Sunday / May 19

The Summer Reading Makeover

The Status Quo

 It’s the day before school starts. Those students who want to make a good impression scurry to:

  1. Drop the bombshell on unsuspecting parents that a trip to Barnes and Noble/Staples is a life or death matter because the summer reading project is due tomorrow.
  2. Skim/SparkNote/Shmoop the assigned book.
  3. Unearth and copy an older sibling’s project from a previous year.
  4. Use $50 of trifolds, printer ink, and highlighter to complete a project “proving” they read the assigned book.

Or, none of the above.

Many students will spend this time at preseason practices, planning first day outfits, or savoring the last gasp of summer freedom. These students will walk into school on the first day with a 0 in the gradebook for summer reading.

It’s the day after school starts. You are:

  1. Collecting questionable-quality projects, too big to fit in your car, so you stay at school until 7pm grading them. You enter grades, send out reminders/notices/emails to all those who did not get projects in, and then dump several surely plagiarized assignments into a stuffed work bag so you can spend your first weekend checking them against
  2. Avoiding the urge to count the days until the first break.

The Makeover

It’s the first day of school. Students are in English class, talking about what books they chose over the summer, sharing titles they loved, and getting to know one another through talking about books. You are sharing what you read with them. Everyone is jotting down titles of books they want to read, recommended by new friends. Connections build and the class community gels on this very first day, as students buzz about books and themselves in the process.

You’ve gotten to know your students more in the first week of school than by Thanksgiving of the previous year. And it’s all through choice reading. You smile wildly, loving your job.

On the first weekend after school starts, you grab your still-packed beach bag and toss in a graphic novel that a student just recommended to you.

Want a makeover?

Here’s how to make it happen.

Ditch assigned books and assignments. Period. Students (especially middle and high) crave autonomy. Why deprive them of it with an assigned book that they’re likely to SparkNote at best? Choice is the easiest, cheapest, most effective way to get students to read. And assignments? Let’s be honest. How many TV shows would we watch if we had to do a project after every one? Eliminate obstacles. Get them reading.

But students will need help choosing. That’s where book lists, staff recommendations, last year’s students’ book picks, and thoughtfully created summer reading plans all come in handy.

  • Consider this tried and true tip: English teachers dedicate one hour over the summer to meet with students at the public library and help them find books. Students want this–they get to reconnect with last year’s teacher, and/or meet their next year’s teacher. Plus, they’re likely to run into classmates as they load up on just-right books. You give an hour, but the payoff is huge. Kids are excited to read. All around win.
  • Put book suggestions up on the school/class website. Make it easy to access.
  • Beef up the list with graphic novels, podcasts, TED talks, and audio books. Find ways to entice even your most reluctant readers.
  • If you’ve been doing book talks on Flipgrid with your students, make those accessible to next year’s readers. (And if you haven’t and want to know how, contact me!) Books recommended by peers will trump any other suggestions.
  • Parameters can prevent lots of calls and questions about what exactly is the “right” amount of summer reading. One teacher calls this highly negotiated choice. You could tell them two books minimum, one nonfiction and one anything. Or, provide a wide range of titles that you know are all worthy and high interest reads. It’s still choice, but all are choices you’ve pre-approved.

Make the “assignment” the following: Come ready to talk about a book you read and loved.

No zeros. If students didn’t read and they admit to it, praise their honesty. Then, move heaven and earth to find a book that they’ll want to read and share with others. They will hear others buzzing about books and want to join in. Let them.

Walk the walk. Start every class with time to read. Make it a routine from day one. Let them know you value reading by asking them when you see them in the halls, at a game, or outside school, “What are you reading?”

Remind students of the “why”:

  • They’ll be assigned hundreds of pages a week in college. They need to keep that reading muscle in shape.
  • Almost half of all students drop out of college (see amount of reading expected). Yet we stand to make a million dollars more in our lifetime if we have a college degree. Reading stamina matters.
  • Reading levels are directly related to how much we read. And it doesn’t matter what we read, just that we put eyes to print.
  • Reading helps teens navigate who they are, who they want to be, and how to handle complex decisions. Books help them find their way.
  • Reading generates empathy and compassion. Our world needs more of these.

Get your own reading list going, making sure to include books your future students might enjoy. Get ready to share yourself as a reader and the titles you discovered and loved.

Remember not to unpack your beach bag (with a book or two inside) once school starts.

Written by

Berit Gordon coaches teachers as they nurture lifelong readers and writers. Her path as an educator began in the classroom in the Dominican Republic before teaching in New York City public schools. She also taught at the Teachers College of Columbia University in English Education. She current works as a literacy consultant in grades 3-12 and lives in Maplewood, New Jersey with her husband and three children. She is the author of No More Fake Reading. You can find more information about Berit’s work on

Latest comments

  • Berit, I love the simple, straightforward, high yield strategies you recommend here. As usual, your suggestions just make sense. Sometimes we are so crunched for time, we don’t stop to examine our practices (and in many cases traditions), to see if they actually accomplish what we set out to do. Teachers really want to make a difference in our student’s lives, thank you for helping us see a better way and rely on what we already know works with students. Happy Summer Reading!

    • What a lovely summing up of one of the top challenges for teachers: wanting to make a difference for every student, and yet rarely having the time to reflect on what is actually having an impact! I’m continually moved by the beautiful efforts by teachers to help their students BE readers. I’m so glad this article offered validation for those smart efforts and practical strategies!

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