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The Importance of Summer Reading
Ready or not, the end of the school year and the start of summer vacation are just around the corner. No doubt you are astounded at the amount of content your child has covered in just one year’s time, but with summer break looming, you are probably eager to have your children extend their learning over the upcoming months. Summer reading is an easy, inexpensive, and enjoyable way for families to do just that! If books are chosen well and a few simple fluency-building techniques are used, reading comprehension and retention can continue to improve. Similarly, vocabulary development and content knowledge, which are critical for reading comprehension, can also be furthered through effective summer reading.
Granted, most children relish the extra freedom that comes with summer break, but it is amazing how much a simple reading list can help provide a little needed (and often welcomed) structure for children during the long summer months. The first step to creating a successful summer reading program in your home is to start with a written reading list for your child. You and your child can collaboratively establish this list. Many families also enjoy taking part in a public library summer reading program over the summer months to provide some structure to their reading. To help make the process easier, we have divided books into three simple categories below. You will probably find that left to their own devices, children are likely to choose heavily from the third category of books. Just as we would steer our children away from a steady diet of desserts toward a healthier diet, so too must we steer them toward healthy book choices. For that reason, helping your child choose heavily from the first two categories below and sparingly from the third, will provide a good balance and give them the opportunity for building reading comprehension and knowledge.
a. Fiction or non-fiction books that are at or slightly above your child’s reading level are suggested for comprehension building. A great place to start is the Classical School reading list. Often children want to revisit old favorites that they have previously read or books that are new to them from the list, but which are now below their reading level. Because of the high quality of these works of literature, these books should be included as an addition to the more challenging selections on their summer reading list. Use the reading list as a gauge for reading level, or speak with your child’s teacher.
b. Content-based books are non-fiction books written about an area of history, math, science, music, or art that has sparked your child’s interest. Some of the books will be above your child’s reading level, but can make wonderful books to read aloud.
c. “Dessert Books” are often contemporary books that children enjoy reading and can be generally read without much effort or assistance. These books typically lack challenging vocabulary and often use relatively simple grammatical writing structures. They are called “dessert books” because they are a small treat with minimal nourishment. They are fun to read, but do little to develop our children’s growing minds. It is easy for children to select summer reading from this category to the exclusion of the first two categories.
Fluency Improving Techniques
Increasing your child’s reading fluency should be one of the goals of your summer reading program. The National Institute for Literacy describes reading fluency as the “ability to read a text accurately and quickly.” Fluent readers “recognize words automatically. They group words quickly to help them gain meaning from what they read. Fluent readers read aloud effortlessly and with expression. Their reading sounds natural, as if they are speaking. Readers who have not yet developed fluency read slowly, word by word. Their oral reading is choppy and plodding.” Fluent readers comprehend what they are reading because do not need to take time to decode unfamiliar words and can therefore concentrate on the meaning of the text. Becoming a fluent reader happens gradually and requires years of practice and patience. Like becoming proficient on a musical instrument or pitching a softball, with repeated practice, fluent reading will happen!
For younger children that are not yet firm in their reading fluency, parroting, or having the child repeat short reading passages after the adult readers has read them, is effective. If the child is hesitant to do this for you, start by having the child reread short passages with you and gradually work up to having him read it alone. This skill should be practiced with books at or slightly below the child’s reading level, in order to insure success and a feeling of accomplishment. It is extremely important that parroting is done in a supportive atmosphere. Do not set your child up for failure by making him or her read unfamiliar text in front of others (siblings, grandparents, friends, etc.) This technique is for practice, not performance.
Fluency can also be improved through repeated oral reading. Different from parroting, this technique requires that the child practice a passage repeatedly, often resulting in memorization. The child practices one passage from a book that is at or above his reading level until facile and then moves on to another new passage. Try to choose passages with challenging vocabulary to aid in vocabulary and background knowledge acquisition. Always offer assistance with pronunciation and word meaning. Dictionary use can also be practiced with unfamiliar words. Older, more fluent readers also benefit from this technique. Using poetry or parts of famous speeches works well with older children.
Reading aloud to your children is an effective method to improve fluency that can be easily practiced at home. In order for children to become fluent readers, they must first hear what fluent reading sounds like. By reading effortlessly and with expression, you can model for your children how a fluent reader sounds. Research shows that older students, grades 8 – 12, also benefit from hearing fluent reading. If you feel that you are not a strong reader, books on tape are an alternative available at public libraries and area bookstores.
Importance of Background Knowledge
All of this reading practice has the benefit of increasing fluency, thereby increasing reading comprehension. Since fluent readers do not need to take time to sound out the words in the text, they are able to easily decode the text and can concentrate on what the text is saying. Nevertheless, reading comprehension does not rely on fluent reading alone. Comprehension of both written and oral language is based upon one’s vocabulary and content knowledge. Even a fluent reader cannot understand the text if the ideas and words in the text are unfamiliar. As E.D. Hirsch explains, “Successful reading requires more than an ability to decode, or ‘sound out,’ words. It also requires adequate background knowledge, or ‘cultural literacy.’ Without background knowledge of history, literature, art, music, science, and math, students will read — but without comprehension.“
With this in mind, choosing books from the first two categories discussed above for your child’s summer reading is as important as any fluency exercises you may do with your child this summer. When reading aloud to your child, choose books that are above their reading level and contain complex vocabulary and rich content. This opens a world to our children that is not yet accessible to them through their own reading. The new information and vocabulary learned becomes part of their background knowledge, and background knowledge, along with a wide vocabulary, has been shown to be the best indicator of a student’s future reading success.
Have a wonderful, safe summer. Happy reading!
Note: There may be books on your child’s grade level list that are above his/her reading level. These books make great read-alouds! Some books will span more than one list.