A Case Against Assigned Summer Reading

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P.N. Hinton

Contributing Editor

Born into a family of readers, P.N. gained a love reading as a sort of herd mentality. This love of reading has remained a life long passion, resulting in an English Degree from The University of Houston in Houston, Texas. She normally reads three to four books at any given time, in the futile Sisyphean hope of whittling down her ever growing to be read pile of no specific genre.

As voracious a reader as I am, I do not believe in assigned summer reading. There is one exception to this rule, which I will address later. But overall, it’s a no from me. While this may sound surprising, I’m prepared to expand more on the why below. Please note that any of the generalizations and opinions I have or make about the state of education is based purely off my home state.

The Problem With Education Today

I don’t remember ever having assigned summer reading growing up. In fact, the first time I remember even hearing about it being was roughly over a decade ago. My mother-in-law asked me to find a copy of The Outsiders for my youngest sister-in-law’s summer reading.

Assigned summer reading is designed, in part, to help avoid “Summer Learning Loss.” This idea estimates that the average child loses roughly 17–34% of what they learned the prior school year. While I can somewhat see the concern there, the sad truth is that we’re no longer really teaching our children much of anything anymore.

In Texas, the majority of the Spring Semester is spent getting children ready for the state mandated standardized test, the STAAR. That’s not factoring in the practice tests they take in the fall. With this method, not a lot of the school year goes towards actual teaching. Our teachers have to cram all they can into a short period of time as they’re required to devote so much time towards the STAAR.

It’s been proven that cramming is not an effective form of learning and/or studying. If this is true for college students, why do we think this would be effective on primary and secondary students? Their brains are still forming and growing. To expect them to be able to successfully retain information from a method that grownups struggle with is ridiculous. If they are essentially cramming during the school year, it’s no wonder that they lose so much over the summer.

Pressure on Reading

There is also a lot of unnecessary pressure on reading when a child enters school. A statistic used a lot here is this: if a child isn’t reading on level by third grade, then they’re more likely to drop out of school. This stat is a pressure pushing scare tactic, pure and simple. Should we focus on getting kids to read on level? Of course. But we also need to realize that the parameters that determine reading success are exceedingly strict.

My son used to love reading. He looked forward to bedtime stories and even read on his own with no prompting. When he got to school, though, this all changed. He became sullen and discouraged and never wanted to read on his own. His grades started to reflect this.

When I discussed my concerns with his then teacher, she told me that this was because he kept skipping over words when reading out loud. Each missed word counted against him because Texas. What words might those have been? I’m glad that you asked. They were conjunction words, such as a, and, the, etc. When she told me this, I looked at her incredulously.

That’s because this approach totally disregards the fact that adults, who have been reading for years, do the same thing. It’s actually something that our brains learn to do. When I brought this up, the teacher agreed with me; but her hands were tied. This was a criteria handed down by the school board and had to be followed to the T.

At a time where we could be fostering a love of reading in the younger generation, we’re fostering hatred due to the focus on how they need to read. It’s no wonder kids begin to resent reading. My son was made to feel like a failure for something that he originally enjoyed. Now, he barely reads at all, and it breaks my heart. I don’t force him to read; if I did, it would only reinforce the negative feelings he has towards it.

Accessibility Inequality

Then there’s the ugly elephant in the room that no one wants to recognize. That is the fact that not every child can readily access the required books. My understanding is that the family still has to procure the book on their own, even if mandated. Some families don’t have money in the budget to buy books. Not every child has a library card or the ability to get to a library to borrow a physical book. We also can’t forget that not every child has access to a device that digital books can be borrowed on.

It would be one thing if book mobiles were still readily available. If schools lent out devices that came loaded with the books, that would also be a horse of a different color as well. But neither of those are true across the board. It’s unfair to have an expectation of something when not everyone has the same opportunities presented to them. Books were easily obtainable for me growing up. I’m wise enough to know not everyone had or has that same luxury.

Assigned summer reading, much like school book fairs, further illustrates the social and economic divide. When schools implement a requirement someone may not be able to fulfill because they can’t get the material, it shows that public education is still unequal. 

The only exception to required summer reading are high school juniors and seniors who are taking Advanced Placement (AP) classes. Students who take AP classes are the ones who most likely are wanting to go to college, where assigned summer reading is more likely. So, it makes sense to practice getting into that mindset. That said, even in AP classes in public education, the school should still be providing the reading materials or at the very least help find a way for those students to get them.

In Conclusion

Is summer learning loss a real issue? Sure; I’m not trying to discount that at all. However, I think ultimately the source of that is the accelerated learning schedule that they are subject to during the school year. Too much importance is given to standardized testing. Those aren’t a good benchmark for anything but determining how much funding to give to a specific campus.

Adults don’t like doing anything they don’t want to do over their vacation; why would we expect kids to feel any different? Childhood is arguably the only time in your life where summer actually means something in terms of time off. Even teachers don’t necessarily have a summer vacation.

If we want to fix the education system, that is a good place to start. Let’s return to actually teaching, including reading comprehension, a majority of the school year, rather than testing. Then we could let the kids be kids during their summer.