Print Columns   |   Web Chats   |   Blog Archives   |  

Saving Summer Reading

(posted by guest blogger Valerie Strauss)

Reading during the summer should be sheer joy but it seems like too many schools are bent on killing the pleasure.

It's one thing to encourage kids to read over the summer and then distribute a reading list with recommendations. Schools and libraries and non-profit organizations all compile very fine lists. But it's something else to tell them exactly what to read, and then, in some cases, how to read it.

That's what schools from elementary to college are doing more and more frequently. The reasons vary. Many educators worry that kids lose skills over the summer through lack of use. There are schools that assign books to gve students to get a head start with assignments. And colleges and universities sometimes think they are getting high school graduates ready for the supposedly increased workload they face in higher education.

Still, I wonder if rather than fostering a love of reading, forced summer reading makes it more of a burden, especially certainly for those kids who don't already love books. Imagine how you'd feel if you had to read a study guide, as some students must, before starting a new chapter. Nothing like ruining the plot.

It isn't rocket science to know that kids aren't going to embrace reading if they don't like the material. Since they have nine months of schools where they are told what to read, why not give them control over the summer? Reading anything is better than not reading. And if they really resist reading, books on tape are valuable too, librarians say, in teaching some of the same lessons.

For older kids, there is a real question about whether it makes sense to have them read demanding literature without discussion or support. It's a pity that they should be turned off to a great writer because they were forced to read a book before they were ready. For those students who are burned out in the summer, a forced march through "The Grapes of Wrath" is hardly a pick-me-up.

Summer reading ought to be to give kids room to explore books and enjoy them. The idea is not to force them to search for unity, coherence and symbolism, but to lose themselves in a wonderful story. Laugh. Cry. Come out feeling like they had a wonderful adventure and just maybe even came away with a new way of looking at the human condition. At the very least, be exposed to words and the way authors string them together in a narrative or explanatory form.

Let's allow the summer to be a time for young people to find out on their own which books leave them cold and which books move them to tears.

By Valerie Strauss |  August 8, 2007; 12:02 PM ET
Previous: Making A Baseball Statement | Next: Speeding in Virginia


Please email us to report offensive comments.

As someone who had summer reading from kindergarrten through the summer before her first year of college (and liked reading IN SPITE OF it -- god, have you SEEN some of the dreck they have the kids read? Any fun found in reading those was sucked out of it by making sure I noticed the fly on the wall on page 168). Those books ended up going in the "let's get these over with so I can actually read something I want to, and news flash those generally don't have everyone depressed and suicidal by page 45."

Posted by: Anonymous | August 8, 2007 1:38 PM

My favorite summer reading assignment (and as a disclaimer, I lOVED reading) was an AP English teacher's. He had us read one book off of a list and watch the accompanying movie and write a short essay on the two. These were powerful, literary books (and a few talented genre ones, too) with compelling movie versions. It was thoughtful, right-sized, and fun for a summer assignment. The kind of thing that we talk about anyway when we see a movie, just a more formal version. It was a good way for him to start the year off with a way to evaluate our writing styles and skills without telling us he was doing that.

Posted by: jb | August 8, 2007 1:44 PM

I have a novel (sorry for the pun) idea. Why don't schools require all families in the Summer to read a book out loud to each other-any book on a suggested reading list and discuss as a family? Too intrusive? Too big brother?

I read aloud with help from my oldest to assist my more reading challenged youngest child and she takes a turn when we get tired. A good time for all and the summer assignment is a pleasure instead of suffering.

I think it would be fantastic to do this even in highschool because it also teaches kids the joys of sharing literature as adults. I hope my children someday will read aloud not only to their toddlers but to their spouses and to me when I am drooling in a bed in an old people's home.

I know several families that shared a copy of the latest HP and prevented any plot spoilers getting ahead by reading it out loud together with speculation each night about what may occur tomorrow and reminding each other of plot details from earlier books. One case was 6 teenage cousins sharing one book at the family beach rental and reading it aloud in turn to get to the exciting end.

Unfortunately, this doesn't count for the summer reading assigment despite fostering love of reading, ennunciation, pronunciation and literary commentary.

Posted by: quick to comment | August 8, 2007 1:45 PM

there's always the recommended list, and then there's always the assigned book (once you get past 3rd or 4th grade) so that you have something to talk about the 2nd day of school.

And I'm a big fan of reading out loud to the different aged children. Then older ones can explain some of the tougher ideas, and the young ones will find things the older ones were too cool to pay attention to.

I'm not sure I ever saw my brothers do their summer reading but I had my own library card and was allowed to bike there every week.

