on the rest of September. A teacher whose bag that’s heavy with essays on September 1st will simply not be able to provide students with essential and timely feedback in other areas until that first wave is scored.)

It’s also imperative that the assignment is appropriately modeled and/or very clearly explained for students. Assessing kids on work they’re assigned and asked to complete on their own, without any teacher guidance, over their summer vacation, is tricky territory.

3. The Power Of Choice

What it looks like: This is a natural extension of either summer reading program approach described above with the addition of providing students choice in the book that they are required to read. This may seem like an inconsequential change (i.e. “is there really a difference between asking students to read Book X or asking students to choose between Book X or Book Y…?”) but the results speak for themselves.

While even a tiny choice, such as choosing between two titles, goes a long way, there are many strategies for making choice a more creative enterprise. For instance, rather than simply asking students to select a title from a book list, you might offer students multiple book lists organized by theme; students could then pick a list, and select any two thematically similar books from that list.

Another increasingly popular strategy for integrating choice into summer reading programs is the March Madness-style bracket. Simply create a tournament style bracket filled with books instead of sports teams. Then, hold a weekly “election” to narrow down the options until only two (or four) remain!

Pro’s: Without a doubt, more students will read – and more students will be happy about what they’re reading. If the purpose of your summer reading program is even just barely tinged with fostering a love for reading in your students, you must honor student choice.

Con’s: The tricky thing about providing students with extensive book lists that accommodate reading level, interests, and genre preference is that (#1) they require the teacher to be comfortable discussing and assessing titles he/she is otherwise unfamiliar with (because, let’s face it, there is no way we can expect any individual to be well versed with all of the possibilities) and (#2) free choice makes assessment a bit more challenging. Open-ended projects, like book reviews, can easily become busy-work, and can be easily “faked.” Something like an intertextual essay that ask students to intertwine two characters from two thematically similar books has quite a bit more muscle, but raises questions about what, precisely, is being assessed.

4. One Building, One Book

How it works: Everyone, and I mean everyone, is asked to read the same book. The teachers (all of them – not just the English folks!), the students, the administration, even the custodians. Many parents are also likely to join in on this fun. In September, book talks are held in homerooms across the school, and other assessments can be easily implemented (i.e. essays, reports, etc.).

Pro’s: This kind of summer reading is typically implemented with community in mind. The vision is fairly straightforward – everyone will have a book to talk about in September. This creates unity between all grade levels, all teaching staff, and so on. That notion of community is also part of where this strategy draws its power – if everyone is reading a book, there is an additional degree of pressure when it comes to students deciding whether or not to actually complete this work.

Con’s: This strategy’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness —

and that is the elimination of choice. Even the best books (To Kill A Mockingbird comes to mind here) will yield complaints from some participants, students and teachers alike! Further, there is sure to be resistance from members of the faculty who are invited (or required) to participate – especially those who are not readers themselves. (Can you imagine a worse book talk to be a part of in September?)

5. Teachers’ Picks

How it works: Now things are starting to get interesting. In early May, every teacher in the building is asked to recommend a book that he or she enjoyed (or is planning to enjoy over the summer). This information can be easily collected using a Google Form, Sheet, or Doc, and can be just as easily disseminated to students.

Each student is then asked to select and read any teacher recommendation. It could be their science teacher’s top pick, their wrestling coach, even the principal. Then, in September, the school runs a morning-assembly schedule and students participate in “book circles” to discuss their reading in the recommending teacher’s classroom.

Pro’s: What a romantic vision! An absolute dream for readers, and for those hoping to foster a large-scale reading community. Teachers are more willing to participate because they are able to read, recommend, and talk about just about any book they’re interested in – from new YA fiction to sports biographies. Students are given the freedom of choice, and generally love the notion of taking recommendations from their favorite teachers. And assessment is informal, reducing the workload for teachers and students, keeping the emphasis on reading.

