On these last days of summer vacation, are you outside playing in the pool, hitting a baseball or honing your soccer skills? Or are you holed up in your room trying to get your summer reading done?

If you left your vacation reading until the last minute, you're probably not alone. Even kids who love to read may put off assigned books and choose lighter reading material like comic books or mysteries to take along on vacation.

If you're facing a pile of paperbacks that you have to read and understand before you can look your teacher in the eye, it's time to get busy! School starts this week in Maryland and the District, and next week in Virginia.

If you're feeling overwhelmed, break the reading assignment down into small sections. Just read a chapter at a time, and then take a break. Some readers find it helps to set a timer, and to keep reading until the bell rings. Then take a quick break. You might find that the book is so interesting that you want to keep on going after the timer dings. If so, go for it!

Do you find reading to yourself boring or difficult? Try reading short sections of the book aloud to a family member or a good friend. Then ask your reading partner to read the next section to you. You can get through a book pretty quickly that way.

Some schools require summer reading; others strongly encourage it. For example, kids entering fifth grade at Sidwell Friends, a private school in the District, are required to read "Frindle" by Andrew Clements, which is about a student's turning the tables on a fifth grade teacher who loves the dictionary. Sidwell Friends sixth graders are reading "Stepping on the Cracks" by Mary Downing Hahn, a story set during World War II that concerns a familiar middle school problem: how to deal with the school bully.

At Cabin John Middle School in Montgomery County, English teachers want students to enjoy summer reading. They believe the secret to that is choosing the books yourself--with your parents' approval. Students at Cabin John are required to read two self-selected books during the summer and write a summary of each one. They can choose from a list of interesting books.

If you're entering sixth grade, among the suggestions is Judy Blume's "As Long as We're Together," a story about what happens when a best-friend pair tries to make room for a third. Nonfiction readers might enjoy "Over the Top of the World," in which Will Steger tells about trekking across the Arctic.

In the District, Reading Is Fundamental (RIF), an organization that reaches millions of children and families around the country with reading-motivation programs, teamed up with Scholastic Books for a "Sizzling Summer Books" program that distributed 250,000 free volumes in the city. Every D.C. public elementary school student could choose three age-appropriate titles for summertime reading.

Summer reading is one of those things that all kids think about. For some, it's a breeze, and the books are read by the end of June. For others, it can be a chore--but it's an important way to develop your skills and keep your mind alert during the summer months.

By the way, did you know that kid-friendly author Jon Scieszka, author of "The Stinky Cheese Man," wrote a book called "Summer Reading Is Killing Me"? Scieszka, a former teacher, got the idea from his own fifth grader, who didn't want to carry a book along on vacation. The heroes of "Summer Reading" have adventures with characters from a lost summer reading list. More than 40 familiar children's book characters show up! If you have already finished your assigned reading, this book will make you chuckle. If you haven't, better save this funny book to read another day.

Tips for Parents

As the school year begins, the experts at Reading Is Fundamental provide a few tips for encouraging your children to make books an essential part of their lives:

* Help your kids fit reading into the busy school year schedule. Set aside time every day to read for pleasure. Just 10 to 15 minutes before bedtime can make a difference in how well and how willingly a child reads.

* Notice something that particularly interests your child--perhaps something he or she mentions having learned at school. Help find books on the subject to read or talk about together.

* Make sure there's plenty to read in your home. Visit the library. Let your kids order paperbacks from a book club. Poke through the bins at yard sales. And think of books for gift-giving occasions.

* Don't stop reading aloud. The older your children are, the more reading they have to do for school. Sometimes the last thing they want to do is open another book.

For more information, write to RIF, 600 Maryland Ave. SW, Suite 600, Washington, DC 20024, or visit the program on the Web at www.rif.org.

For You to Do

As you do your summer reading, keep track of the characters and events in a pocket notebook. Jot down your own ideas and feelings about what you're reading, too. Don't worry about grammar and handwriting. This reading journal is just for you. When you're asked to write a report on your summer reading, you can refer to your notes to help get the assignment done. If you prefer, make a tape recording of your thoughts about the book. Or draw pictures and diagrams to remind you of what happened in the story and how you felt about it.