You’ve heard of the summer slide, right? It’s not something at the neighborhood playground. It’s what happens when kids go a whole summer not practicing the skills they learned in school for the past year. They end up having to review what they already should have mastered at the beginning of the school year just to catch up to where they left off.
That’s why you’re now, at the end of the school year, surrounded by summer reading initiatives. My district’s elementary schools send home punch cards—each trip you take to the public library this summer, earn a punch, and six punches mean popsicles with the principal in September! When you get to the library, you will find camps and classes and reading contests and challenges. Even restaurants will get in on it: read five books, get a free kid’s meal! We’re all doing our darndest to make sure your kids don’t forget how to read over the summer.
It might seem silly to you if you and/or your kids already love to read. These challenges may seem ridiculously easy. But not everyone is a book-lover, and even the non-bookworms of the world need to keep their reading skills sharp. But you tell them that, and their response is likely to be, “but it’s vacation time! Who wants to do homework during vacation?” The trick is to make summer reading not a chore, but an experience for everyone to enjoy (almost) as much as the bookworms already do.
If the School Has Assigned a Summer Reading List
Some schools assign reading homework over the summer. I’m not talking about lists of “suggested” books here. I mean lists of titles your student is responsible for tracking down and must have read by the time they return to school in the fall. If you are in a place financially where you can actually buy all those books, great, support authors! (Assuming these aren’t all century-old-at-least classics.) Most of us are going to have to rely on our good old public library for help, though.
This is where my number one tip comes in: GO. NOW. Take that list to the library today. I know, vacation just started, who wants to think about homework? But if you put this trip off until August, there’s a very good chance you won’t find the books you need.
Think about it. Every kid in that class is looking for the same books. Your public library branch probably has one copy, maybe two or three, of each book. Sure, maybe your branch is part of a library network that can easily order in books from other libraries, but still, those libraries’ collections are equally limited, and it’s not unlikely that another school in the county has assigned the same book. If each student keeps their copy for the full two weeks of the average check-out, that means only six kids will get a shot at each copy of the book before Labor Day, if everyone starts now. If everyone waits until August, someone’s not going to get their book on time. Tracking down these books will become a hassle that just isn’t worth it. If everyone starts now, you might be put on a hold list, but the hold is likely to come in by July, and definitely with plenty of time to read.
If the School Has NOT Assigned an Official Summer Reading List
So the school asks or at least encourages your kid to read over the summer, but doesn’t assign any specific books? Yay! This is your chance to encourage reading for fun. If, during the school year, your student was required to read books at a certain reading level or with a certain number of pages, in the summer you can relax those restrictions and let them read whatever catches their interest. After all, this is how grownups read, isn’t it? You’re not limited by anything but your own interests (and time, of course. So limited by time)!
Sometimes the school will send home a list of suggested good books for your level of reader. Your library might have other lists of suggested titles, sorted by age or genre or interest. You’ll find some excellent lists from professional organizations (here’s some from the ALA’s Association for Library Service to Children), review journals (The Horn Book always has some great lists), and large public libraries (The New York Public Library’s list is here, and you’ll find more at the library sites of your nearest or favorite cities too). You can make a lot of great discoveries from a list like that. It’s a great way to discover newer books or books that haven’t gotten as much recognition as others.
But the key word is “suggested.” These lists are not meant to be a prescription. Maybe you have a fairly strong reader who would enjoy the challenge of hitting every book on a list, but that’s their choice, and if they stop enjoying it, there’s no need to push.
At our library, we offer summer reading challenges that focus less on quantity and more on trying new things. We have a bingo card that asks you to try books of different genres, formats, and purposes. (Say, check out a cookbook and cook something in it!)
But if a kid wants to read nothing but Minecraft guidebooks, that’s okay too. As long as they keep reading.
Just as it’s not necessary to read as if for a school assignment just to keep the reading neurons limber over the summer, it’s not necessary to even read books.
Give kids the opportunity to practice their letter-decoding skills in other instances people need to read. Have them make or build something that has written instructions. Let them follow a recipe to make dessert—bonus fractions review! Make a packing checklist for vacation. Hand them the turn-by-turn directions on a road trip and make them Official Navigator.
Set up a pen pal exchange with a friend from school. They can both practice reading and writing while keeping up with each other over the summer, through the mail.
Make text omnipresent in their lives, so they can’t help reading. Leave interesting coffee-table books around the house. Put magazines that might interest them in the bathrooms. Yes, comics absolutely do count. Even some video games require some heavy reading. Yesterday my nine-year-old gushed, “OH, I started to read this, and guess what it’s about. CRAFTS.” She held up an Oriental Trading catalog.
But letter-decoding isn’t the only reading skill to keep in practice. Story structure, narrative cause-and-effect, and even empathy are learned and understood through reading fiction or narrative nonfiction. Maybe if your child isn’t jumping at the chance to read novels or the like to themselves this summer, they might still keep these skills tuned by listening to stories instead. My children love for me to read out loud. It becomes a bit of a family event each evening.
If your family’s schedule can’t swing it, or your interests are too diverse for one family read-aloud, you might do better with audiobooks. My library even offers “Playaways,” little self-contained mp3 players of audiobooks. Each person in the family can plug a set of headphones into the Playaway of their own choosing and spend a long road trip quietly lost in their own story.
However you keep reading habits up over the summer, the important thing is to make reading feel worth doing. It should never feel like homework. It’s summer vacation, after all!