Con’s: This strategy is incredibly appealing on paper, but often falls apart in practice. The weak points include questionable student participation (i.e. why read if it’s untested? Why not just watch the movie instead? Why speak up during a book talk?), resistance from the staff (i.e. teachers who swear they don’t read, who swear they only read 1000 page memoirs, or who swear they only read books that aren’t grade level appropriate), and logistics of implementation (i.e. who’s going to be patrolling the halls or doing front-desk duty if every teacher is leading a book talk?).

6. The Online Forum

How it works: Students are assigned a book to read over the summer (preferably with some degree of choice), and are required to participate in an online forum throughout the course of the summer. The online forum can take on a variety of forms, but websites like Google Groups (http://groups.google.com) and Blogger (http://blogger.com) are a safe and popular way to go. In its best form, this summer reading program provides a basic structure for student contributions – i.e. staggered deadlines throughout the summer and expectations for quantity and quality of posts.

Pro’s: This summer reading program structure alleviates many of the concerns associated with traditional summer reading – particular that of students procrastinating all summer and then speed-reading the book the day before school starts. (Trust me, that is no way to combat summer reading loss.) Instead, students are asked to engage in (and at the very least, be exposed to) legitimate literacy practices all summer long.

Con’s: For every traditional concern that this summer reading program alleviates, it raises another. What if students don’t have devices or internet access? (Are we allowed to assume it is ubiquitous yet?) What if students are away at camp, on vacation all summer, or abroad? What if they just rephrase their peers’ responses and fake their way through the whole thing? Who is going to monitor and assess all of this digital work, all summer long? How many students will be participating in this, and how on earth do we keep the associated workload organized and manageable?

7. Summer Listening Project

How it works: Rather than assigning reading, students are assigned listening. This would most likely take the form of a popular podcast that packs an intellectual punch (i.e. Serial), or but additional listening materials are fair game as well.  Sure, it’s not a summer reading program, but in this case, the ends justify the means.  (Check out our plans for implementing Serial here!)

Pro’s: This approach represents an effort to combat low levels of genuine student participation in summer reading, primarily by reinterpreting it as an effort to continuously expose students to literate and intellectual discourse. It forces us to question why we feel so compelled to force books down students’ throats in the summertime – when we can force something multimodal, modern, and perhaps more engaging down their throats instead.

This approach also takes advantage of the increasing popularity of audio as a medium for storytelling; Serial (the podcast) is obscenely popular, and if your students are going to listen to it anyway – why not provide them an intellectual framework to do it in?

Con’s: The greatest points of resistance are sure to come from (#1) the question of whether all students are equipped with the technology and know-how to complete this assignment, (#2) the availability of high quality audio that is age-appropriate (Serial is much more appropriate for juniors and seniors than for their younger counterparts), and (#3) the unwillingness to trade a more traditional approach to literacy for 21st century listening standards.

8. Summer Research Project

How it works: Similar to the “Summer Listening Project,” this approach accepts that a summer reading program doesn’t necessarily need to be tethered to literature, fiction, or books. Students are assigned a research topic in June (or are asked to select one themselves), and are required to engage in an independent research process over the course of the summer.

Pro’s: Students have been doing research every year for years – and every year, they pretend to have lost their chops, demanding to be taught the nuances of research, MLA format, and thesis writing. This summer reading program approach seeks to test students’ abilities to conduct research on their own, to integrate the interdisciplinary into “summer reading” (i.e. students might research something pertinent to their interests in science or social studies rather than, say, The Canterbury Tales), and to keep students reading and writing over the summer in a less traditional manner.

Con’s: The thought of asking students to engage in the research process and to write research papers on their own is enough to make many teachers cringe. Conversations about research guidelines and expectations (quality and quantity of sources, page length, rubric, differentiation and accommodations for students with special needs, who the heck is going to grade all these essays in September, is it fair for us to assess something we didn’t even get to explicitly teach them, etc.) are often tumultuous enough to keep this kind of summer reading program from ever getting off the ground.

