As English teachers, we romanticize the idea of curling up with a book poolside... but our students probably don't. Even if they do, they likely do not appreciate the required reading books that we (or our department heads) choose for them. Further, more research seems to support reading choice books than reading teacher-assigned novels, but the latter practice persists anyway.
So how do we make summer reading assignments meaningful, if not enjoyable, for everyone?
I believe part of the answer is choosing the right TYPE of summer reading task, not to mention the form of assessment we will use with the book afterward. Based on our incoming students' talents and needs, what sort of reading will promote the most growth? Do they need an increased love of reading, or just a boost in comprehension? Is your goal to block the summer slide, or to prep them for the specific course you'll be teaching them soon?
As an English teacher and a survivor of MANY summer reading programs as a student, I've seen four common paths of summer reading assignments. Choosing the right one depends on your students' abilities and your eventual goal for that reading.
What it is: NOT just for elementary grades! Students read several books to meet a goal, such as a total number of books, a total number of hours spent reading, etc. The goal is usually to achieve growth as a reader (or at least to prevent the dreaded summer slide). Since the emphasis is on quantity, usually the students get to pick their own books (within reason).
Best for: Either teens who need challenge (i.e. An honors class) or those who need growth (like a middle school or lower-ability class).
Setting it up: First, see if your public library already has a Summer Reading Program that you can capitalize. (Here's my local one as an example.) If not, decide if you want students to log hours spent reading, total quantity of books read, or another metric.
Back to School: Your first goal is to confirm that they actually did it, whether that's asking for parent signatures or assessing their knowledge of the books. Then, decide what grade or course-appropriate way you want to celebrate that reading! (Why not with a Tower of Books?)
What it is: Choice reading again, but quality over quantity this time. Perhaps students choose one grade-appropriate novel from a list, or read one that meets certain criteria (such as, "anything that's a memoir" or "any contemporary fiction"). Choice reading can mean one book, or choosing several (like in #1 above).
Best for: English classes with a specialization, theme, or year-long essential question
Setting it up: Make sure you have a guidelines sheet that clearly explains what they can read, what the purpose of the assignment is, and what they'll have to do with the book upon return to school. (Pro tip: Proofread that letter from the perspective of the parent who is taking the student to the bookstore or library, and make your directions clear!)
Back to School: Use a broader assessment type or activity that can be applied to any book. For example, try this FREE Summer Reading Scavenger Hunt activity as a diagnostic or formative assessment (to see if students can find literary devices in their own novels)!
What it is: The teacher assigns one book (or a small set of texts) for mandatory reading, usually as a prerequisite assignment for the upcoming course; the text might be related to the course's theme or difficulty level (such as reading Shakespeare before a Brit Lit class).
Best for: Specialized or advanced English classes, the ones for which students might benefit from early exposure.
Setting it up: After making sure that the school supports your choice of novel (and will have your back in the event of protesting parents), make sure all upcoming students know what book to go find. (The bookstores and libraries might appreciate some forewarning, too!)
Back to School: Either collect student homework (such as an essay that was written over the summer), or begin a novel unit based on the text that they have (supposedly) read.
What it is: Whether it's choice OR a mandatory text, the novel is just a means to an end, such as examining the American Dream, identifying symbolism, collecting vocabulary, or finding a theme.
Best for: Any English class!
Setting it up: Frame your directions by defining and explaining the skill or concept you're looking for. (Perhaps your assignment sheet will include a mini-lesson on theme or active reading?) Make fully clear what you're looking for and why!
Back to School: Have students lead the discussion of how their book(s) did or did not fit the concept, or use self-assessment to see how they grew.
My FAVORITE way to keep the summer reading ball rolling (and get other assessments into my gradebook) is to expand summer reading to vocabulary, writing, and NON-fiction!
I use this mini-unit as a stepping stone to get students ready for DBQs, evaluating different source types, and thinking more about opposing viewpoints. (What do teachers, parents, booksellers, and others think about summer reading? How will we refute their viewpoints in an argument?)
Have a wonderful summer of reading!