Aug. 2, 2022
As an English/humanities high school teacher or school librarian, aren’t you tired of creating and circulating the dreaded summer reading list? Almost every school’s English department has one. Many town libraries and museums have summer reading lists. Celebrities and politicians even have summer reading lists. It acts as a marker of how much you value reading as well as how academically rigorous your institution might be.
The question is: Who reads the books on these summer reading lists? I suspect that students, like all humans, read from these lists depending on how they identify themselves and their relationships with others. Those who identify as readers and raised in families where reading is valued are more likely to dutifully peruse and choose books from these lists. Note that this process involves three steps. Essentially, already committed and engaged readers who exist in a reading eco-system that supports committed and engaged readers can benefit from summer reading lists. Exactly the reader we don’t need to be concerned about. These readers will be okay because data from longitudinal studies “show that pleasure reading in youth is the most explanatory factor of both cognitive progress and social mobility over time” (“The Benefits of Reading for Pleasure”) after controlling for other factors, like parents’ education.
But what about the students who don’t or no longer identify as readers by the time they enter high school? The students for whom reading was always challenging and/or who don’t have time because of some combination of lack of interest, too much homework, and demanding extracurricular activities. The question is: How do we create the conditions so these reluctant readers become committed and engaged readers? I don’t think it is going to be through summer reading lists that check a box. Instead, I propose that schools build reading for pleasure programs that engage all learners regardless of how they identify as readers. A real program. Not a list that tells the reader what they should read based on that student’s graduation year.
It is crucial to realize that no teenager is going to read because of some perceived future benefit. And according to research, the benefits of reading for pleasure are incontrovertible: “Increase[d] knowledge of the self and other people, which can also lead to greater levels of social interaction and increases in social and cultural capital. Other research has shown improvements in imagination, focus, flow, relaxation, and mood regulation for those children and young people engaging in more recreational reading” (“The Impact of Reading for Pleasure and Empowerment” 19). See Figure 3 below from “The Impact of Reading for Pleasure and Empowerment.”
Instead, we should focus on allowing students to choose what they want to read. “Research findings indicate that children and young people will read more if they have some control over their opportunities to read, and those broader outcomes beyond enjoyment (including attainment) are more likely to be achieved if children are motivated to read through intrinsic over extrinsic motivations” (“The Impact of Reading for Pleasure and Empowerment” 19). In Reading Unbound: Why Kids Need to Read What They Want and Why We Should Let Them, Jeffrey D. Wilhelm and Michael W. Smith argue that allowing students choice in their pleasure reading actually enables them to become readers. So the first criteria for a reading program should be choice.
Only through choice will students have the potential to experience reading as pleasurable. Many times, we adults criticize what students read for pleasure: Graphic Novels, Murder Mysteries, YA, etc. Why not embrace and show curiosity? How can you get to know the young people in your life by being more curious about their recreational reading? Rather than judging, ask open-ended questions that allow students to truly share their reading lives. This particular point is for parents. Since my department added a reading for pleasure component to our required ninth-grade English class, some parents have complained to me when their children read graphic novels. My response is always: They are reading, let the genre go, and be curious. This is an opportunity to strengthen parent-child communication and relationship by focusing on your child’s interests.
Along with choice, another aspect of a reading program is relationships. We, humans, are social creatures. We exist in relation to one another. “We are all bundles of potential. Relationships evoke these potentials. We change as we meet different people or are in different environments” (Seed + Spark: Using Nature as a Model to Reimagine How We Learn and Live 139). This means that a non or reluctant reader isn’t fixed forever. It is a temporary identity based on the current context. In the right relationships, a student’s potential to become a reader can emerge. In the right supportive environment where there is no judgment about the student’s reading choices, “readers can be nurtured to create their own active reading lives that connect to their life journeys [and]…become lifelong readers” (Wilhelm and Smith 11).
In these nurturing and generative relationships, students share what they love about what they read: they will share things like the surface features of a story, the actual reading experience, and the effects of the story on them (Wilhelm and Smith 22). It is important to point out, which may be obvious, that this is not an English class and an academic engagement of a book. This is engaging with books solely from the experience of pleasure, which isn’t to say that assigned books don’t elicit pleasure. In English classes, we are also explicitly cultivating specific academic skills, which are not the focus of a reading for pleasure program even though English classes can benefit from a student’s recreational reading. Essentially, we need to create spaces that allow the students in our lives to share their reading experiences because reading is not only solitary—it is also a social activity (Building Communities of Engaged Readers 68).
