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Summer Reading, Between the Lines

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Summer reading, I learn, is a very live issue, judging from your responses to my last column about it [Extra Credit, June 7]:

Dear Extra Credit:

I don't see how a school system encourages a love of reading when it doesn't even give kids a list of suggested books with enticing descriptions. Many kids need intensive encouragement to read. We have found reading requirements to be very effective, so long as the child has some latitude in selecting the books.

The Arlington public school system publishes a summer recommended reading list only for middle-schoolers. As a parent, I love and collect such lists. For middle-schoolers, it can be hard to find appropriate literature that is interesting and engaging, and I have trouble keeping up with new books and writers that kids enjoy.

And then I have to think of the appropriate inducements to get my kids to actually read.

What has been truly surprising has been the number of teachers, and even librarians, at all grade levels who really don't seem to be very conversant about children's literature, particularly if you venture beyond the hoary classics and ask about the books the kids are reading or current literature that is marketed to the kids they teach.

Many don't seem to have read anything beyond what they use in class. The few who are enthusiastic readers of current children's literature have an infectious ability to inspire their students to read.

The Arlington middle schools have summer reading homework assignments, typically involving reading a book from the list and creating a "book response," which can be a review, a book jacket, a poster, a reading response, designing a game, etc. I wish the kids did have mandatory summer reading and even more writing assignments, if only keeping a journal of their reading. Their friends in private schools do, and over the many years of middle and high school, it gives them a big edge. The material they are expected to read often is more challenging as well.

Linda Arnsbarger

Arlington

I like your journal idea. It allows the child to reflect on what he or she has read in an individual way. See the last letter below for a very different teaching method.

Dear Extra Credit:

I am currently employed at Montgomery County public schools as a resource teacher for the English Department. When I read in your column that the type of summer reading I assign was accused of lacking guidance and "lowering the bar," I found it unfortunate that people who are not involved in classroom teaching on a daily basis feel as if they can speak empathetically about what happens in schools.

Even if the reader has children or is a private school teacher, that provides no experience of what public school teachers are working with in schools. As a public school teacher, we must service students of all backgrounds; this includes various value systems, as well as ethnicity and race. There are students who will read four and five books a month, and then there are students who have no intentions of picking up a book, even during the school semester.

As public school teachers, we don't have the same luxury as parents to work one-on-one with a child, or the luxury of schools where all students have a common focus such as religion or college preparation.

If we focus only on the college-preparatory students, we will leave many struggling students behind. Therefore, as teachers seek to prepare assignments that will encourage all students to read, we approach the issue with flexibility to encourage students to experience pleasure when reading so that they might be interested enough to indulge their teachers in reading during the school semester.

Lisa Shorts

Montgomery County

Well said. In this case, however, you don't need to worry much about the college-prep students. Their parents will make sure they are reading. That might leave you more time for some helpful one-on-one with children whose parents are too busy paying the rent to give reading the attention it needs.

Dear Extra Credit:

Things are not always as they seem. The summer reading for rising ninth-graders in Fairfax is only one book, but:

My daughter will be going into ninth grade at Annandale in the fall and just received her notice of the book she must read. It is "The Odyssey."

Now it is true that one book is not much for a summer, even if it is "The Odyssey," and my daughter will certainly be reading many, many more books over the summer. But along with the notice of which book she had to read was a list of over 100 questions that she needed to answer and about 100 literary terms that she needed memorize and familiarize herself with.

We need to remember that there is a difference between reading and learning. I think this is a case where less is really more.

Ray Diroll

North Springfield

I was going to cheer Annandale High, one of my favorite schools, for going with "The Odyssey." It is a classic, important both in literature and history, and I think within the range for a ninth-grader. But the 100 questions and 100 literary terms killed it for me. The great teachers who have influenced me say that is not a good approach. I would love to hear from those who think I am wrong.

Mea Culpa

Oops: Last week, I failed to correct Marcy Newberger's letter as she asked me to: She hoped her son could take honors history, not English.

Also, a change I tried to make did not appear in all of the Extras: The most common Advanced Placement courses for ninth- and 10th-graders are geography and world history.

Please send your questions, along with your name, e-mail or postal address and telephone number, to Extra Credit, The Washington Post, 526 King St., Suite 515, Alexandria, Va. 22314. Or e-mailextracredit@washpost.com.

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