School may be out for the summer, but many kids are still expected to hit the books. From Alaska to Alabama, school districts around the country have required reading assignments for their students. In New York, for example, the Arlington Central School District, an hour outside New York City, requires all middle school students to read at least one book before returning to school in the fall.
The requirement, according to the letter that went home to parents, “promotes and supports reading for pleasure and provides a springboard for reflection in the fall.”
Everyone agrees that reading raises achievement, and research shows that students who read over the summer gain reading skills, while those who do not often slide backward, losing up to two months of what they learned while in school. Most of the “summer slide” occurs among low-income students, which over years can result in a big achievement gap.
A 2007 study by Johns Hopkins University found that the cumulative effect of summer learning loss during the elementary school years accounts for two-thirds of the achievement gap between lower-income students and their more affluent counterparts by ninth grade.
“As a parent and teacher I think required summer reading is a must!” says California educator Constantina Possidon. “I teach at a low-income school, and every August the kids’ levels have dropped and we spend a month or two catching them up.”
But Chris Janotta, a teacher in Illinois, says required reading can be a turn off for kids. “The intention behind it is good, but anytime reading is labeled as ‘required’ it instantly has a stigma attached to it that makes many children not want to do it,” he says.
So what’s the answer? If educators know that kids who read over the summer make significant academic gains while those who don’t fall further and further behind, how can they get all their students learning?
Kim Broadley, an educator from Missouri, may have the solution – it’s all about choice.
“Rather than a list of required reading or suggested reading that ‘meets academic needs,’ we should offer kids a list of ‘books you won’t be able to put down’ to keep kids engaged in summer reading,” she says. “There are tons of books that students will fall in love with that can be used as hooks to the academically required books.”
In a three-year study, researchers at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, found that allowing low-income children to pick out their own free books at spring book fairs not only helped close the summer reading gap, it worked just as effectively as summer school.
The most popular books among the kids were about celebrities – sports and movie stars, pop music icons, and famous TV personalities. But the children still improved their reading scores even though they weren’t choosing the curriculum books or the classics that teachers normally assign for summer reading. The results of the study confirmed the findings of earlier studies showing children read more and ultimately learn more when they’re allowed to select their own books.
“Research has demonstrated that choice makes a very important contribution to achievement,” says McGill-Franzen, one of the study’s authors.
Plus, it’s only fair.
“Think about an adult summer reading list,” says Broadley. “I bet it isn’t all professional reads!”