Also important, we need to create the time. One of the biggest challenges to students continuing and developing as lifelong readers is the structure of school. Our students can be in school for at least eight hours a day, five days a week, which doesn’t take into account all their extracurriculars and homework. When they return home in the evening, they now have to spend upwards of two hours a night completing homework. Where is the time for a recreational reading life? If we want students to become lifelong readers, then we who work in schools need to re-evaluate how we spend time in class and what we assign for homework, especially on weekends, long weekends, and over breaks. Reading for pleasure requires time. We need to return time to our students if we value reading for pleasure and all of the benefits that accrue to the whole child as a result.
With this in mind, I created a community reading program at Cambridge School of Weston (CSW). This academic year (2022-2023) will be the first full year for the program. The entire roll-out and implementation will take approximately three years, and the program is iterative. The premise is that reading should be joyful, communal, and choice-based. For the rest of this piece, I will share some of the upcoming academic year’s programming.
For the past three years in the English department, we piloted incorporating a reading for pleasure component into our required ninth-grade course. At CSW, we have a block schedule of 90-minute classes, and we initially carved out the last 15-minutes every day for recreational reading (this is called Sustained Silent Reading—see Building Student Literacy Through Sustained Silent Reading). However, this framework didn’t expand on the reading habit outside of English class. So we moved our reading for pleasure to 15-minutes a night. We decided upon 15-minutes as a low-stakes barrier for the non and reluctant readers as a type of mind trick. The readers are going to read anyway, but we needed a unit of time that could be perceived as inconsequential but still long enough that someone could become engaged and possibly read for longer. We also incorporated various low-stakes ways for students to share their recreational reading with their community of readers (classmates). Summer 2022 is the second summer that we assigned a YA novel for incoming ninth-graders. Since one of the tenets of our community reading program is joy, we wanted a fun summer reading. We chose We Hunt the Flame by Hafsah Faizal this year.
For continuing students and adults, choice determines what they will read. Using a framework developed by our librarian, Jenna Wolf, advisories (small communities of readers) chose at least one book to read together. My advisory chose a CIA thriller. I have never read a CIA thriller. This was a big learning opportunity for me because it took me completely out of my comfort zone. It was also a great reminder that advisory choice is not about the adult but the students negotiating among themselves about what their shared summer reading will be. Through this process, I got to know my advisees in a different way. I knew I had a range of different kinds of readers. I didn’t know those CIA thrillers were one of the genres. Throughout the 2022-2023 school year, advisories will engage with this summer reading book at least six times. Some workshop ideas include creating a TikTok BookTok and a “day in the life of the protagonist”. The intent is a fun engagement that returns students to the book.
Students and adults can also create Summer Reading Challenges, which we define very broadly as any number of books read or listened to. Yes, audiobooks count! In the fall, we will celebrate their Summer Reading Challenges in an all-school assembly. We offered some themes: Book & Film Adaptation, BIPOC, Massachusetts Authors, YA Fantasy, Places You Visited/Would Like to Visit, Slow Readers, Quick Reads, Unfinished Books, etc. As you can see, what we offered shows our community no judgment.
Adults likewise chose their community reading. Jenna created a ‘tasting menu’ of books. We turned over part of one faculty meeting to expose adults to a range of different books. Some adults suggested books while others decided to read the same book. In the end, I collected my colleagues’ reading choices. Those who chose to read the same book were placed in the same small reading community. Then I placed the others in groups based on the topic of their book. For parts of a couple of faculty meetings in the upcoming school year, adults will meet in these small reading communities to share what they learned from their reading about themselves as readers and how this informs their pedagogy (if teachers), works in an educational setting (if staff), or bolsters leadership in an educational setting (if administrators). I will gather this information to share with the faculty.
In addition to these smaller reading communities, our assembly will be used at least six times over the course of the academic year for school-wide sharing of our reading lives. The intent is to develop a culture where students not only read, but also, just as importantly, share their recreational reading publicly. The only ask is for students to continue to read for pleasure during the academic year. At the end of the academic year, we will also celebrate those who continued to read regularly and/or daily throughout the school year.
Summer is a perfect time for students to explore new, and reconnect with previous, interests. Reading for pleasure can be a great way to do both. Whatever the student in your life is excited about, be curious because there is a range of fiction and nonfiction books of different genres that can not only deepen their interest but also their knowledge of self and others, creativity and imagination, academic attainments, and, importantly, your relationship with them. Don’t dread the summer slide, create the conditions for a summer high that can elevate the next academic year!
You may also be interested in reading more articles written by Jeannette Lee Parikh, Ph.D. for Intrepid Ed News.