Every spring, my kids beg me for their summer reading lists early. And, no, our television isn’t broken.

Summer is made for reading

Years ago, I listened to a Freakonomics podcast on the value of incentives. It got me thinking: How can I help my kids unplug from video games and challenge themselves over the summer? What are potential areas for growth (ahem, geography), natural areas of interest (such as computer programming), life skills (hint: bake a pie!), or extra chores we could tackle (time to finally scrub that grout)?

Granted, some of my kids would do for free (like baking pies and coding) what the others might require a little convincing to do (such as geography workbooks and grout). Even then, how much would it be worth to me to create a meaningful summer experience that benefits my child and that is largely kid-driven?

Let’s hover over those last words for a moment: largely kid-driven. We’ll come back to them in a moment. Plus, I have a present for you in a couple of sections, so read on.

Keep summer reading fun

By the end of the school year, the last thing any of us wants – whether parent or student – is more school. It’s more work for all of us. Incentives come in handy here when trying to get your kids to continue learning over the summer.

Yes, I realize incentives are a sensitive topic, and I devote much more time to unpacking them in my book, Homeschool Like an Expert. For the sake of time, however, let’s say that if you are uncomfortable with cash prizes, consider alternatives such as:

  • earning extra tech time
  • a special ice cream date with Mom or Dad or
  • points toward a fun family outing.

Reading has always been at the core of our summer. When I was a kid, my parents would assign me a total number of pages to read each summer. I kept track of the titles and page count and, if I met my goal, earned a $10 prize. (Yes, it was the 80s and that was a lot of money for me.)

Read carefully

When I became a parent, I adopted their idea and took it a step further. Every spring, I curate a reading list for each of our children by digging through curricula, state reading requirements, and award winners (such as the Caldecott and Newberry Awards). If I am unfamiliar with titles on the list, I read a review of the book to make sure my child is emotionally ready for the content – especially reviews, such as Plugged In, which give me enough details to make my own informed decision.

Let’s pause here because this is a super important step. Some award-winning classics have very mature topics – such as depression, violence, death, and suicide – even though they are targeted at young readers. (For various reasons, schools often assign our teens an excessive amount of books with dark themes when they are already struggling with ups and downs – but that’s another article for another time.) When it comes to reading suggestions, it’s up to us as parents to determine when we think our children are ready for these topics and how to introduce them.

As I build our book lists, my goal is to provide a diverse spectrum of books across genres, styles and subject areas that are either at or slightly above my child’s reading level. Remember, I want to stretch him, not crush him. I want him to discover new interests and see the world through new eyes by reading books he might not have found independently. After all, the public library is a big place. As our child’s tour guide, I picture myself pausing at landmarks of great books that make our summer adventure meaningful.

Read freely

Ready for that present I mentioned earlier? As a former teacher, I’ve done the work of making lists and charts – for the early reader through high school – that are all you need to start your summer reading program. Plus, it’s free. I won’t even ask for your email. (Though, if you find the tools helpful, please consider sharing this article with your friends and signing up for the Homeschool Expert newsletter for more free tips and tools.)

Summer reading tools

These summer reading tools work for all ages and temperaments – I developed them for each of my four children (who have various strengths and special learning needs) and have used every chart with every child during different seasons.

  • Checkoff Grid
    Want to check a box to show your child has read a book? Check out the Checkoff Grid.

  • The Reading Record
    Want a place for your child to keep track of titles and page counts? The Reading Record is your friend.

  • The Goal Setting Outline
    Want to stretch your reader a bit more into selecting books across a variety of genres? The Goal Setting Outline is super handy.

  • For the Love of Reading
    For the Love of Reading is a summer reading list of books I have enjoyed with my children and recommend to my friends.

    By arranging the books into categories, we encourage our child’s independence, autonomy and ability to choose. By providing categories in the first place, we create a helpful structure that guides our children toward great books and makes the most of their summer learning. (Plus, whatever titles she picks off the list are a win, as far as I am concerned, because I wrote the summer reading list!)

    Beyond the list, if my child finds books at the library that she wants to swap out for a title I’ve assigned, I’m open to discussing it. As I’ve said before, the library is a big place, and this is one of those great “life lesson” moments when we get to teach our kids how to find great books by first developing an appetite for them.

When to start summer reading?

Studies show time and time again that one of the best ways we can help our kids is to encourage reading, so we start our family reading program as early as preschool. When I had non-readers, we used the Checkoff Grid, and we signed a box every time we read a book together.

As our household grew to include young readers and non-readers, I added goals to the older kids’ summer reading program to read picture books aloud to the little ones. In doing this, my older kids developed oratory skills, my younger kids enjoyed more books, siblings bonded, and I became a less necessary piece of that machinery – it was a win-win.

Largely kid-driven

This independence brings me back to that phrase we hovered over earlier: largely kid-driven. When we give our kids specific goals, provide them with manageable tools, and incentivize them in meaningful ways (whether it’s prizes, payment or an experience to look forward to together), our summer reading bus essentially drives itself. And, with the advent of e-readers, sometimes I don’t even need to drive my kids to the library.

Please understand, I am not advocating for lazy parenting. (If anything, I suspect this article has confirmed otherwise.) Instead, I recognize our need to meet two goals:

  1. First, as parents, we need to recover from the school year. No matter what kind of schooling we give our kids, we need a summer break.

  2. Second, our long-term goal as a parent should be to work ourselves out of a job – to train, provide for and propel our kids in a way that will ultimately enable them to do life for themselves.

In the end, all this makes for engaged, successful, satisfied kids plus a happy mama getting a much-needed break – and all that adds up to the best summer ever.

Related resources

Anne Crossman is the founder of Homeschool Expert. A former homeschooler, she went on to attend Stanford and Duke Universities, taught in public high schools and military barracks, published four bestselling books on education, and has homeschooled her four children since 2006. Anne believes there is more than one way to get a great education and created Homeschool Expert to make free and affordable resources available to all families. Check out Homeschool Expert for access to free videos, articles, podcasts, and printables.

© 2021 Anne Crossman. All rights reserved. Used with permission. Originally published at FocusOnTheFamily.com.

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