The Case Against Summer Reading Lists

In the U.S., most K-12 students can look forward to a lengthy summer vacation, from sometime in June until just after Labor Day. It’s a wondrous time of almost total freedom from academic rigor.


In recent decades, vacation has come with a caveat – the summer reading list. Students tackle a pre-approved roster of books designed to maintain reading comprehension skills during the break, and are then tested on the material at the start of the new school year.

On its surface, the practice makes sense. But what it takes for granted is that assigning reading turns it into a chore, and undermines its appeal as a leisure activity. Though summer reading does help comprehension, the prevailing approach to it may actually discourage kids from reading for pleasure in the long run. And that may be more of a loss than we realize.

Reading for leisure

In 1894, American librarians noticed a new trend — fictional books were checked out in far greater quantities, coinciding clearly with vacation season. Almost invariably, the books were not literary classics but, rather, “light” reading. It was determined that summer was the time to put away denser, more serious works in favor of breezier, more entertaining offerings. Thus, “summer reading” was born.

Santa has this “light reading” thing down, but his beach attire still needs some work.

Santa has this “light reading” thing down, but his beach attire still needs some work.

While “summer reading” was becoming a thing, reformers were working to establish summer vacations for U.S. school children.

Contrary to popular belief, students weren’t given summers off so they could go work on the family farm.

Around the turn of the 20th century, summers were almost unbearably hot. Affluent parents fled the sweltering cities for cooler, rural climates – leaving only students of more modest means to study in the heat.

Around that same time, medical literature suggested that the human brain could be damaged if overused. Although this would later be proven untrue, summer breaks became the norm in American schools. And, for the better part of the 20th century, the season was seen as a time for kids to recharge their mental batteries. Students, if inclined, still read books — but not because they were forced.

Admittedly, some probably just wanted to look cool.

Admittedly, some probably just wanted to look cool.

Reading as a chore

In recent decades, “summer reading” has become more closely associated with the imminent return to school, and in the process, losing its leisurely implications. Schools assign books for students to read to keep their minds sharp (and prevent declining reading skills) over a months-long summer vacation.

But, though some students do take the reading seriously, a few teachers we spoke to suspected their pupils procrastinated — tearing through the books in the final weeks of the summer break. Privately, these teachers admitted to doing the same thing back when they were in school.

Frankly, why wouldn’t students put off their summer reading? Even if they weren’t busy with family trips, camps, and just generally being kids for most of the season, reading the assigned books “too early” — in June or July — virtually guarantees the major details will be all but forgotten by September.

And, while the intentions behind mandatory summer reading are good, some question whether or not it’s the best thing for students emotionally. Summers are a time for kids to be kids, and a heap of mandatory reading doesn’t sound like much fun. When something isn’t fun, it’s more likely to be avoided.

“This is actually more interesting than any of those books.”

“This is actually more interesting than any of those books.”

Kait Pawko, a literacy coach in Philadelphia, agrees — particularly since the assigned readings are often followed by quizzes or book reports. She says –

“If you tell a middle school student, ‘here is a list, do a book report,’ only a small percentage of kids might enjoy reading and get something out of it. Everyone else is just going to get the Spark Notes or Cliff’s Notes.”

But summaries aren’t sufficient substitutes. Studies have shown that many students who don’t read at all during the break will forget things they learned in the previous school year — losing “two to three months of reading development.” This is called “summer learning loss” (or “summer slide”).

Though students from all backgrounds are vulnerable to summer learning loss, it disproportionately affects low-income students – who are already more likely to be at lower reading levels than their more affluent peers, And, since struggling students tend to feel discouraged, motivating them to do additional schoolwork over the summer can be particularly tricky.

Thankfully, reading books from a pre-approved list isn’t the only way to combat summer learning loss, and some teachers are trying new approaches.

Alternatives to mandatory reading lists

Kathryn May, who teaches high school English in Philadelphia, gives her incoming senior students an alternative. In lieu of summer reading, she asks students to participate in three cultural activities outside of their comfort zones. For example, they can go to a museum, attend a play, or see a movie playing in a language other than English. They must provide photographic proof they did these things, and then write a report about the experience.

“Learning does not only occur inside a classroom,” says May. “You can learn by visiting different places and interacting with different people.”

Of course, while this approach keeps students learning, there’s still a concern that students aren’t reading enough, and that low-income students are reading at a level below their more affluent peers. So what’s the solution?

Give students a real say in what they read.

While books on summer reading lists are usually selected through a careful process — either at the local level, from a higher academic body, or from suggested lists from outside organizations — the final selections tend to be somewhat limited. Certain books are deemed appropriate or useful for particular age groups, and they tend to get assigned over and over. But, when students read whatever they want, they’re more likely to stay invested in what they’re reading.

“As for me, I love to color-coordinate my books & furniture.”

“As for me, I love to color-coordinate my books & furniture.”

Studies have shown that allowing students to have a say in what they read is crucial to keeping them motivated. Even reading newspapers and magazines can help students to hone their independent reading skills.

Two professors at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville found that giving low-income students free books of their choosing did as much (and maybe more) to combat summer learning loss as summer classes. A group of students, studied for three years, picked their own reading materials, provided for free at book fairs. And, though many of the books were about topics such as television or sports, these students benefited at least as much as others who attended summer school.

One of the professors who conducted the study, Richard Allington, saw supplying these books as a cost-effective alternative to summer school for struggling readers. He noted, “Spending roughly $40 to $50 a year on free books for each child began to alleviate the achievement gap that occurs in the summer.”

The teachers we spoke to and the University of Tennessee study agree — if students view reading as a privilege, rather than a requirement, they’ll be more inclined to do it.

So why not make summer reading fun? Whether it’s Moby Dick or singer Moby’s book about factory farming, simply giving students more say could make a world of difference.