Summer Reading as a Means of Achieving Academic and Social-Emotional Goals for 6th-12th Grade Students
Kassidy Montuoro-Germann, Fairleigh Dickinson University
Abstract: Summer reading has traditionally been assigned to students with the goal of combating the academic losses that occur during the three-month break. Determining which texts students will read over the summer is a multifaceted process and can involve several stakeholders who weigh in on the decision. However, there is a clear tension that exists in deciding whether students should be well-versed in knowledge of the classics as tradition dictates or keep up with the times by reading more modern texts that they can better relate to. This debate exists within summer reading choices as well as texts for the school year. Despite the many factors that contribute to teachers’ book selections, there are clear trends that have persisted over several decades and continue to endure in more recent years. I collected a sample of 200 summer reading texts assigned to 6-12th grade students from across the United States and their accompanying assignments, and from this sample I selected three pairs of texts to compare as classic and modern representations of popular topics in literature. This research will examine the value summer reading texts and their accompanying assignments have for students in promoting their academic, social, and emotional development. This paper also seeks to assess the impact of assigning these texts over the summer as opposed to during the school year and to provide research-based practices and recommendations for conducting effective summer reading programs.
Summer reading has traditionally been assigned to students with the primary goal of combating summer learning loss, also known as the “summer setback,” that occurs during the three-month break (Allington et al.; Johnson; Kim). Summer reading programs have the potential to allow for academic gains beyond what students were capable of at the end of the previous school year, but often these programs are considered successful if they are able to prevent regression (Christodoulou et al.). Though a student technically may not have improved over the course of the summer, it is important that they did not lose the progress they made as of last June. Certain student populations are more susceptible to regression over the summer—specifically students with disabilities, English Language Learners, and students from low-income households (Allington et al.; Johnson; J. Kim). Whether the assignments are mandatory or encouraged, some version of summer reading appears in nearly every school district across the country, but the ways in which it is implemented varies greatly. The most obvious difference between these programs are the books students are asked to read. Every school has their own process for selecting these texts, and though these decisions are usually made collectively amongst individuals—by all the teachers of a grade level, for example—they must also be approved by other entities like department leaders and administrators. In some cases, the district-level leaders determine the books being read by students over the summer in all of its schools.
This multifaceted process is further complicated by the tension that exists between choosing modern and canonical texts for students to read. Educators are hesitant to stray from their traditional text choices for a variety of reasons. Some teachers cite a lack of confidence in assigning contemporary texts that were not included in their own instructional training in and aligning these texts with their instructional goals and curriculum, while others are restricted by their school or district’s oversight or their inability to provide access to the book for all students and teachers who would require it (Watkins and Ostenson). Despite the many factors that contribute to teachers’ book choices, there are clear trends that have persisted in summer reading assignments throughout several decades and have continued in recent years.
Teachers and students alike are faced with countless choices in their considerations for summer reading books, but there are still clear preferences demonstrated across schools, districts, and states for specific topics or genres. Through data collected from a sample of 200 K-12 schools in the United States (roughly four summer reading assignments per state), I observed consistent patterns of reading lists that balanced the proportion of classical to modern texts in efforts to weigh the needs of the curriculum with student interest. From the top 15% of the data, I selected the following pairings of texts to compare as classic and modern representations of similar topics: Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell (1949) and The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (1985), To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960) and The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas (2017), and The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan (1989) and Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah (2016).
Researchers have readily acknowledged that summer reading has the potential to boost student achievement and combat summer learning loss, but the ways in which summer reading programs should be implemented has been widely debated amongst educators. The most important thing to consider when implementing these programs is which students will benefit from them. Students from low-income families and students with disabilities are at the highest risk for summer learning loss and are not benefitting from current summer reading programs. Experts agree that an achievement gap already exists for low-income and economically disadvantaged students. Although summer learning loss or the “summer setback” can impact all students, it has the most detrimental effects on students whose families struggle financially which, therefore, widens the already existent gap (Allington et al.; Johnson; Kim). James Kim describes the faucet theory to illustrate the scenario at hand, suggesting that students make similar learning gains during the school year because they are given the same resources and opportunities to learn being that they are in the same school setting. In the summer, however, inequalities are created because resources and opportunities to learn differ in every household. Kim also argues that there is an ethnic achievement gap related to socioeconomic status (Kim). It is important to note that one study of a summer reading intervention program for students with reading disabilities and difficulties found that students did not improve much, or even at all, from the beginning of the study. However, the intervention was still proven to be effective because students who were not given the intervention declined in scores rather than maintaining the knowledge they had already gained during the school year (Christodoulou et al.). That being said, summer reading is primarily used to prevent academic losses that typically take place over the summer. It is possible, though, that students will make advancements in comparison to the end of the previous school year through the implementation of effective summer reading programs.
