Enough With Your Summer Reading!

My boys last summer, reading in the yard.

My boys last summer, reading in the yard.

The reminders are everywhere this time of year, and have been for a while. Amazon and Scholastic are sending me emails with book lists for my children. Pinterest is full of summer reading posts. The local librarian has visited my oldest’s classroom, encouraging the kids to sign up for summer reading, dangling the carrot of performances and prizes if they’d just, you know, read. I’ve heard all the arguments in favor of these programs, but you won’t convince me. I don’t believe in bribing kids to read. I am wary of extrinsic motivators, and I want—and have—children who read for reading’s sake. I’ve been told that some kids just won’t read all summer without summer reading programs, and while that may be true, summer reading is not solving a problem here. It’s a cosmetic fix for a deeper, underlying problem that isn’t being addressed. Why don’t these kids want to read to begin with?

I have two areas of parenting where I’ve nailed it (yes, only two). All of my kids love books and reading, and they all eat a variety of foods. As I thought about this, I realized that these areas are where my intent, priorities, and desired outcome are completely aligned. We have a hard time, for example, explaining to our kids that they shouldn’t swear when both their parents have a bit of a potty mouth. Until I change my own behavior, all the explanations in the world aren’t going to have an effect. However, I don’t eat cookies while asking my kids to eat an apple; because I value healthy eating and sweets in moderation, they naturally followed my lead. I don’t stare at a TV screen while telling my kids to read a book, either. I have my nose in my own book, thank you very much. Sometimes I’m asked how I “get” my kids to read, and this is my long response to that question.

I began taking my kids to the library in their infancy. Yes, even my firstborn. I spent hours trapped under a sleeping baby who’d awaken if I tried to slip away. I needed books, lots of books, to pass the time, so the baby and I went to the library. As more babies came, they were brought to the library too, and now all of us pick out so many books combined that certain librarians duck when they see us coming. From the beginning I instituted the Mama-First Rule: Mama gets to pick out books first, and then (and only then) will we go to the kids’ section. It’s like putting on my oxygen tank first. Now, of course, I have some kids old enough to wander off by themselves to pick out books anyway. The library, in other words, is a regular part of our life and routine and always has been.

I also began reading aloud to my kids in infancy. My oldest would sit and listen for as long as my voice held out. He was (and is) a placid child. By age two he was listening to chapter books, and at age four he could repeat, word for word, his favorite stories—including The Polar Express, which is quite a long one. I thought he’d be an early reader, but it didn’t click for him until he was seven. He was homeschooled at the time, and he was allowed to learn to read without any external pressures whatsoever. By the time he started school in second grade he was reading well ahead of grade level.

Younger siblings, of course, hear read-alouds from the very beginning. My second child wouldn’t sit still and listen like his brother. He’d squirm off the couch and onto the floor, where he’d busily play. He was a mover. No matter; I knew he was listening. When my oldest began to read on his own, I didn’t stop reading out loud (of course, I had two non-readers at the time, too). Books are part of the activity choice in our house along with toys and other playthings, and were not reserved just for bedtime stories. I read in the morning, the afternoon, and evening. When both my boys were in school, my daughter and I would see the bus off and then come inside to read. I’d sit with my coffee and the stack of books she’d selected and sometimes read for an hour or more before we continued with our day.

My middle child was in school during his learning-to-read process. At the first parent/teacher conference, I told his kindergarten teacher that I didn’t care if he was reading by the end of kindergarten and, in fact, didn’t expect him to be. (This, I was told, was not the normal parent statement about reading in K.) I didn’t want reading to turn into a source of anxiety or pressure. By the beginning of second grade he could read, somewhat laboriously, but it hadn’t clicked for him yet. In the meantime, I told his teacher that I would not be having him fill out a book log, because such a thing made reading a chore. (Have you ever written down everything you’ve read? So boring.) It also reinforced the idea that he should read because school says so and not because he wanted to. Knowing my son’s oppositional nature, I felt there was a risk he’d simply rebel against reading if he felt it wasn’t his decision. No book logs for us. My job was to run interference while my child got his reading feet under him. By mid-second grade, reading had clicked for him, and by the end, he, too, was reading beyond grade level. Still, when we began homeschooling, I continued the morning routine of reading books aloud, now with two kids instead of one. Just because a child can read to himself doesn’t mean he doesn’t enjoy cuddling up and hearing stories read out loud.

So how did I end up with kids who love reading? I take them to the library and always have. I read aloud, early, often, and even when they can read to themselves. I read books myself, where the kids can see me. I occasionally ignore them because the book is really good. I pick out books for myself at the library. I make sure they are allowed to learn to read at their own pace and without externally imposed pressure, anxiety, or stress. I don’t judge their reading material. Both boys take out books below their reading level along with harder books. I simply remind them to make sure they bring home some longer books, too, because otherwise they finish all their books too soon and I have two kids moping around the house complaining, “I’m out of book.” They love graphic novels and read them again and again. I suggest books I think they might like, I find books they’ve requested, I give books as presents, I provide magazine subscriptions. I thoroughly support their reading habit, as I support my own.

So there is no quick-results answer I can give when someone asks me, “How did you get your kids to read?” It’s a lifestyle; it reflects what’s important to me. These readers of mine are the product of the sum total of my time as a mother; getting a kid to value reading isn’t a quick summer project involving McDonald’s coupons and a magician at the library. Of course, there are outliers. There are people who love to read who grew up in bookless homes, and kids who don’t read at all whose book-loving parents are mystified. But in general, results begin with what you value and where you put your time, which is why my kids love to read and often ask for apples for a snack. They didn’t learn to read because I sat down and made it a chore, and they don’t read now to earn prizes at the library. They read because books take them to different places, different times, different universes, carried along on the wave of a fantastic story. They read for reading’s sake.

