Is assigned summer reading a bad idea?

Many schools require students to read over the summer. Is this diminishing the joy of finding books and creating reluctant readers? 

This booklover worries that even Curious George will seem less wonderful to young readers required to spend time with him.

When Asher, my 7-year-old nephew, came to spend the night recently, he brought along a “Curious George” story to read during his visit.

Nothing could have pleased me more, since “Curious George” was the first book I had learned to read when I was a youngster. Thanks to an inquisitive little monkey and The Man With The Yellow Hat, I fell in love with books, an affection that led me into a lifetime of reading and writing. As Asher climbed next to me and we opened the first page, I quietly hoped that he would like “Curious George” as much as I do.

But I also wished that Asher could have met “Curious George” as I first did – as a random selection on the shelf of our town library that I brought home for my older sister, Judy, to read to me. He was, like all good friends, a companion I had chosen for myself.

Asher, on the other hand, was reading “Curious George” because his grade school had assigned it as summer homework. In recent years, many schools across the country have begun to require that students of all ages read a selected book or two over the vacation break, a practice aimed at keeping reading skills sharp. With just a few days left until his return to campus, Asher was, in essence, tackling “Curious George” on deadline.

I couldn’t think of a worse way to savor “Curious George.” And as much as I tried to excite Asher about the fun we’d have, a tiny cloud of obligation hung over our heads.

I wanted for us to engage George as an adventure, not an academic chore.

We navigated “Curious George” just fine, but the experience renewed my longstanding reservations about whether assigned summer reading is such a good idea. I dearly love literature, and I want everyone else to cherish books, too. But in my own childhood, even though I was an insatiable reader, I doubt that I would have embraced the idea of having to read over the summer.

Summer was a glorious time to read what I wanted to, not what I had to. I would have chafed, I think, at the notion that a teacher’s long arm could reach into my vacation time and nudge me into certain books. Who knows? Burdened by such a requirement, my passion for reading might have dimmed to a dull ember.

I’ve confronted this quandary more directly with my teenage daughter, who now has several seasons of assigned summer reading under her belt. We’ve had quite a few summers wrinkled by anxiety as she grudgingly speed-reads a dozen chapters of a novel to complete a book before school starts. That doesn’t seem like the best way to build a new generation of readers who find joy in the written word. As someone who’s taught college writing classes, I acknowledge that quite often, assigned reading is a must for learning. Even so, I wonder if summer is the best time to tackle it.

The National Education Association grappled with this topic in a 2011 feature, “Should Schools Require Summer Reading?”

“Everyone agrees that reading raises achievement, and research shows that students who read over the summer gain reading skills, while those who do not often slide backward, losing up to two months of what they learned while in school,” correspondent Cindy Long told readers.  “Most of the ‘summer slide’ occurs among low-income students, which over years can result in a big achievement gap.”

But Long quotes Chris Janotta, an Illinois educator, who expresses a view about required summer reading similar to my own: “The intention behind it is good, but anytime reading is labeled as ‘required,’ it instantly has a stigma attached to it that makes children not want to do it.”

According to Long’s story, published at NEA Today, a three-year study conducted by researchers at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville concluded that allowing low-income children to pick out their own free books at spring book fairs helped close the summer reading gap – and worked just as effectively as summer school.

Does this mean that assigned summer reading is a bad idea? The research as a whole seems much too varied to be conclusive.

Which is why, I suppose, some schools have landed on a compromise: Give students a long list of assigned summer books from which to choose, and let them have the pleasure of picking a volume or two they might like.

Maybe that’s the most reasonable way to make “Curious George” a lifelong friend, not a primate drudge.

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