One of the most common debates about summer reading assignments is whether the texts should be self-selected by students or prescribed by teachers, with grade level considered. Several researchers have pointed out that allowing students to read self-selected books is critical to their success in reading because it promotes a love of and enjoyment for reading (Allington; Kim et al.; Ya-Ling). Kim et al. argue that student interest is such a significant component that summer reading simply cannot be effective without it. Fostering a love of reading is targeted at the elementary level in particular because it is a critical learning period for students and getting them motivated to read is key to their success. The more students read, the more opportunities they will have to not only improve their skills but to expand their knowledge overall. Students who struggle with reading at higher education levels and in their everyday adult lives often report having struggled with reading since lower elementary school. Falling behind at such a crucial time in students’ lives where these foundational reading skills are built can be detrimental to their reading potential if not properly addressed by educators. Most importantly, students who struggle with reading often become unmotivated to read because it is difficult, causing them to fall behind even further. For this reason, promoting a love for reading is especially important for both strong and developing readers.
Another aspect of summer reading that is heavily debated is whether or not the reading should have accompanying assignments. This raises additional questions such as what exactly should be assessed and what method of assessment is most appropriate, whether it be a formative assessment to monitor student learning or a summative assessment to evaluate student learning, or a combination of both. Scholars tend to agree that summer reading can be effective independently without any accompanying work or lessons (Lin et al.; Kim). In their case study of Sophia, an English Language Learner, Lin and colleagues quote that the teen says she likes reading with “no strings attached,” referring to reading for purposes of leisure without corresponding academic work. Her mother argues that because Sophia is so busy with her classwork during the school year, she reads far less. Yet, the data from this study shows that reading for leisure has enabled Sophia to make the most progress, while her schoolwork actually seemed to be hindering it (Lin et al.).
Many have argued that the benefits of literature extend far beyond the classroom in that it enables students to undergo psychological, emotional, and social development rather than just growth that is cognitive or academic (Sugisishita and Dresser; Vogel). Summer reading provides the perfect opportunity for this social-emotional development to take place compared to more standards-directed instruction in the classroom (Ya-Ling 103). Giving students the opportunity for personal growth through literature is of equal importance in the elementary and secondary grades. However, it can be argued that teachers can help facilitate this growth by assigning literature to students that is embedded in the curriculum while providing guidance through the implementation of direct instruction in social-emotional learning. Likewise, Kim and colleagues propose that books do not have to be self-selected for students to enjoy them (Kim et al.). One researcher, James Kim, proposes a “happy medium” for these two extremes by allowing students choose the books they want to read from a list compiled by the teacher, rather than being completely prescribed or self-selected (Kim). This option is becoming increasingly popular in today’s schools, though some districts are opting to remove their required summer reading assignments all together.
Due to the problem of abundance, each of us can only read a small fraction of all literary works available. The canon serves as a means of adjusting the scope to focus on the books deemed most important by someone somewhere at some point. The literary canon consists of a relatively small selection of texts that follows a tradition of books that have been included historically in English curricula (Applebee). Though the composition of this set of texts will change over time, it will never grow larger. This, in essence, is the canon (Wilkens). Teachers find themselves inclined to assign canonical texts to their students to prepare them for the large-scale and/or standardized tests they will participate in at the high school level including the SATs, the ACTs, and Advanced Placement exams. Teachers also want to expose their students to these canonical texts in preparation for their collegiate studies, where they will be expected to have familiarity with these classic works of literature.
All things considered, some are calling for a re-examination of the books educators are assigning students to consider the purpose of these texts in either advancing the curriculum or in engaging students with moral/ethical content through social and emotional learning (SEL) (Applebee; Hostetter; Milburn). Teachers need to assess what value the texts have for students inside and outside of the classroom and what exactly makes these traditionally assigned texts superior in their ability to accomplish academic and/or socioemotional competency goals in comparison to more modern works of literature. Is it a matter of superiority in literary merit, or a matter of tradition and hesitation to defy what is perceived as the norm in education? More often than not, the qualities valued in canonical texts can also be found in the modern texts that students find themselves better able to relate to. However, educators in today’s world tend to strive for a comfortable balance between both types in their classrooms. Teachers recognize the merit of classic and modern texts in consideration of content and craft while also understanding how their timelessness or recency makes them more or less fit to the needs of the curriculum and students in considering the goal of assigning the text. Educators should also consider the features of the text unique to its time and provide students with adequate context to fully understand and appreciate these features.
