Navigating Your Child's Education: Grades 6-8

10 min read

Easing the Pain of Summer Reading

May 12, 2021 8:00 PM

As each school year comes to a close, parents and students alike collectively breathe a sigh of relief. Summer! That glorious break from the stress of writing papers, meeting project deadlines, and late-night study sessions. Yet, there is often this little nagging thing that tends to hang over the sunshiny months between school years, creating stress, frustration, and conflict between parents and their students: summer reading. Many schools, especially for students in middle school and high school, have required summer reading. It may be just one or two books already selected by teachers or students may be given options of books to read. No matter the structure or requirements, what I have witnessed in my own experience of teaching seventh- and eighth-graders is that students typically fall into one of two camps when it comes to summer reading—the early-readers and the procrastinators. 

The Procrastinators 

By and large, the majority of middle schoolers leave their summer reading for the final weeks (or hours!) of summer break. Procrastinating is often accompanied by parent-student conflict as one party attempts to encourage the other party to complete their mandated reading. This process typically culminates in a frenzied, last-minute panic to get the reading done, creating stress for the student and frustration for the parents. In many ways, cramming summer reading into one week or one evening defeats the purpose(s). Aside from the relational and emotional baggage of delayed summer reading, this type of procrastination is not ideal for comprehension and retention. 

The Early-Readers 

Early-readers are those students who ride the momentum of the school year and choose to complete their required summer reading titles at the beginning of the summer. While this is in some ways beneficial to the student and parents and a better alternative to the aforementioned procrastination approach to summer reading, early reading presents its own challenges. Early reading can make it difficult to recall details from the book or be able to have a conversation about it or complete an assignment once the new school year begins.  

Upper School Girl

Summer Reading: Purposeful or Punitive? 

Contrary to popular student opinion, English teachers don’t assign reading to ruin anyone’s summer life. It’s important for students and parents alike to keep in mind that summer reading is not a punishment. If you are parenting a procrastinator, it can be easy for required reading to begin to feel like a punishment for all involved. As with so many aspects of life, parental attitude is a strong determining factor in how a student will approach summer reading. On one extreme, a parent’s attitude about summer reading might be expressed through not mentioning the assignment at all and simply letting your student succeed or fail on their own. On the other extreme, a parent may choose to persistently ask a student about the status of their summer reading. Rather than falling into either of these ditches, parents can create positive opportunities for their children to engage in required reading. This starts with a thorough understanding of the purpose of summer reading.  

But Why? 

Perhaps one of the most obvious purposes of required summer reading is to keep those reading skills sharp over the eight to 10-week break between school years. Research points to the “summer slide” as a very real phenomenon, a sort of academic regression for students who do not stay engaged in some type of learning. Recent studies show that the number of students who read during the summer is decreasing, and those who do read are not reading as many books as in past surveys. In 2018, as many as 20% of teens reported reading zero books over the summer. Since fewer and fewer students are inclined to read on their own, having a required assignment provides a degree of structure and motivation to establish or maintain the habit of reading. 

In addition to preventing the summer slide, English teachers sometimes use summer reading as a precursor to themes and ideas that students will encounter in the coming year. Selected titles for required reading may introduce these ideas in a way that prepares the students for learning the rest of the year. When a group of students all read the same book(s) over the summer or books with similar themes as assigned by their teacher, this creates space for a common experience and common language at the very beginning of the new school year. No matter what experiences a student had or didn’t have over the summer, whether a student is returning to the same school or entering as a new student, each person that completes summer reading in a meaningful way can come together and share that with one another as they embark on a new school year. 

Perhaps on an even deeper level, summer reading provides students with an opportunity to grow in their ability to think, plan, and organize. One defining characteristic of the middle school years is that students must learn to manage multi-step projects and deadlines and develop forward-thinking. Middle school brains are really beginning to come online in terms of executive function skills like planning and organizing, and it’s crucial for teachers and parents to guide them toward a greater sense of agency in practicing these skills. This is a facet of summer reading that may be easily overlooked, but it can help set the tone for the entire experience. 

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There Has to Be a Better Way: Establishing a Healthy Strategy for Summer Reading 

One of the most effective strategies I have seen for summer reading is for parents to actually read the book(s) with their students. Reading together not only provides accountability to the student for completing the reading in a timely manner, but it can also create a meaningful parent-child experience. Middle school is a natural time for emerging teens to withdraw from their parents and engage in less conversation. Reading a book together can create an opportunity for conversation, talking about big ideas in life. This may even provide parents with a window into how their middle schooler is developing their own thoughts and perspectives on life.  

Whether a parent has the bandwidth to read with their middle schooler or not, there are two key elements that a healthy strategy should include: establishing a summer reading plan (early in the summer) and discussing the reading together.  

Together, parents and students ought to look at the assigned reading and map out how many days or weeks it will take to complete it. This is ideally done early in the summer so as to avoid those inevitable contentious interactions. The reading could be divvied up based on chapters or the number of pages. Though it may seem rudimentary, this practical breakdown of what needs to be accomplished and establishing a timeline for working through it can come as a strong aid for those developing frontal lobes. 

Once a plan has been established, the real fun can begin. If a student is set on being an early reader for the sake of getting it done, this can be a healthy strategy IF they are able to take notes of their reading in an effective manner. Notes are best taken at the end of each chapter of reading, and may include any of the following: 

  • Write a one-paragraph summary of the chapter.
  • Make and keep a list of new or unfamiliar vocabulary words and look them up at the end of each chapter. 
  • Write down three questions you have about the chapter. 
  • Write predictions for what you think will happen in the coming chapter based on the chapter you just read. 
  • Think about and answer the following:
    • What stood out to you in this chapter and why?
    • What surprised you in this chapter?
    • What are the major events that happened in this chapter?
    • Who or what moved the story forward in this chapter and how
  • Complete the following sentences:
    • “Before reading this book, I thought ______________________________________. After reading this book, I now think ____________________________________.” 

Thoughtful note-taking can help to ensure that early readers are able to recall details long after they’ve completed their reading. Early-readers can also benefit from re-examining their reading again prior to the start of the new school year just re-familiarize themselves with the characters, plot, and themes. 

No matter when a student plans to complete their summer reading, parents play a vital part in helping their students think critically about their reading. In middle school, reading moves beyond the basic comprehension skills of younger grades. A middle schooler definitely must be able to identify the who, what, where, and when of a story, but they need to be encouraged to move beyond simple identification of characters and plot elements and consider why those elements are significant to the story. Even if a parent is not familiar with the reading, they can ask thought-provoking questions to their students. Students may also benefit from answering open-ended questions from their parents about their reading habits. Rather than telling a middle schooler, “You can’t read while you’re blaring music” or “You always fall asleep when you try to read at nighttime,” asking them open-ended questions about these habits will encourage them to recognize those tendencies for themselves. 

Summer reading isn’t intended to be a pain or punishment in the lives of middle schoolersWith the right perspective, planning, and guidance, it can truly be a meaningful experience for students (and parents!) on their journey to adulthood. 

Emily Johnson
Written by Emily Johnson

Emily currently serves as a seventh-grade English teacher at Worthington Christian School. With a degree in Integrated Language Arts and Communication Studies from Capital University, she specifically desires for students to take ownership of their information intake and communication through reading and writing with purpose.