Most high schools would prefer to offer a voluntary summer reading program to their students rather than a mandatory one. How do you get high school students to participate in a voluntary program?
The quick answer:
- Offer students a free copy of a book they can select from a short list of recommended titles
- Schedule a “Literacy Day” in the fall with book discussion groups and even appearances by one or more of the authors
- Give students extra credit for completing a project in the fall that they also choose from a list of options
When one large and diverse high school in the southeastern United States decided to develop a schoolwide summer reading program, administrators opted to make the program voluntary rather than mandatory, reasoning that requiring students to read one book over the summer wouldn’t be enough to stem summer reading loss. The school focused instead on getting students excited about reading so that when they came back in the fall they would be more motivated to learn.
In a recent study published in the Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, Julie McGaha, the assistant principal charged with developing the program and a co-author of the article, writes that the following elements of the program were put in place to encourage student participation based on a thorough review of the research and practices of other schools:
Student choice—Research on adolescent literacy repeatedly emphasizes the importance of student choice in motivating teens to read. In this summer reading program, students chose a book to read from a selection of 5-9 recommended titles. The titles were popular and contemporary rather than from the traditional literary canon. The first year of the program, an administrative team developed a list of 20 titles with teacher feedback. Teachers then were asked to review the list and give their input on making it shorter. In the next year of the program, a book selection committee was created that included teachers, community members, district office staff, and students.
Guaranteed access—The school purchased copies of the recommended titles with state incentive money and offered each student a new copy of the book of their choice. Based on student surveys, receiving a free book was very motivating to students and removed any barriers to access. Each first-period teacher briefly discussed the voluntary summer reading program and book selections with their students. Students picked up their books the last week of school.
Accountability–Given its expenses in funding the program, the school wanted some form of accountability that students had been reading their books. Faculty members were opposed to testing to evaluate students and did not feel that journal or reading logs would sufficiently document participation. The school decided to give students extra credits if they participated in the book discussions on Literacy Day and completed a book project of their choice in the fall. It was felt by faculty that an extra credit option was voluntary and not punitive. Students receive a certificate worth 4 extra credit points which they could apply to their final average in any one class at the end of the first grading period.
Sharing with peers—The school wanted to create an opportunity for students to discuss their books with peers. Administrators scheduled “Literacy Day” in the fall and invited a few of the book authors to talk about their books. Later in the day, students participated in book discussions led by staff members, parents or community volunteers. In surveys about the summer reading program which were completed at the end of Literacy Day, few students cited the ability to share with their peers as one of the features of the program that was most important to them.
Voluntary summer reading programs should play a larger role in schools based on survey responses from students, the authors write.
“Students responded positively regarding the autonomous nature of the program,” the authors write. “We were especially struck by how strongly students felt about having personal choice in their reading material and the ability to have time to read over the summer.”
Some of the top responses from students in the surveys were (based on a scale of 1-6):
I liked that I could read my book at my own pace (5.16)
Having a choice of book was important to me (4.9)
I was motivated to keep reading because I was learning new things. (4.47)
I was motivated to keep reading because the book was interesting. (4.51 )
Receiving a free book made it easier for me to read over the summer (4.2)
In the second year of the program, the administrative team received 1180 student surveys from a total population of 1600 students in grades 10-12. In the third year of the program, enrollment in the school had declined to 1,420 students due to changes in attendance zones in the county. The administrative team received 969 surveys from students.
After the first year of the program, the school was able to obtain financial support from parents and the community to give students free books.
“South High School’s success might seem out of reach for many schools, however, booster clubs, community agencies, and the local businesses are all sources of funding,” the authors write.
“Assessing High School Students’ Reading Motivation in a Voluntary Summer Reading Program,” by Julie McGaha and L. Brent Igo, Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, February 2012, Volume 55, Number 5, pp. 417-427.