13 thoughts on “Enough With Your Summer Reading!

  1. suburbancorrespondent

    You left something out, though – how much screen time do they get? I think it is harder to sell kids on the reading lifestyle if there is an easier form of entertainment always beckoning, so I’m wondering if your kids have unfettered access to screens but still prefer books or if you have purposely limited the screen time.

    1. amy Post author

      It depends upon the kid and the day. My middle child doesn’t always handle screens well so he is limited due to temperament. My oldest does get Minecraft/computer time, and has a tablet and a DS, but he also brings a book on every car ride, no matter how short. (All my kids do.) My one pre-reader watches TV, but I personally don’t believe in computer time (or tablets or iWhatevers) for preschoolers. So, none of my kids had screen time other than TV as pre-readers, and I believe they get far less screen time than the average kid. However, it is not generally a point of contention here; other things are more valued. (As I write this, my 9yo and 4yo are playing with LEGOS together and have been for some time.)

  2. Sunny

    I suppose I disagree somewhat. I have 3 kiddos (9, 7, and 4yo) that love to read and we still participate in the library summer reading program. We are there every week regardless. At our library, they get to set their own goals. My eldest is quite competitive with herself; last year she read 125 books, so this year she picked 150. And she reads “real” books of a wide variety. I took 2 of them the Barnes and Noble last night to get the free book “reward” for reading 8 books. I see that as one more book for them to read.

    That said, we did read to them from infancy. And we’ve been going to the library regularly since my 9yo was 3yo. They love to read! Even the 4yo often takes a book in the car because his older siblings always do. It’s awesome! I guess my feeling is that I’m not using these programs to bribe them to read, but as encouragement to keep doing what they are doing!

    1. amy Post author

      My kids have occasionally asked to sign up too, but they quickly get annoyed with the record-keeping aspect of it. The “prizes” at our libraries are small cheap toys, with the book only coming at the end of the summer if you jump through all the hoops. I’d rather just buy them books (or take them to the library to pick out free ones) without all the rigmarole. But they do get to make their own choices here, as your kids are.

      When my boys were much younger, the prizes were free or discount passes into area museums and such. I participated then–they weren’t reading yet, and I filled out the paperwork, and they didn’t get the cause-effect connection between me reading aloud to them (like I did every day anyway) and us getting to go to a museum at reduced cost. But they haven’t offered those in a while, which is a shame.

  3. Lise

    I agree wholeheartedly. I teach young children, and in the summers, the older ones come back to join us. I spent the night before they arrived eagerly pulling out great books I thought they’d love, and looked forward to sharing them. Their first question? “How many pages does it have?” They flip to the last page to check before looking at the cover or the description or the first page. All because of their classroom logs. My summer goal is to get them asking “what’s it about?” or “what’s so good about it?” instead.

    1. amy Post author

      A friend of mine told me her son reported that he didn’t meet his school reading requirements because a 600-page book he read only counted as one book. I can’t even begin to understand why schools are choosing to emphasize quantity of books over everything else–what are they trying to accomplish with that meaningless emphasis? It’s just so shortsighted and sad.

  4. Sunny

    I hadn’t thought about it, but our kids homeschooling, so they never have to keep a log of books or time reading. They read because they love reading. Log keeping regularly could certainly take the fun out of it.

  5. Melissa

    My DH took a picture of me reading Harry Potter to our 1-day old DD. She’s 9 now and reads non-stop. 7-year old DS is a reader, too, thank goodness. We did the summer reading thing when they were younger, but … it is meant to encourage a behavior that my kids have happily already embraced. And they’ve always gotten a bit snarky at the tiny space they were given for filling in the books they’d read during the week.
    Last year we signed up but missed most of the weekly check ins – and they didn’t care. This year, I decided not to bother. The stamps and stickers and pencils can go to the kids who need the encouragement (and I believe the program is worthwhile for those kids); we may stop in on an occasional “program” day, but what I really wish someone would institute would be a “Summer Room Organizing Program.” THAT’S the behavior I need to encourage!

    1. amy Post author

      Ha, yes, and could they run it for adults, too? I am having a hard time mustering up extrinsic OR intrinsic motivation for dealing with some of the clutter in my house… 😉

      1. Sunny

        Our library actually has specific programs for teens and adults too. I started, but apparently, I need more motivation (or time?), LOL!

    2. Sunny

      Oh, and I would need much more than a program to organize things..I think I need someone to just come do it for me! Maybe we could set up a house-swap! 😉

  6. BElls

    i’ve never heard of a summer reading program. I think it doesn’t happen here although it might – I’m not the target audience and anyway, like you, I think just making reading an intrinsic part of everyday life does loads to encourage reading. You might remember my joy and pride when as a newly-able-to-stand one year old, I found Alice standing in the lounge room, swaying slightly, reading a book. She loves reading and I think it’s because we read a lot. We also love our ipads and so does she. They do mimic don’t they?

    That top photo? It’s great. It should be used in promotional material!

    Ditto on the food. Eat and serve a wide range of foods and it’s got to have impact.

    1. amy Post author

      Most schools insist on some sort of summer reading program, too. So far for us it’s mostly just been writing down what they read, which is, as I mentioned, a chore. When my oldest was first starting school as a second grader, we received a sheet to write down everything he read over the summer. When he’d filled two sheets’ worth and we were only halfway through the summer, I finally emailed and asked if we could please stop writing down book titles now? What a waste of time, and the idea that kids have to report back to school on their summer activities chafes against me as well.

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