9. Non-Fiction Articles & Dialectical Notebooks

How it works: Students are given a loose structure as to the kind of nonfiction reading they must engage with over the summer (i.e. articles in certain publications, newspapers, online sources, etc.). Over the course of the summer, students must make analytical entries in dialectical notebooks (or blogs, for the tech savvy teacher who wants to keep an eye on student progress in July and August) with an emphasis on curricular goals (i.e. rhetorical analysis, language, etc.).

Pro’s: This kind of summer reading program packs a punch as far as rigor is concerned, and as such, is a popular choice among AP teachers. The staggered deadlines are also an easy way to ensure that students are working throughout the summer (i.e. both blog entries and published articles are both conveniently dated) rather than procrastinating until September 1st.

Con’s: The degree of onus that is placed on students is fairly significant, and while this kind of a summer-long learning task can be successful with AP students, it can be too demanding for struggling readers unless it’s appropriately differentiated. The lack of teacher feedback (which is only possible if willing and vigilant teacher eyes are glued to dialectical blogs, rather than paper-based notebooks) also opens the door for student work that isn’t quite up to snuff just yet. The ethics of taking points away from student work that was never formally “taught” will surely be fiery conversation at your next department meeting.

10. Assign September In June 

How it works: You know that book you’re planning to teach in September? Assign it in June, and there you have it — a neatly packed summer reading program that serves a specific and deliberate purpose. Sprinkle in any assessments you feel are essential to helping students unpack the text, to practice any essential skills, and to assess their learning. This strategy is popular among two circles: teachers who are striving to prepare students for rigorous end-of-year tests, i.e. AP exams, and teachers who feel like they can’t possibly get through their course curriculum in a ten month school year.

Pro’s: This approach to summer reading programs exists purely to “jumpstart the curriculum,” and if you’re teaching highly independent students (i.e. the ideal AP student), this approach can be a great way to hit the ground running in September. These effects can even be multiplied if the work is delivered as an interactive online course rather than simply assigning the first few chapters in a textbook.

Con’s: If you think you can assign any book in your curriculum to all of your students, and you expect them to read and understand that book at a deep level, you’re in for a rude awakening. Take a moment to consider any book in your curriculum, and all of the time, effort, and energy you pour into your lesson design to ensure that students “get it” – and even then, how many of them struggle? This summer reading program approach promises to frustrate most of your students all summer long, and to frustrate you in September.


Summer Reading Program Salvation

We’ve considered ten unique strategies for your next summer reading program – some traditional, some technology driven, some non-fiction based, some that throw out reading altogether. Some of these strategies are snug fits, considering who your students are and what your intended purpose is – but, as is the case with teaching a classroom of just twenty kids, no summer reading program can be considered a “one-size-fits-all.”

The eleventh and final summer reading program strategy that merits consideration is also an unstrategy. That is – it does not require students to read.


11. Encouraged Summer Reading

How it works: Students are encouraged to read. Why? Because that’s what readers do. Because it promises to make them smarter. Because they can read whatever interests them without the pressure of September testing. Because they’ve been recommended books by their teachers and their friends. Because that is more likely to foster a love for reading, and THAT is more likely to keep them reading forever.

Pro’s: Looking to foster a love of reading in students? Looking to extend a culture of readership that you (and your colleagues) have been developing in your classrooms all year? Hoping to avoid the unnecessary burden of grading invalid summer reading tests or projects in September? Look no further.

Con’s: Be prepared to battle individuals who refuse to part with traditional summer reading program structures, and folks (teachers and parents alike) who feel that anything that isn’t tested isn’t getting done. Also, be prepared to accept that some students simply won’t participate in encouraged summer reading. On the bright side (…if this can be considered a bright side…), these are the same students are unlikely to participate in any summer reading program.

Are there any innovative strategies worth considering that you’ve seen or implemented in your district? Leave a comment to share them with us!

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  • As a new high school opening in the fall, our faculty members are discussing this very issue and have yet to reach consensus. The scenarios presented are all very worthwhile; I appreciate your presenting them for consideration.

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