Summer reading seemed like such an easy feat several months ago, as finals week turned into summer break. Read a book and write an essay, that’s simple, right? After all, students had just completed nine months of reading and writing. If it’s so easy, why start now?
So, that summer reading book fresh from Amazon sits on the counter or the bedroom floor until the day of reckoning. The first day of August truncates the vast expanse of summer vacation in a flash. Once the calendar says August, students only have a few weeks to wrap up summer reading, not to mention back to school shopping, math packets, and college applications.
From relaxation to procrastination, summer reading becomes associated with unpreparedness. To start that summer reading book is to admit that summer is coming to an end, which is why most students put it off as long as possible. However, this lackadaisical approach to summer reading leaves students susceptible to the back to school blues – when a sluggish start turns August’s “gimme grades” into December regrets. Far too many students receive zeroes on summer reading completion grades and 60’s on summer reading tests. Starting behind the finish line makes for a grueling uphill charge for the rest of the semester.
Luckily, we have some tips to help your student pick up the book, understand it, and crush the first assessment of August.
Make It Easy & Rewarding
Procrastination is driven by fear, and fear is banished by habits. One of the best ways to form a habit is to make that habit easy. Students should avoid goals that are ambitious but unrealistic. Instead, make summer reading as easy as possible both in time spent on the task and the environment created to enhance the habit. For instance, have a student set a reading goal for each day until school begins. Then, ask the student to cut his or her goal in half. If the student reads twenty pages when the goal was ten, that’s not a problem. However, on the days when reading the book is like pulling teeth, the ten page goal is much more manageable. Simple goals build momentum.
Likewise, help your student find ways to prime the environment for task completion. In essence, how can we make summer reading easier to do than other non-productive tasks (Netflix, video games, etc.)? Place the book somewhere incredibly visible (night stand, kitchen counter, etc.). If you have to search for the book, that’s one more obstacle to finishing it. Pair summer reading with a task or location that the student enjoys. For instance, reading at his or her favorite coffee shop or ice cream parlor makes it much more enjoyable (easier). Prime the environment for good decision making. Use incentives to keep the student motivated. Reward him or her with a candy bar or another small treat each time he or she accomplishes the daily goal.
The Key to Willpower: don’t miss twice in a row
Jerry Seinfeld famously adds an X to his calendar for each day he sits and writes a new joke. The chain of successful days helps him stay motivated. Likewise, company safety departments find great success when they record the number of days since the last workplace injury. Furthermore, the early 2000’s San Antonio Spurs and 2010’s Golden State Warriors attributed their success to one simple rule: “don’t miss the goal two days in a row.” There’s great power in not missing twice, it improves the odds.
So, encourage students to be okay with missing a day of summer reading, but make sure they don’t miss twice. If the student misses a day, encourage him or her to put summer reading as the very first task on the calendar for tomorrow. Don’t miss twice.
Master the Art of Annotating
Most English teachers drool over a well-annotated book. Annotations are the easiest way to maintain what you read, set yourself up for success on future essays, and truly enjoy all of the nuisances of literature. You should always have a pen in your hand while you read. The best advice I ever received from an English teacher was to become a “literary detective.” He told me to do a bit of research on the book before I started reading and gather two to three important themes to track as I read. For example, track the theme of identity in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. Every time you see a quote, a symbol, or a hint of foreshadowing related to that theme, underline it and make a small note in the margin. You’ll find yourself reading in a much deeper, more analytical fashion. What Mr. V failed to mention was how much of a time saver annotating is when you have to write essays. By tracking a theme throughout the entire novel and making annotations, you can simply flip through the novel looking for markings when it comes time to choose quotes for your essay. Annotating well will save you plenty of time, while other students are practically re-reading the whole book to find the perfect quote to match their thesis. For the overachievers out there, I still annotate every book I read. Annotating gives you x-ray vision into a novel’s themes, insights, and style. Also, a well-annotated book is a knockout first impression tool on the first day of class.
Eliminate Fictitious Rules (with caution)
Students and parents constantly ask me about the efficacy of audiobooks. My answer is usually a series of questions: “Which class assigned the book? What do you know about the teacher? Have you had difficulties with reading assignments in the past?” The truth is that audio books are a fantastic reading tool, but only under the right circumstances. The goal is to finish the book… there are no rules for how the student accomplishes that goal. If the audiobook route boosts the likelihood of success, then do it that way. Eliminate fictitious rules that hinder progress. Movement is the key and momentum is the benefit.
However, be cautious with audiobooks. The tendency with audiobooks is to multi-task, meaning that most students divide their attention between summer reading and a plethora of more stimulating activities. If you are listening to Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek while playing Fortnite, your brain is dividing its powers between an over-stimulating video game and an internal monologue about the complexity of nature. Which one do you think is going to win that battle?
Students should use caution with audiobooks, especially if their assignment is an analytical reading assignment for English or history class. For students with learning differences or a general apathy toward literature, audiobooks can be a valuable tool, but with one minor adjustment. Listen to the audiobook while reading a physical copy. You can even turn up the reading speed if you desire, but the act of sitting down with a tangible book will help you focus and ensure full comprehension. This method is also conducive to annotating, which is the goal of most summer reading assignments. For summer reading assignments that require a minimal amount of analysis, the student can use audiobooks with full comprehension if he or she listens to them during a relatively mundane task like washing dishes, driving, or working out.
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