A few weeks ago, Time.com published “What Schools Can Do to Help Boys Succeed” by Christina Hoff Summers. There was nothing startling or new, just the observation that boys are more active than girls and think differently. The second of her three suggestions sparked my interest, however: “Turn boys into readers.”
Turning young people, male and female, into readers is more of a challenge than it was in the past. The new technologies offer many alternatives. Watching films, once a special occasion requiring a trip out of the home, is now an on-demand feature of daily life, from Youtube to Netflix to who knows what else that I haven’t kept up with. Games, once requiring a coordination of schedules among friends, can be played alone or with anyone available on-line at any time. The attraction of sitting alone quietly reading non-mobile black letters on a white page, even an electronic page, pales in comparison.
Hoffman points out, and I doubt there is much disagreement, that good reading skills are critical to both academic and workplace success. But there is a large and growing gap in skills between boys and girls, as evidenced by the fact that more women complete college degrees and graduate degrees. Assuming that both genders are required to do the same amount of reading for classes in primary and secondary schools, the difference may well be in the amount of independent or “pleasure” reading.
Reading as a chosen activity for “free” time may be more appealing to girls than to boys, who are more inclined to physical activity. (I know I am generalizing, but bear with me). But I think the real problem lies with the reading material. Hoffman’s article points to a study showing that girls prefer fiction, magazines, blogs and poetry; boys like comics, nonfiction and newspapers. My own experience as a bookseller bears that out.
Our school district seems to have universally imposed a 20-minute a night “pleasure” reading requirement on the elementary and middle school students. Many late afternoons bring mothers and children to my shop, looking for a book the child will enjoy while being forced to read. I’m sure that some good will come of this, and I do my best to make suggestions that will turn the homework requirement into an anticipated joy. The girls are much more willing to try something unfamiliar. The boys are pretty firm in rejecting suggestions, but a little unclear about what they would like. The mothers reject the “comics” (graphic novels) that appeal to them, and even the nonfiction must have a lot of action to get a glance from the boys. It is unfortunate that some really good fiction now available for middle grade boys (and girls), such as Rick Riordan’s Heroes of Olympus series, gets rejected as being “too long.”
An incident my sister related to me illustrates how the most reluctant reader can be turned into an enthusiast with a little creativity from teacher or parent. She teaches Special Ed, and had a student who had no interest in developing his reading skills; nothing appealed. As she listened to him talk to other students, she became aware of his keen interest in sports. So every morning she brought the Sports section of the local newspaper to class for him. Once he discovered the amount of information and opinion about his favorite topic available, he couldn’t wait for each day’s news. And reading the newspaper lead to a comfort with reading other material. He knew he could do it.
I make a suggestion to parents who come in to my shop with reluctant readers, and it works with boys as well as girls. It’s been pretty well established that children in homes with a wide selection of books, and parents who are readers, are more likely to become avid readers themselves. Too many parents, even those with the best intentions, have little time to read for pleasure themselves, and so the “modeling” is not done. I would bet that most of these parents read bedtime stories to their children when they were toddlers. And the children were not reluctant then. Yes, the reading is good for the child, but the appeal is the physical closeness and the full attention of the parent. It seems that once school starts, the child learns to read, and this bedtime sharing stops. Why not continue?
When my son was in elementary and middle school (pretty much up until the time the hormones started), we read together. In the evening, he would read me a chapter, and I would read him a chapter. If Dad was not traveling, there were three chapters. I think the appeal was more than the books; it was the sitting together on the sofa, paying attention to each other rather than the televison, and sharing an experience. After we finished The Trumpet of the Swan, we all walked around for days laughing “Ko-hoh! Ko-hoh!” The books became part of our shared history.
When a school librarian suggested Redwall to me as I made that difficult search for books a boy would like, my son was 10 and I thought it might be a little advanced. But we gave it a try, And something miraculous happened. He stretched to keep up with his parents’ reading skills. And then he decided that he wanted to read the rest of the series, and was not going to be slowed down to two or three chapters a night. We would have to find something else to read together; he took off on his own with the denizens of Redwall Abbey and hasn’t stopped reading since. Now that he is an adult, I’ve hooked him on crime fiction, but that’s another blog post.
A child, boy or girl, may be reluctant to read, but is unlikely to be reluctant to have the full attention of one or both parents. When I suggest to parents having difficulty getting their boys to sit for twenty minutes to read at night that sharing it with them is better than nagging (and actually requires less energy), they are amazed that they hadn’t thought of it. I’ve been getting feedback indicating that there has been some success.
Of course, this gives me another problem, and I was glad to see that the Time.com article had a suggestion I, too could use. Lists of books that boys like are available on Guysread.com. It is organized by subject matter rather than grade level, but when the seeker clicks on a title, the age level is available along with a summary, page count, and rating by other users of the site. This site has become a great resource for me for ordering purposes. It is also a great resource for the young reader; a boy can go there to see what other “guys” are reading, know that “guys read,” and bring his own requests to the bookshop. They’re even on Twitter!
So if you’re struggling with that reluctant young male reader, go to Guysread.com, let him choose something that sparks his interest, visit you local bookshop, and sit down to read together. It’s a very pleasant experience.