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Teaching Summer School? Here’s How to Design an Effective Curriculum

Looking for inspiration for an effective summer school curriculum? Keep reading for practical ideas.

If you’ve ever taught summer school, you know that there aren’t any hard and fast rules for success. In fact, at most schools, either the curriculum is 100% already designed, or it’s 100% up to the teacher’s discretion.

I’ve experienced both scenarios. When I first taught summer school, I designed my curriculum from scratch. More recently, I’ve observed the option of a summer school program completely driven through a computer system:  Apex.

While I see the allure of the computer-based approach and completely understand why districts are adopting it, I still prefer the traditional “teacher as designer” pathway. Summer school curriculum design should be under the teacher’s control. After all, teachers are the experts in the field, and they often have a good idea of why the students were placed their summer school class in the first place.

In this post, I’m providing some guidance about how to effectively set up reading and writing instruction if you have the freedom to do as you please. When we have total control over creating an entire curriculum (even if it is a blessing), it can be overwhelming. As a high school English teacher, I can only speak from the ELA standpoint, but certainly, most of these ideas can be applied to other content areas as well.

Step 1: Identify the learning goals.

Rather than starting by selecting certain pieces of literature or writing assignments, spend some time thinking about the skills you want your students to be able to demonstrate at the end of your summer school program. For example, consider the standards for your course and the main requirements of the regular academic curriculum. If you are teaching a mixed-level summer school program, examine common themes among the curricula of those grade levels. Because time is an issue, prioritize what matters most.


If students are in a remedial summer school program, reading comprehension should be a main focus. 

It’s difficult to know where to start, but zeroing in on the reading comprehension skills of analyzing and summarizing is a good approach because they are instrumental to understanding complex texts. During the regular school year, many students get frustrated with these skills and give up, landing them in summer school. If we provide them with some tools for understanding (by explicitly teaching reading strategies, which might not be a focal point from August to May), we can empower students and hopefully prevent a cycle of continued failure. You can also engage students in meaningful responses to literature, like one pagers.


High school students should demonstrate the ability to write short research papers in summer school.

In terms of writing instruction, choose one genre and stick to it. Struggling writers can get overwhelmed when expected to demonstrate mastery of three different genres in one month’s time. In order for secondary students to pass to the next grade level, they should understand the difference between plagiarizing, summarizing, paraphrasing, and directly quoting research. High school students should also be able to articulate an argument and support it with credible source material. Using a simple writing pre- and post-assessment rubric can help to determine whether students have grown.

Two of my favorite research-based writing units are this argumentative unit and this informative writing photo essay.


Because grammar is an essential component of writing (and because with every year of instruction it becomes more complex), it is important to include in an ELA summer school curriculum.

Time is short, so use a diagnostic and focus on basic grammar elements that students don’t understand. One of the units I always cover is sentence types. Within that unit, we can discuss punctuation, sentence fluency, and writing skills. Students who are moving from one middle or high school grade level to the next should definitely be able to write complete sentences. Commas are another key skill for many secondary classes.

When you are selecting the learning goals for your summer school program, think about the existing curriculum map for that grade level. If you had to choose the three most important skills for students to demonstrate mastery of before moving on, what would they be? We can’t cover everything because of the brevity of summer school. Some concepts must be excluded.

English Language Arts summer school curriculum ideas...start here! #SummerSchool #HighSchoolELA

Step 2: Select specific texts, writing assignments, and assessments.

Once you know your learning goals, you’re ready to select specific assignments. Consider:

Focusing on nonfiction texts. 

While students do sometimes struggle to comprehend fictional texts, it’s usually less of an issue than nonfiction. Fictional texts tend to draw the reader in through an emotional connection, and because of the sequential plot structure, it’s easy to keep track of events in a story. During summer school programs, it might be beneficial to focus on nonfiction texts (through close reading assignments, for example), or to pair high-interest fiction and nonfiction texts together.

When choosing texts, make sure to select pieces that are at the appropriate reading level for your students (which might mean you need to differentiate based on various reading abilities). Selecting texts that are too challenging will frustrate and alienate students who may have entered the summer school classroom with the desire to succeed.

Using short research assignments. 

Rather than asking students to write a full research paper (which time might not allow for), consider having them compose multiple research paragraphs (on different days) that are only one paragraph long. They are quicker to grade, and students can take your feedback and write another paragraph demonstrating a higher level of understanding of the skill(s) in question.

Avoiding worksheet overload. 

It might be psychological, but students groan less about work if traditional worksheets are not a factor. Instead, use try using Google Docs and Slides assignments, video clips, task cards, sorts, choice boards, games, and manipulatives to add variety and differentiation to your instruction.

Using pre- and post-assessments for each skill.

In order to adequately gauge whether or not students have made progress in the summer school program, teachers can use pre- and post-assessments. The assessments should be authentic to the skill in question.

  • For a reading comprehension assessment, the teacher could use retellings or written comprehension questions for a text. (Use the same text for the pre- and post- assessment.)
  • For writing, ask students to write a paragraph (directly correlated to the type of writing you will be covering in the program), and use the same rubric to grade the pre-assessment paragraph and the post-assessment paragraph.
  • For grammar, multiple choice, matching, and short answer questions are generally appropriate (depending on the skills covered) and quick to grade.

Step 3: Consider what instructional approaches would best suit each skill.

Once learning goals, texts, and assessments are identified, choose an instructional approach (or approaches) strategically. Incorporate differentiation whenever possible.

Use scaffolding. 

For instance, when I teach reading comprehension to struggling students at the high school level, I’ve always found it most successful to move from teacher-led instruction to independent practice, both during the regular school year and summer school. As mentioned earlier, make sure the texts you are using and skills you want students to master are developmentally appropriate.

Be realistic. 

Meet students in their zone of proximal development to help them succeed. If a student enters summer school unable to identify a fragment from a complete sentence, it’s unrealistic to ask him or her to identify whether a sentence is simple, compound, complex, or compound-complex by the end of your short time together. Consider where they start, and celebrate growth, even if it’s small.

Flip the learning. 

For grammar, I find using a flipped approach the most beneficial because students can listen to engaging instructional videos at their own pace, rewinding to listen a second or third time, if necessary. I then scaffold that base instruction with practice during class (using a gradual release approach).

Model the skills. 

With regard to writing and research skills, for example, I usually find it beneficial to write an example together as a class, then have students work with a partner, and end with an independent-practice assignment.

Give choices. 

Whenever possible, give students a choice. Let them choose how they want to demonstrate mastery of a skill. Give them two or three options for texts to read and analyze. Ask them if they would rather type their response or hand write it. Allow them to sprawl out on the floor to read the article or story. The more freedom you provide with your instructional approaches, the more buy-in you will notice from students.

To read a different perspective about designing summer school curriculum, visit Lauralee at Language Arts Classroom. If “this” approach doesn’t appeal to you, try “that.”