August 1, 2013

Is there value in assigning kids summer reading?


What to do with all these books???? (Image via Shutterstock.)

At The Millions, Carolyn Ross (a high school English teacher “in a town that has a mandated summer reading program”) writes about “The Problem with Summer Reading”:

Then comes September. We don’t quiz them on the first day, or even the first week, because everyone would fail. The policy is that the students have until the end of September to “finish” their summer reading, and by this date, must log into the software in their English teacher’s presence and complete the AR [Accelerated Reader] quiz on the books that they read. Most students use this time afforded to them to swap summaries of books with simple plots, to recall what books they might have read with their middle school English classes and never tested on, or to calculate how many three-point Dr. Seuss books they would have to test on to reach their assigned point value. Last year The Hunger Games movie was released, and about 50 percent of my students tested on that book. Students test every year on the Harry Potter books, because HBO runs the films for week- long stretches, giving kids every opportunity to get the plot down.

Watching them game the system, it seems it takes more work to successfully not read than it would to just pick up a book.

Even watching her students “game the system,” Ross admits that she can’t bring herself to crack down: “focusing on the Accelerated Reader point values of books and testing the students on inane and helplessly specific plot points would fly directly in the face of all the work that I am doing in September to teach my students about being readers.”

I liked summer reading. In high school, I volunteered at my local library to help with the program—registering each child’s points (based on the number of pages and a handful of other parameters), which would eventually earn them tote bags, t-shirts, and other goodies. Many of the kids loved it, and would march their parents through the shelves, piling book after book in their baskets.

The library’s program, though, was happily optional. It relied on the kids’ own choices, and counted anything the library had in the children’s section as fair game. (The same was true for the YA program.) In those summers, I was doing summer reading assignments of my own, gumming up the cover of King Lear with snow cone flavoring at another summer job and checking off “page per day” rules in planners. I wanted to read, but I would much rather have read by choice.

I won’t say I learned nothing from this, and I did read some books I enjoyed. And yet, in the process, I dealt more with time management than with the books themselves—surely useful, but not so much about reading—and I suspect that this is largely Ross’s point. “For readers,” she writes, “AR will just be an annoyance, or at worst a source of unwarranted stress, because they already know how disconnected summer reading assignments are from the true motivations and rewards of reading.”

Emma Aylor is a former Melville House intern.