Making Wise Choices: Summer Reading and Beyond

by Tricia Ebner

If your district is like mine, there is a summer reading requirement for students every year. I find making good selections for summer reading to be challenging. I certainly want to encourage students to read over the summer; I know it’s important to help support their continuing reading growth and fight that ever-pervasive “summer slide.” However, I also know that as soon as a book becomes a requirement or is part of a list somewhere, that can turn students off. It can be really tricky.

This spring in our eighth grade language arts department, we decided to try another approach to the summer reading dilemma. We began by considering which aspects of the language arts standards and our curriculum needed some updating. This reflection made the answer clear: we wanted to do more with nonfiction. With this in mind, we asked our library media specialist for some ideas of nonfiction books that might be appealing to our incoming eighth grade students. Once we had the list, we read through the synopses she had provided and eliminated some titles.

After developing a list of possibilities, we looked up the Lexile for each book. While Lexile is certainly not the only consideration when it comes to selecting appropriate books, it did help us screen titles. We also wanted to ensure a range of reading levels, so that students could select a book that was a good fit for reading difficulty. A surefire way to discourage reading is by selecting books that are too easy for some or too hard for others. Providing a range of options makes the summer reading list more accessible.

Next, we divided up the titles and each read at least a couple of the books, so that we could talk about what we felt would benefit our students and what they might enjoy. Not every book is a biography; some focus on a particular event (such as Trapped: How the World Rescued 33 Miners from 2,000 Feet Below the Chilean Desert by Marc Aronson) or problem to be solved (such as Bomb: The Race to Build–and Steal–The World’s Most Dangerous Weapon by Steve Sheinkin). Others focused on individuals and their stories, such as Sweet Feet: Samantha Gordon’s Winning Season by Samantha Gordon and Ari Bruening, or Believe: The Victorious Story of Eric LeGrand (Young Readers’ Edition) by Eric LeGrand. We also included a biographical book written in verse, Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson.

Once we had book titles selected, we worked on crafting the work we wanted students doing with the book they had selected. After brainstorming and sharing ideas, we settled on a task that will give us a snapshot of some of their reading and writing skills, such as crafting a summary of the book. This will become one piece of the diagnostic and formative tasks we will analyze at the beginning of the year, so we can design appropriate activities and make wise curriculum and lesson plans for our students as the year unfolds.

As the school year wrapped up, our media center specialist sent links to book trailers for our summer reading list to the seventh grade teachers, so students could get an idea about the books and make some tentative selections. Since I teach seventh grade as well as eighth, I watched my seventh graders’ faces and reactions as we watched the trailers; a number of them were jotting down two and three titles, which suggests they found options within the list the eighth grade teachers had developed.

While I don’t yet know if our summer reading selections were wise choices, I do know the process we used to select books and design the related activity worked well. It’s the kind of process I hope we will continue to use for other book selections across the school year. We considered carefully our own teaching and the kinds of reading we need to increase with our students. Then we considered the broad ranges of reading skills and interests we typically see in our students. This took time and effort, but hopefully the investment we’ve made will pay off in a positive reading experience for our students and a strong start to our 2016-17 school year.

Interested in using a guide to help make good choices in texts for your students? Check out the text complexity tools available here.