There was always that one stupid book. Mom told me I couldn't read anything else until I finished Silas Marner. After watching a pile of Dying-to-read-them books sit there for a whole week while Silas Marner sat on my bed, untouched past the middle of the book, I finally picked it up, read the last chapter, announced to my mother how the book ended and went back to reading my own books again. And yes, I was reading classics, I just HATED Silas Marner. Horrid book.

Posted by: Anonymous | August 8, 2007 2:31 PM


Nice post. I've been watching my two this summer. One is reading that other squalid Steinbeck book, "Of Mice and Men" and hating the experience. The other is plowing through "The Neddiad" and loving it.

One book is required. The other is fluff. I didn't put two and two together until I read your post.

Posted by: KK | August 8, 2007 2:39 PM

During summer vacations from Catholic high school in the 1960s, we had assigned reading and then were tested on it in the Fall. One book that I just didn't 'get' at the age of 15 was Myths by Edith Hamilton, which was written back in 1942, I believe. I did try and read it. When I failed that section of the test, the nun insisted I had never read it. Nope, it was just incomprehensible to me at that age. I am a big reader but that topic still doesn't interest me at all.

Posted by: KH | August 8, 2007 3:00 PM

I got kicked out of 10 grade honors English because of Edith Hamilton. I just couldn't get it either. Since then I have read other books on mythology and loved them.

My incoming 9th grade daughter has one required book, The Life of Pi, and one optional book from a list of about 25 that includes modern fiction and non-fiction, as well as some of the traditional classics. She laughs that members of the family have been reading more off her summer reading list than she has. Interestingly, one of the books is the latest Harry Potter book. We wouldn't allow her to use that one since we knew she would read it anyway!

Posted by: MD | August 8, 2007 3:15 PM

I really think summer reading is a great idea, but kids should get to pick their own books from a list. And I like the one suggestion that the book be read aloud.

I remember the summer when my youngest daughter was heading into 10th grade. She had to read "Animal Farm" and had not started when we left for vacation. I have 3 daughters and at that point two of them could drive, so as we headed to the beach in North Carolina, we took turns both driving and reading from the book. It was an absolute blast! We used funny voices and lots of drama and we all got a lot out of the experience. Believe me, that's a book that really benefits from such a production--I don't think I understood it half as well when I read it on my own as a student.

Posted by: greatscott47 | August 8, 2007 4:00 PM

I agree!

How is reading supposed to be fun if it's a death march?

But it depends on the kid. Some will scoot through things that others can't get past page 2 on.

In the younger grades we had a reward. It was easy for the good reader, and an incentive for the poky one.

Posted by: RoseG | August 8, 2007 4:03 PM

I remember, as a child, not wanting to read the required book because I didn't chose it. I just didn't want to be told WHAT to read over summer vacation. And I LOVED to read.

I do remember one assignment, during the school year, where we were given a list of books that were all diaries of children during a tumultous time. I don't remember all the optios - I read Anne Frank. But it was nice to be able to selct the book and then to discuss similiar points between the different books as a class. I think it was 6th or 7th grade. The whole class learned the same material but were able to have some choice in our education. I still think the assignment was brilliant.

Posted by: FfxGal | August 8, 2007 4:08 PM

I was assigned to read "Heart of Darkness" in the summer between my junior and senior years in high school. That permanently put Joseph Conrad onto my must-avoid reading list.

Entering college, I joined the honors program which had several summer books to read which I got through, but the people in the same program a year earlier were unlucky, in my view; they got Tolstoy's behemoth "Anna Karenina". I don't think I would have gotten far through that without the help of Cliffs Notes or something similar.

Posted by: MHK919 | August 8, 2007 4:12 PM

Who the stinks cares about Catholic school?

Posted by: Anonymous | August 8, 2007 8:14 PM

My Catholic high school here in DC had us complete assigned reading over the summer, then we discussed the books once we got back. I don't recall it being a painful experience. I later went on the get my B.A. in English. In fact, I remember The Catcher in the Rye was an assigned book at some point--at an all-girls Catholic school in the 1980s! The only way you can be sure the kids read something is to tie to their school work once they get back.

Posted by: moni70 | August 8, 2007 8:20 PM

Students in AP Language and AP Literature at my high school have notorioiusly dreadful summer reading. For 12 grade AP Lit, we have to read (and annotate!) Beowulf, sections of the Bible, The Stranger, and one of Dicken's books (David Copperfield, Great Expectations, etc.) Kids also taking AP World History have to read and annotate a condensed world history textbook. Needless to say, there's little time for fun reading.