Trends in Summer Reading Assignments
The data collected for this project was limited to schools that have made their summer reading assignments and book lists publicly accessible through the Google search engine, which would often lead to a page on the school’s website or perhaps a Google document posted by the teacher or department. In recent years, many districts have made their summer assignments available to students using private platforms like Google Classroom that can only be accessed using a unique class passcode. However, it is also possible that some schools do not post their summer assignments online at all and only distribute physical copies, though this is much less likely following the recent pandemic. A majority of the summer assignments included in the sample are from the 2020-2021 school year, but all were assigned to students within the last ten years.
This is not a perfectly random sample because I selected each text and its accompanying assignment from the lists provided by each sample school (or district). When possible, I specifically selected book lists for courses unrelated to AP exams because the books used on these tests are usually strictly canonical and teachers across the country are providing their classes with the same exact lists of titles created by the College Board, which makes these texts repetitive when gathering a sample such as this. Every U.S. state is represented in the sample with the exception of North Dakota due to lack of available data. The number of texts that were contributed to the sample by each state were redistributed by highest population when necessary. The sample naturally represents a wide variety of socioeconomic statuses, types of communities (rural/urban/ suburban), and schools (private/public). A rough count of how often sample texts were repeated in other book lists was recorded throughout data collection but should only be considered an estimate due to the imperfect means by which this data was gathered.
Based on estimates conducted regarding how frequently sample texts appeared on other book lists, the ten most popular books assigned to students for summer reading are (in descending order): Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell, Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai, Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan, The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, and Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. Four of the texts I am focusing on in my literary analysis are represented in the top ten, and the remaining two texts are included in the top 15% of the sample (Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah and The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood).
The most popular genre assigned to students was fiction (81%) and summer reading books typically ranged from about 200-400 pages in length. The publication dates ranged from 500 B.C. to 2020, but most of the texts included in the sample were published after 2000. The second most recent category, 1951-1999, contributed about half as many texts to the sample. In recent years, many schools have been allowing participation in summer reading programs to be optional, but even those that require it often expect students to read only one book and it is usually self-selected. Sometimes students have a large list to choose from, but even giving students the ability to make a selection from just two choices increases the likelihood that they will be interested in and motivated to read their preferred text. 71% of the sample included books that were self-selected by students rather than prescribed by their teachers. About 58% of the texts read by students for summer reading did not include an accompanying assignment for them to complete.
Observations and Trends
As I progressed through the data collection, it became apparent that high school was being represented in the sample far more than middle and elementary school. As a result, the focus of this project began to shift towards the secondary level because this is the time when summer reading assignments are the most substantial and are conducted in a much more prescribed manner with clear objectives besides preventing summer learning loss and encouraging children to continue developing a positive relationship with reading. Due to the pressures of standardized tests, AP exams, college entry exams, and general college preparation, the summer reading texts assigned to high schoolers appear to be much more carefully selected and deliberate in purpose. Students are not only expected to demonstrate their reading and writing skills with grade-level mastery, but they are also expected to engage with the content of these books meaningfully and retain the information, whether it be in preparation for an AP exam or their future academic careers. That being said, reading assignments become increasingly canonical between 10th and 12th grade to meet these demands. When possible, I have selected book lists for courses unrelated to AP exams because the books used on these tests are strictly canonical and teachers across the country are usually providing their students with the same text options being that they are all provided with the same list from the College Board for courses like AP Literature and AP Language and Composition. There is a clear reliance on tradition in the academic community, and K-12 schools will have to continue teaching the classics if their students will be expected to know them in their future collegiate studies, though universities are increasingly moving towards incorporating modern texts into their courses. Despite these confounding factors, it is evident that though some schools are insistent on either preserving the classics or staying current, teachers ultimately strive to maintain a reasonable balance of the two extremes to foster the development of well-rounded students who are both familiar with tradition as well as prepared to navigate the modern world.
