by Michael Henry, IRA Teacher Advisory Panel Member
Open the book. Read. Close the book. Open the book. Read. Close the book. Open the book. Read. Slam the book to the ground. No, this is not you studying for trigonometry. It is a situation I witnessed while attending a soothing classical concert with my wife and children two summers ago at a venue near Chicago.
The young man I described, however, was far from experiencing feelings of catharsis. The reason for act of frustration: his summer reading assignment, a practice deeply entrenched in the pedagogy of Chicago south suburban high schools. The book he slammed with gritted teeth: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, that most ubiquitous of American high school titles.
This young man’s apparent frustration immediately registered with me. As a reading specialist who works with struggling readers, I had seen this behavior before. Watching this young man struggle, eyes glossed over, I started to wonder why he was trying so hard to read a book that was clearly not a good match for him. In my work, my number one goal is to find ways to motivate adolescents to be lifelong readers. One way in which I have been successful in doing so is through finding the right matches for readers. With this in mind, I approached the young man and asked, “Would you mind me asking why you are trying to read that book?"
Shoulders slumped, head down, he mumbled, “Because I have to.” More interested now, I probed a little deeper, perhaps overstepping my boundaries but too curious to stop.
“Why do you have to?” I asked with concern.
“Because we have to do summer reading, and if I don’t finish this book, I won’t be able to do the assignment; I’ll start the year in huge hole.”
“Did you pick this book or did the school?” I prodded a bit deeper.
“No, everyone has to read this book. I don’t know why. I can’t even get through the first ten pages. It just doesn't make any sense.”
To this I replied, “I’d like to ask just one more question if you don’t mind?”
“Sure,” he replied as he seemed to me to be a bit more relieved, perhaps sensing I was on his side.
“Do you like to read?”
“I do like to read,” he said, “I read all the time, just not things like this.”
I couldn't help but wonder, was his behavior and response more of an exception or part of a larger trend?
At My School
Although I felt bad for this young man, I was comforted by the fact that in my school, the summer reading assignments had changed. The move from reading one assigned book with a reading guide and a teacher test, to reading two books of choice, providing a copy of the book or receipt, a parent signature, and completing a small project for credit was welcomed warmly by students and parents.
My school, however, I would come to learn, was in the minority in the surrounding area. That said, survey data showed success with 65% of our population reporting reading 100% or more of the summer requirement, up from 47% the previous year when titles were assigned. You can imagine my surprise this year when the English department voted to go back to the old program: assigned book, study guide, project, and test, all designed to raise the rigor of expectations. The reasoning: we need the same expectations of the other schools.
When I heard this, thoughts of that young man’s frustration that night came rushing back to me. But while I was able to negotiate a hybrid model (one assigned text, one choice text) for this year’s summer reading at my school, the comment about other schools has compelled me to explore summer reading assignments in my area greater depth.
Research on Summer Reading
To do so, first I turned to the literature. Using my access as an IRA member to Reading Research Quarterly, The Reading Teacher, and the Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, I was able to locate several articles regarding reading in the summer. One, however, stood out as focusing specifically on high school students and school-sanctioned summer reading assignments, McGaha and Iago’s (2012) “Assessing High School Students’ Reading Motivation in a Voluntary Summer Reading Program” in the Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy.
Not surprisingly, McGaha and Iago discovered a wealth of knowledge about students’ perspectives on summer reading. However, I narrowed their findings to following four critical components of summer reading assignments: (1) access to high interest books, (2) encouragement to read, (3) time to read, and (4) choice. With these findings, I began searching summer reading programs in my area.
The Region's Lists
I began by searching the websites of five surrounding high school districts for summer reading documents. In the nine programs I reviewed, four were geared toward honors students only, three were for upperclassmen only, and two had assignments for all students at all levels. The purposes, like intended audience, was varied. All nine programs, however, did have some trends: many titles were highly academic; all reading requirements were accompanied by in-depth written requirements; and almost all books were assigned by the school.
The titles listed here is a sampling of what I found: Lord of the Flies, The Pearl, The Scarlet Letter, Sophie’s World, How to Read Literature Like a Professor, The Book Thief, The Things They Carried, The Crucible, Bless Me, Altima, Catcher in the Rye, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, King Lear, Tom Sawyer, Dracula, The Hobbit, The Jungle, Beowulf, Grendel, Frankenstein, Les Miserables, The Awakening, Slaughterhouse Five, and Things Fall Apart.
Titles labeled "Young Adult
High Interest"on display at a
Barnes & Noble store
Suggested summer reading for
young adults at a Barnes &
My less scholarly summer
Let’s look at the first of McGaha and Iago’s findings: access to high interest books. While I appreciate the merits of all the aforementioned literature, I wonder if these titles reflect the “high interest” to which McGaha and Iago were referring. Or are these titles more of an extension of the classroom? I also question the accessibility of the titles without teacher support. I say this because the titles are only familiar to me because of having read them in the 400 level as an English major. Furthermore, when I scour the tables of young adult literature or summer reading suggestions at the bookstore, I see none of these. As I glance over at my copy of Divergent and my Chicago Tribune, difficult enough reads with all the distractions of a Chicago summer, I can’t help but wonder how and why these titles are chosen.
Encouragement and Time
The next two findings of McGaha and Iago that I will deal with together: encouragement and time. This is what I found: all assignments were rather in-depth, most with several sections and a multitude of directions to follow with reminders of punitive consequences highlighted, bolded, and underlined, outlining, as I read on one sites document, the “severe consequences of not completing summer reading”. Assignments consisted of prompts to flag, annotate, question, connect, summarize, and infer, along with worksheets, graphic organizers, journal prompts, comprehension questions, multi-media projects, and study guides for tests.
Assignments all seemed to be in-depth and appeared to take a great deal of time to complete, time perhaps taken away from reading. This makes me wonder how different stakeholders perceive these assignments.
The Value of Choice
This takes me to my last focus of McGaha and Iago’s findings: choice. Choice only appeared in two of the nine schools, and was only a portion of the requirement or intended for only a portion of the population in each. If students have reported, as they have in the McGaha and Iago study, that choice of reading material is a highly influential component of summer reading, then perhaps these schools could benefit from including some choice.
One uniquely human characteristic is our ability to make choices, and our inability to choose when emotions don’t move us. It is this idea of the connection between emotion, thought, and task completion that defines humanness, a point developed by Jonah Lehrer in his 2009 book How We Decide, and separates us from all other species. Would perspectives change if students were allowed to choose their summer reading books?
Open the book. Read. Close the book. Open the book. Read. Close the book, frustration. What I witnessed that beautiful summer day was a frustrated student moving one step further from reading. To find out if he is an exception or the norm, I need to gain a better perspective of summer reading assignments. To do so, this summer I will begin by interviewing principals and reviewing summer reading documents in more depth. I will share my findings in the fall. Enjoy your summer reading.
Lehrer, J. (2009). How we decide. New York: Harcourt.
McGaha, J.M., & Iago, L.B. (2012). Assessing high school students’ reading motivation in a voluntary summer reading program. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 55(5), 417-427. doi:10.10002/JAAL.00050
Michael Henry is a high school reading teacher and literacy coach at Reavis High School in Burbank, IL. He is a member of the International Reading Association Teacher Advisory Panel.