Posted by: Anonymous | August 8, 2007 10:10 PM

Students in AP Language and AP Literature at my high school have notorioiusly dreadful summer reading. For 12 grade AP Lit, we have to read (and annotate!) Beowulf, sections of the Bible, The Stranger, and one of Dicken's books (David Copperfield, Great Expectations, etc.) Kids also taking AP World History have to read and annotate a condensed world history textbook. Needless to say, there's little time for fun reading.

Posted by: Anonymous | August 8, 2007 10:10 PM

I support summer reading lists...more specifically those schools which have a larger a la carte list of books, some classics, others more modern, hat kids can pcik and choose from. I work as temp pediatrician and I always ask if a kid has a summer reading list. The kids from the better districts (I work in suburban Atlanta and DC) always have a list; the kids from the poorer, more marginal districts look at me as if Im from Mars. Theyve never read anything in the summer and I think that's unfortunate. The schools without a list usually have more mediocre standards and students who arent encouraged to use their brains in the summer. That puts them at even a greater disadvantage in the long run.

Posted by: bonzo | August 8, 2007 11:14 PM

This is something the new head of DC schools and the new head of DC libraries should get together on. If the schools assign books that the kids can't find at the library, what good is that? And if the library has a summer reading program that isn't tied to the curriculum, it will only reach the kids who would be reading anyway.

Posted by: anonymous | August 9, 2007 10:06 AM

One answer: kid book clubs. For 17 years, Summer Time and Reading Together (START) has been helping kids create and run neighborhood-led summer book clubs. See their web site at

Posted by: Mike Licht | August 9, 2007 10:09 AM

Another answer: graphic novels. These must be selected with care, since many - especially Manga - are definitely for adults. See recommendations from The Children's Book Council at

Reading Is Fundamental has reading lists for parents at

The Public Library of Charlotte & Mecklenburg County, NC has a kids reading list web page for kids themselves at

Posted by: Mike Licht | August 9, 2007 10:28 AM

Looking at the Summer Reading section at my local bookstore, I was amazed to see how little had changed in the 35 years since I went to ahigh School. it seems that a new book is added about once a year. This year's new book is Life Of Pi. When I was in 10th grade, the new book was Hesse's Sidhartha. It's still on the list.

Posted by: Lex Pk | August 9, 2007 1:46 PM

Valerie you are doing a great job. At least we dont have to put up with Marc's condescending attitude I am better than you because I live in upper NW and commute via Metro and I am upper middle class over educated liberal and I know what is better for you. I send my kids to elite private schools in DC but I can still complain about DC's public schools. I hear there are pixs of Marc coming out a certain day spa with a red door after getting a manicure, pedicure and brazilian wax for his beach trip. He still thinks he looks good in his speedo from his swim team days. His poor wife and kids.

Posted by: vaherder | August 10, 2007 10:04 AM

Yo, vaherder, your girlfriend needs shearing. And while you're performing some hygiene, dig the three-day old sheep sh*t out of your brain. BTW, border collies are nothing but stupid dogs.

Posted by: Maryland | August 10, 2007 8:28 PM

I am amazed that so much of Fisher's article and so many of the resulting comments indulge into only the academic skill of reading.
The academic skills of reading and writing belong together and should enhance one another at all times.
There was a suggestion that children and parents should take turns to read "out loud" an entire book to each other during the summer. In my view such an idea reflects that person not seeing any point to reading newspaper articles of interest or sections of a book as having any merit.
To positively reinforce children's reading performances from 2nd -12th grade should not be restricted to their needing to read an entire book "out loud."

Posted by: Franklyput | August 13, 2007 3:24 AM

I grew up in Fairfax County, attended the public schools, and we never had assigned reading over the summer. That was fine with me; I love to read, but the types of books I love to read didn't mesh with what we were assigned in school. Nor, I found, did it matter whether I read the books they assigned during the school year. I remember one of my teachers being astounded that I could get good grades on the English book tests without doing the reading. I told her, "That's because you do a thorough review session for two days before the test and basically tell us everything you think is important."

I wish I had as much time to read as I did when I was a kid. I often fall asleep in the recliner reading a book these days :-) I recently picked up the Harry Potter series, basically to see what all the hype was about, and reading the first three books has made me smile to think that kids are excited about reading again. (They're great for commuting, or reading on a plane, etc. "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone" kept me occupied for a transatlantic flight.) Let the kids do their own thing during the summers so that they have time to read these kinds of books that they WANT to read. Life as a kid with summer vacations is too short as it is.

Posted by: Rich | August 13, 2007 3:10 PM

Reading is a personal choice. Allow children to choose selections that excite them. Who are the people that decide which books are classics and which ones are duds? How did they become the voices of the literary moral majority? We need to stop trying to control children and let them have some options.

Posted by: Sharon | August 19, 2007 7:53 AM

The comments to this entry are closed.


© 2010 The Washington Post Company