Glazier and Seo write for the Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy that “[t]he use of multicultural literature—coupled with dialogic instruction within a safe classroom context—can provide students with both a window to other cultures and a mirror reflecting their own.” The researchers, however, caution “if practitioners (particularly white-majority teachers) assume a monoculture in which there are those like ‘us’ and ‘others,’ the use of multicultural literature may also reinforce notions of ‘culturelessness’ among white European American student populations.” Though multicultural literature has the potential to “hel[p] children identify with their own culture, expos[e] children to other cultures, and ope[n] the dialogue on issues regarding diversity[,]…discussions of multicultural literature often omit explorations of ‘whiteness’ within the larger discussion of culture.” Studies in multicultural education that focus on examining those in the minority often do so in avoiding “a close interrogation of the white majority… Because whiteness—often along with the notion of what it means to be an American—has been largely unexplored territory in U.S. school contexts in particular, majority students often feel ‘cultureless.’” Students who are part of the white majority are unable to effectively participate in discussions of diversity if they do not even have a concept of their own culture. That being said, educators are encouraged to find ways to “bring all students to examine their cultural voices—a necessary goal if we are to ever view cultural diversity as a resource rather than a deficit” (Glazier and Seo 686-687). In an article published to the same academic journal, Susan Landt reiterates Campbell and Wittenberg’s (1980) six purposes for integrating multicultural literature into the curriculum, which includes introducing students to cultures outside of their own and promoting respect and tolerance for all, enhancing their self-concept and understanding of their own cultural heritage, and encouraging them to recognize and stand up against prejudice and discrimination (Landt 695). Teachers who expose their students to diverse literature are not only helping to shape the way that they view themselves, but the way they view others. Overall, the incorporation of multicultural literature serves to promote “mutual respect, self-reflection, and empathy” amongst all individuals regardless of race, color, or creed both inside and outside of school (Stallworth et al. 479).
Several scholars stress how crucial it is that teachers “ensure accuracy and cultural authenticity of voice” in multicultural texts before considering their use for classroom study (Smith; Landt; Louie). Landt defines cultural authenticity as “the accuracy of the language, customs, values, and history of the culture” and suggests that teachers ensure the cultural authenticity of their text selections by “[d]etermining the author’s credentials to write from the perspective of a culture” and using resources like specific cultural awards and websites devoted to individual cultures to confirm its merit as multicultural literature (696). Smith advises teachers to choose literature that is created by, or in collaboration with, people of that culture (Smith). In addition to checking the story for authenticity, Belinda Louie offers six other guiding principles for teachers to consider in their use of multicultural literature in the classroom, which includes understanding the world of the ethnic characters and seeing the world through their perspectives, identifying values that shape characters’ conflict-resolution strategies, making personal connections to the text and critiquing the way these characters are portrayed, using variations of the same story or collections of stories to help students build schema, and responding to readings of multicultural text through written or spoken language (Louie 438-448).
A common challenge that teachers may face when implementing their summer reading programs is encouraging white students who continuously opt for canonical texts to engage with more diverse authors without taking away their ability to choose. One way to establish a more comfortable balance of student choice and teacher prescription is to create a shorter, more focused list of texts for students to choose from that are related in some way such as a common theme, topic, or time period. This can be used to introduce the first unit of study of the school year when students arrive in September. Based on my research, extensive lists of text options are most often used in the younger grades where there tends to be a greater discrepancy between students’ reading levels and fostering a love for reading is the ultimate goal of summer reading programs. Another option for secondary teachers is to have students select one text from the more focused list and one text of their choosing, or from a much larger list, in order to balance curricular goals with student interest and enjoyment. Though Glazier and Seo acknowledge that white readers may be taken aback by the realizations they come to while reading multicultural texts, they recognize the importance of this process in helping students grow as people and as members of a global society:
While one can both look through the window of canonical literature and use it as a mirror, the mirror image may at times be distorted. What is in the reflection is highly dependent on the text. Multicultural literature can reflect back to majority readers a picture of themselves as part of a larger system of oppression. This literature, in many cases, sheds light on minorities whose lives have often been affected by racism and other forms of discrimination. (698-699)
The researchers take the window and mirror metaphor a step further in recognizing that some students may not be prepared to discover that they are in some way contributing to the issue of prejudice and discrimination taking place within society. Whether their role be active or passive, this recognition is intended to lead to a change in behavior and attitudes towards diverse groups and a growing understanding of their circumstances and perspectives.
