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When the Jumbotron says, "Read," You Read!

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Driving past the local "cash-strapped" high school's humongous color jumbotron the other day (the one in violation of zoning laws and with a larger carbon footprint than Toledo), I was reminded that I haven't written about one of my favorite subjects in a while - summer reading. The jumbotron's ominous message warned students not to forget their summer reading "assignment." Let me first state on-the-record that I am for reading. I'm a big fan of it and suggest that others try it occasionally.

What I am against is hypocrisy and coercive teaching practices.

One can't walk through a Borders or Barnes and Noble in early summer without noticing the expanding section of books required as "summer reading" by area schools. Upon further inspection I notice that this display always features a nice balance of outstanding literature and children's favorites. Educators in the local districts have really put some care and effort into selecting the books they are asking parents to buy and forcing kids to read.

Headlines were made two summers ago in Lancaster, Texas by a school district that suspended 519 students for not completing their summer reading assignment. The year before they tossed out 1,100 students for the same offense. "Our kids cannot afford to have summer or winter breaks off," says Larry Lewis, school district superintendent. Aside from his unfortunate confusion between working in a coal mine and attending middle school, I think I understand his sentiment. He wants children to read, both for information and for pleasure.

The Lancaster superintendent went on to say, "Sixty to 75 percent of our students are reading two to five years below their grade level." Oops, reading is about skill acquisition. If it were about pleasure than his students would read voluntarily during the summer. In too many schools reading has become a form of onerous race in which mechanical proficiency is favored over the development of a love of reading. In far more cases, there are simply too few books for children to read. The suits stole the book money.

Dr. Rebecca Constantino of Access Books' research demonstrates that the greatest predictor of literacy is access to high-interest reading material. For far too many American students, there just aren't any great books to read in their classroom, school or bedroom libraries.

The more books children have access to in their school libraries, the more they will read.

Ironically, 3/4 of the suspended Lancaster, Texas students were readmitted to school after "completing their work" in just one day. What sort of summer reading may be completed in one day? A trashy beach novel takes a proficient adult reader longer to finish. Wanna bet that the summer reading assignment focused a lot more on worksheets than on being lost in a book? Unfortunately, my requests to the district for the actual assignment were ignored.

Back to my local bookstore
While marveling at the terrific age-appropriate selection of summer reading books required by schools in my community, two thoughts come to mind (besides the fact that parents, regardless of income, are expected to subsidize the assignment).

1) The kids are required to read many more books during the summer than they are during the actual school year. Is there no time for reading fine literature during the school year? Why are all the great books read during the summer?

2) Once the students return to school having sworn that they read six or twelve books, will there be any meaningful discussion of what they read under the guidance of a professional educator? How could you possibly do so when there are tests to prepare for and content to "cover?"

Besides, many subscribers to the pedagogical practice of required summer reading do so because they believe that what they teach students "leaks out" during the summer. If this is the case, how can a child possibly remember details from Homer Price or Summer Reading is Killing Me! two months after reading it? (unless of course the students don't start reading until the night before school starts)

This is the time of year when the network morning shows feature "experts" scaring parents into forcing or bribing their children to read over the summer. The rationale isn't that reading is fun, informative or intrinsically rewarding, but because what school taught them will leak out. Summer reading is too often justified by the unfounded theory that every minute away from classroom instruction is detrimental to learning.

Take your kids to the library or book store during the summer. Bring books with your family on vacation and spend time reading them. Model for your children how a good book can seep into one's life instead of worrying that a dozen vocabulary words will leak out!


A version of this article originally appeared in The Pulse: Education's Place for Debate.