The Key to Summer Reading? Invest in Children’s Reading Lives All Year
It’s easier to maintain my reading life in the summer. Scorching Texas days provide excuses to lie under the ceiling fan and read all afternoon. Occasionally, I stay up all night binge reading—burning through epic historicals or fantasies in one sitting. I travel quite a bit during the summer, and books keep me company. I pack more books than I need in case of inevitable flight delays and other reading emergencies. Besides, a stack of books on a hotel nightstand makes it feel more like home.
Some of my fondest reading memories take place in the summer. I remember walking with my sister, Abbie, to the Hurst Public Library once a week. Heat radiated off the pavement, but we continuously shifted sides of the street to stay in tree shade as much as possible. It was a long walk, and we couldn’t carry back a lot of books. Too heavy in the heat. I always selected the fattest, most appealing book I could find, so it would last me all week.
As a young mom, my daughters and I went to the Euless Public Library once a week with my friend Mary, and her three kids. We would spend hours filling our Radio Flyer wagon with books to take home. The library limit was 100 books per patron, and I maxed it out more than once.
Even now, the books I read in the summers shine a little brighter in my memories. I read Gayle Forman’s If I Stay and When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead on the same day—July 30, 2009. I sat in one place reading for so long that I didn’t realize the house was dark until Don came home from work and startled me. I was so deep into those books. A few summers ago, some friends and I passed around an ARC of Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming—folding corners and scribbling notes to each other in the margins before sending it to the next reader. We knew we held magic in our hands.
For many readers, this recipe for reading engagement success—time to read PLUS book access PLUS free choice—seems easier to follow during the summer because we have more time for leisure activities like reading. We dust off our library cards and piles of unread books and rediscover reading or recommit. Unfortunately, too many children wander through book deserts during the summer months. Without access to school and classroom libraries and the guidance of their librarians and teachers, many children lose their book access and encouragement for reading. For children who lack meaningful access to books in their communities or consistent support for reading at home, they may go months without reading much over the summer.
Many of you have planned and launched summer reading initiatives and programs in your school communities this summer. You’re holding book drives and book fairs and sponsoring summer reading clubs. You’re opening school libraries and hosting library card sign-up events. You’re doing everything possible to put books in the hands of children, so that they will have more book access. But the most successful summer reading programs invest in the reading lives of children all year.
As hard as we work to improve children’s book access during the summer, there are school-wide structures and instructional norms that create de facto book deserts for kids during the school year by limiting children’s book access and choices. As you move from one school year to a new one, consider what works to engage children with reading all year long. If we want children to commit to reading, we must put routines and structures in place that support children’s reading lives and the development of positive reading identities. Children who see themselves as readers and find reading personally meaningful are more likely to read over the summer without our constant support.
Components of Reading Engagement
Time: Carve out daily reading time. Experts like Richard Allington recommend 3 hours a week of independent reading imbedded into the literacy block where children interact with their teachers about what they read. In secondary school, when finding 20 minutes of reading time becomes problematic due to shorter class times, I suggest at least 10 minutes of reading time every day. Children who are not reading at school are unlikely to read at home. Reading in class helps children develop a daily reading habit and allows teachers time to determine if every child is matched with a book they can read successfully. When we set aside daily reading time, we emphasize its importance.
Access: Provide children with physical, intellectual, and social/cultural access to books. Invest funding in building school and classroom library collections. Schedule regular time for library visits, so children can examine and select books with support from the librarian. Reconsider leveling systems and use them to evaluate materials for differentiated instruction, which is the intent of leveling systems. Do not employ leveling systems to label or rank children or limit their ability to self-select books. If your school or classroom libraries are visibly leveled, discuss the American Library Association’s Position Statement on Labeling Books with Reading Levels with your staff and reconsider how you can provide teachers and librarians access to book leveling information without revealing students’ confidential academic progress. Evaluate book collections for diversity and ensure that all children can access books that reflect their own experiences and explore perspectives and experiences that differ from theirs. Lee & Low has created a useful checklist for this purpose. Introduce children to Gene Luen Yang’s Reading Without Walls Challenge and work to incorporate diverse texts throughout the school year, not just celebratory months and holidays.
Choice: Providing children with encouragement to self-select their own books increases their reading engagement and fosters motivation (Gambrell, Coding, & Palmer, 1996; Worthy & McKool, 1996; Guthrie & Wigfield, 2000; Johnson & Blair, 2003; Reis et al., 2007; Krashen, 2011). According to Scholastic’s 2016 Kids and Family Reading Report, 89% of school-age children report that their favorite books are the books they have chosen for themselves. While we set the expectation that all children will read, we provide them maximum choice within the frameworks we create at school and home. Providing children with free reading choices demands that we model and teach children how to select books like readers really do, and provide them lots of opportunities to examine and evaluate books they might read. Families have the right to set their own content guidelines for their children, but their jurisdiction does not extend to the reading lives of other people’s children—that’s censorship.
Community: Dedicate time toward launching and sustaining a positive reading community that celebrates all readers and all types of reading. Ensure that all readers, including children acquiring English, primary age children, gifted readers, and dormant readers feel like full citizens of their reading communities. Work to engage families with reading at home and provide resources, including books, to support them. Give children lots of opportunities to preview, share, and talk about books with their peers. Model a literate life and share with children why you find reading personally meaningful and useful.
If you’re looking for reading communities to join this summer, check out my annual Summer #Bookaday Challenge and Penny Kittle’s Book Love Foundation Summer Book Club. Summer provides us all with opportunities to re-invest in our reading lives. When children return to school this fall, let’s make a long-term investment in their reading lives, too.
Donalyn Miller has taught fourth, fifth, and sixth grade English and Social Studies in Northeast Texas. She is the author of two books about encouraging students to read, The Book Whisperer (Jossey-Bass, 2009) and Reading in the Wild (Jossey-Bass, 2013). Donalyn co-hosts the monthly Twitter chat, #titletalk (with Nerdy Book Club co-founder, Colby Sharp). Donalyn launched the annual Twitter summer and holiday reading initiative, #bookaday. You can find her on Twitter at @donalynbooks or under a pile of books somewhere, happily reading.