Teachers play a critical role in breaking the silence over such topics and giving students a voice when their stories may have never been validated or seen as important before. In considering summer reading programs where students and teachers are not yet in the classroom together to hold these discussions, this can be accomplished through the text selections that teachers make available to their students. Regardless of whether teachers opt for a shorter list of text options or a lengthy list of suggestions, multicultural literature and books written by diverse authors should be included on these lists when possible and appropriate. Glazier and Seo cite the work of Nelson-Barber and Meier (1990), who “stressed the need for teachers to create classroom environments that ‘grant voice and legitimacy to the perspectives and experiences of those who are different from themselves—communities that do not require students to surrender personal and cultural identity in exchange for academic achievement’” (697). These experts are speaking to the ways in which canonical texts and the traditional curriculum demonstrate bias towards white students, which clearly impacts the academic success of minority students in addition to other factors related to the systemic discrimination these marginalized groups face within society and public institutions. By carefully selecting summer reading texts that are both culturally diverse and authentic while also making them relevant during the school year, teachers are taking steps to move beyond simply tolerating minority students and instead embracing the diversity that exists in society and within the classroom. Sonia Nieto’s concept of reaching a level of “affirmation, solidarity, and critique” is “based on the premise that the most powerful learning results when students work and struggle with one another” and that “the many differences that students and their families represent are embraced and accepted as legitimate vehicles for learning” (Nieto 5). Teachers and students alike will benefit from this increased understanding and collaboration amongst people of all cultures both inside and outside the classroom.
In closely examining the texts and accompanying assessments implemented by teachers across the United States in their summer reading programs, it is clear that giving students a choice in the book(s) that they read is an extremely effective strategy. This guarantees that the students will have at least some degree of self-acknowledged interest in that particular text and it gives them a sense of control over their learning. Teachers should ask their students what they like to read about and consider incorporating their interests into summer reading lists and classroom libraries. One way this can be conducted is to have students complete a short survey on the first day of school or to send one out virtually prior to the start of the school year. Though it may be too late to affect their choices in summer reading texts that year, it will help provide recommendations for future students. Additionally, teachers may encourage students to contact them over the summer if they have special interest in reading a book that is not included on the suggested list for potential approval. It is apparent that students’ text selections for summer reading become increasingly limited as they reach higher grade levels, which seems to be unavoidable as high school students prepare for various forms of testing and for their future college careers. Regardless, offering students some kind of choice in the books they read and giving them the opportunity to read things they enjoy only serves to set them up for success because they are motivated to learn through their willingness to engage with the text.
It could be argued that some of the books assigned to students in this sample are a bit complex and may not be suitable for a more leisurely summer read even for the oldest grade levels, especially without the guidance of a teacher to offer insight and clear up any confusion. However, such a decision would depend on if and how students will be assessed on the material. For example, if a summer book were to serve as the foundational text for the first unit of study of that school year, students should not be given any kind of summative assessment where they are expected to demonstrate mastery of the material on the first day of school. It would be most appropriate to have students participate in a diagnostic activity, such as a check for understanding or even a short reflective essay, to help guide further instruction. Obtaining this baseline data for student progress becomes even more important in considering the pressing issue of summer learning loss. Summer reading is the perfect opportunity for students to explore with new genres and push themselves to attempt higher-level texts, so long as these risks will not negatively impact their grades. Any summative assessments given to students on summer reading materials should, in most cases, be diagnostic and guide a teacher’s further instruction throughout the school year. Teachers can use these results as a baseline for student progress and an indicator as to what topics from the previous grade level need to be retaught or reviewed with the whole class.
Just as Arthur N. Applebee asserts in his 1996 study “Curriculum as Conversation: Transforming Traditions of Teaching and Learning,” Stallworth and other experts in the field of education agree that it is most important that the English/Language Arts curricula “include literature that appeals to students’ interests and relates to their lives, the kind of books that will foster lifelong reading habits and nurture students’ interest in reading.” Specifically, Stallworth points out that “the practice of teaching a static literary canon works against this goal” (483). That being said, teachers are encouraged to reflect on the texts they have selected for their students and consider their purpose in assigning them: “Developing rationales for titles before teaching those works is part of the curriculum planning process. Teachers must always be proactive and purposeful” (Stallworth et al. 488). In examining traditional and modern representations of similar topics, it becomes clear that there is an abundance of quality literature in existence that is capable of accomplishing the same curricular goals as the canonical texts that have come to be considered classics. These modern texts are more appealing to students because they are better able to relate to the characters through their shared, or similar, experiences and tend to offer more diverse perspectives as well as demonstrate greater cultural sensitivity. By appealing to contemporary student audiences through their text choices for summer reading, teachers are rousing the spirits of the diverse, independent-minded individuals that will one day lead the world.
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