Struggles over what our kids read during the summer are not new. I know this because I remember the summer my mom had to wrestle a battered paperback from my hands, saying, “We did not pay for a family vacation so that you could read Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade over and over again.” Which was news to me.
But what constitutes good summer reading? Some parents worry that their kids are not reading enough books. Others worry that the books their kids are reading aren’t good enough. And many worry about both.
One thing is clear: The summer reading slump definitely exists. “Research shows that struggling readers test higher on a standardized test at the beginning of summer than at the end of the vacation,” says John Martin, writer, teacher and founder of Boys Read, a Seattle-based organization that focuses on getting boys to read. “This is a skill that has atrophy.”
In other words, use it or lose it. As Martin notes, “The effect is cumulative: The more summers without reading, the wider the gap each year.”
Let kids choose their own books
The experts I talked with about summer reading all had the same two things to say. One: Do everything in your power to make sure your kids are reading over the summer. Two: Let them choose whatever kinds of things they want to read. In other words, if it’s Indiana Jones, even their third time through Indiana Jones, you’ve succeeded.
“Children’s librarians really promote free choice,” says Blythe Summers, a children’s librarian at the Seattle Public Library. “Kids get told what to read all year long. Summer is a chance to explore their own interests and find their own passions in reading.”
Summers says that the research supports this, showing that “choice is a factor in reading motivation” and that choice helps students develop a positive relationship with reading.
When you let your kids make reading choices, be sure to offer them a wide variety of options. “Often, reading gets associated with one format — usually fiction and chapter books,” says Summers. Some kids respond much better to other formats, such as magazines, nonfiction articles and even how-to manuals, she says.
Parents often undervalue comic books. “Kids improve their reading skills reading at their own level and even below their level,” says Summers. Although comic books contain less text, they keep the mind working, she notes. “The brain links one image with the next one, making the connections that create the story.” This, she says, is a good reading skill — and different from watching television, where everything happens for you.
Getting boys to read
Of course, the drive to get your child to read during the summer starts long before June 1. Michael Thompson, Ph.D., is a nationally known psychologist who has written several books on children, including It’s a Boy! (which sits on my nightstand and is consulted whenever my son does something I would rather he didn’t).
Everyone, Thompson says, knows to read aloud to their children when they are young. But even when kids can read books themselves, parents should keep reading to them. (Thompson suggests reading alternate pages of their child’s favorite books.) They should also keep reading next to them. “Modeling reading is important as kids get older,” says Thompson.
These days, getting boys to read is often a harder task than getting their female counterparts to do so. “You cannot have boys read while everyone in the family is watching television or playing on the computer — includ