Purposes Behind Summer Reading Lists

By Gorman, Libby | Teacher Librarian, June 2010 | Go to article overview
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Purposes Behind Summer Reading Lists


Gorman, Libby, Teacher Librarian


Most librarians I know are fond of lists and perhaps my childhood fondness for summer reading lists was an omen of my future career path.

I thoroughly enjoyed being given a list of books to choose from and crossing them off once I had read them. When I began to work in a public library, however, I met many students who saw the summer reading list as a chore. They often came in the week before school started and asked me to help them find the shortest book on the list--if we had any of the selected books left from which to choose.

This particular experience led me to wonder about summer reading lists. I noticed that the lists brought to the reference desk were often required reading--students had to read at least one book from the list--whereas the lists I remembered using during my childhood were always voluntary. Additionally, public library workers and librarians seemed to be the last ones to hear about many of the summer reading lists, creating an inevitable scramble for first the most popular choices, then for any choices, at the end of summer. What was the point of giving out summer reading lists, anyway?

WHERE DO READING LISTS COME FROM?

In examining the research, I discovered summer reading lists date back at least as far as 1901, and actually seem to have originated in the public library sphere (Bertin, 2004). Freeman (1901) tells about a Michigan City, Indiana, Public Library summer reading program that makes use of a summer reading list. The library provided students with a pamphlet of "old stories about These Men and Things" (p. 57), which it was intimated would be useful for students to learn, then provided a list of juvenile books about those topics for children to choose. Since those early lists, summer reading lists have been provided by both schools and public libraries, and have ranged from a list of required reading with accompanying assignments to a list of suggested books from which students can pick and choose and in some cases refrain from using at all.

Although a strong tradition of summer reading lists exists, the exact purposes behind these lists are often not clearly stated. Just as disagreement exists about the best way to teach reading, disagreements about the purposes behind summer reading exist. One possible purpose is combating "summer reading loss," or the decrease in reading ability that can occur during the summer break (Cooper, Nye, Charlton, Lindsay, & Greathouse, 1996; Allington a McGill Franzen, 2003). Krashen & Shin (2004), in particular, advocate for public libraries to focus less on "summer reading clubs" (p. 105), as the researchers refer to summer reading programs and more on providing a "book flood" (p. 105) during the summer for students who have little access to books outside of the library--a solution that fits well with providing lists of book choices for students.

Krashen (2004) further describes successful summer reading programs that essentially provide a structured chance for students to read more and gain fluency. On the other end of the spectrum, another purpose given for reading lists is encouraging students to read for fun. Geier (2005), Von Drasek (2005), and Williams (2003) all see summer reading as a chance for students to learn to read for pleasure. Purposes seem to vary from school to school, as greatly as the lists themselves vary.

I decided to interview local educators in the Chapel Hill-Durham area of North Carolina about reasons behind summer reading lists at their schools, focusing my questions around four topics:

1. What purposes led principals, teachers, and teacher-librarians to create assigned reading lists for the summer?

2. Who in the school community helped to create these lists and what role did each contributor play?

3. How did the books chosen for these assigned lists, the structures of the lists, and the associated assigned activities support these purposes?

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