Let My People Read by Donalyn Miller

Last week, our daughter Sarah, a rising freshman, brought home the reading list for her pre-AP English class next year and asked us to order all of the books for her. Scanning the list, I couldn’t help sighing: To Kill a Mockingbird, Fahrenheit 451, Lord of the Flies, Ender’s Game, Frankenstein—the usual suspects. We have copies of all of these books in our home library. Sarah would never ask for our copies, though, because reading these texts in school requires defacing every book with marginalia and required annotations.

Don and I expressed dismay that another slew of great works will be slowly destroyed for our daughter during months-long novel studies next year. Sarah took the long view, “Mom, I would rather they ruin these boring books in school instead of dissecting ones I really like.”

I begged her, “Please read them first, then go back and do the work you need to do. These books are great literature. You should appreciate them!”

Sarah looked at me like I was insane, “Why would I read them twice? No one does that.”

I grumbled under my breath, “I bet half the class won’t read those books once.”

When Sarah shared her plan to begin reading these books during the summer and “get it over with,” I put my foot down, “You will not begin reading any of these books before August or I will not order them for you.”

Sarah laughed, “Are you kidding me, Mom? You’re a reading teacher. Are you actually telling me not to read something?”

Shaking my head, I told her, “It’s summer! You should be reading what you want. It’s bad enough that school takes over your reading life for nine months. They are not commandeering your choices all summer!”

Thankfully, Sarah is only required to read one book before school starts, Fahrenheit 451. It seems a lot of kids in our area have more extensive summer reading requirements. Walking through our local bookstores, I see tables of books displaying “Summer Reading List” selections accompanying lengthy reading lists from nearby schools.

While I understand that teachers are concerned about summer slide or summer slump, the documented decline in students’ reading levels between the end of one school year and the beginning of the next, I question whether or not assigning specific titles and reading assignments accomplishes teachers’ well-intentioned goals to keep their students reading over the summer months. As Penny Kittle says, “It’s not rigor if they aren’t reading it.”

Assigning complex texts for summer reading doesn’t assure students are reading. Even if students muddle through these challenges, I suspect more than a few readers miss the deeper themes or fail to understand the books. Kelly Gallagher talks about “underteaching” books—sending students off to read difficult texts on their own without support from teachers—a practice that results in poor comprehension and reduced engagement for most young readers. Reading books they don’t understand does nothing to improve students’ reading ability and goes a long way toward disenfranchising them from reading altogether.

Beyond the futility of assigning challenging books to students for independent summer reading, I wonder how children ever develop a passion for reading when they never have the opportunity to pursue their own reading interests. Summer is prime time for readers to dive into a series, research a topic that fascinates them, read every book they can find from a favorite author, or explore the stacks at the local library. Do we deny our students the only chance many of them have to read what they want when we mandate summer reading requirements? It shows an alarming lack of trust and respect for children when we assume that they won’t read (or won’t read anything we deem worthy) if we don’t require it.

For students who dislike reading, it is unlikely that taking over their summers with extensive reading assignments will do much to engage them with reading. For students who enjoy reading, requiring summer reading fosters resentment and disengagement with school reading in general. Students’ reading ability and lifelong reading habits would be better served if we encouraged students to check out books from school and classroom libraries over the summer. Given access to books and choice in what they read, students will read more over the summer than they do when choices are limited (Allington, 2012).

Reading belongs to readers, not to teachers. If we want children to see reading as anything more than a school job, we must give them the chance to choose their own books and develop personal connections to reading, or they never will.

As for Sarah, she just asked me to order The Perks of Being a Wallflower, so she and her friend, Hayley, can read it over the summer. She is digging in her bookcase to make a stack of books she wants to read after she finishes Perks. I know Sarah will be well prepared for her English class this fall because she will read all summer. She will finish Fahrenheit 451 before school starts. I imagine the book will spark a lot of dinner table conversations about individualism and totalitarian efforts to control and limit free thought.

As well as a word or two about irony.

Donalyn Miller is a fourth grade teacher at Peterson Elementary in Fort Worth, TX. She is the author of The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child. Donalyn co-hosts the monthly Twitter chat, #titletalk (with Nerdy co-founder, Colby Sharp), and facilitates the Twitter reading initiative, #bookaday.