Thursday, April 4, 2013

Getting Boys Into Reading: Ideas, Books & Resources

For a long time we've known that girls make a faster start in reading in the early years. In the last 2-3 decades the gap between the literacy achievements of boys and girls has widened in favour of girls. Professor William G. Brozo who is co-author of the book 'Bright beginnings for boys' shared this summary of boys' literacy achievements (primarily American data) at an American Literacy conference in October 2008:
  • By grade 4 an average boy is two years behind an average girl in reading and writing
  • Boys make up 70% of special education classes
  • Boys are four times more likely to have ADHD
  • Boys are 50% more likely to repeat a grade than girls
  • Boys are three times more likely to be placed in a reading disability or learning class
So we know we have a problem, but what do we do about it?

Helping boys to become readers

Before sharing a list of specific hints, here is what I see as four fundamental building blocks to get boys reading:

1. Boys are more likely to be attracted to books and reading when the books and the reading events (whether at school, or reading with mum and dad) offer opportunities to discover, experiment, explore, learn new things, make them laugh, consider the curious or unusual, help them to play, see how things work, share trivia tricks and facts with other boys, explore the unknown, and generally do interesting things (see my previous post on this topic here).

2. Boys need to understand the value of story and storytelling from an early age. This can be acquired through early books, the stories you share with them (anecdotes, memories, tall tales etc), traditional stories and fantasy. Until boys value story, they will struggle to cope with reading.

3. Fathers and mothers need to learn how to listen to and read with their sons. Reading to and with boys is often different. You sometimes have to work harder to make it enjoyable. It mustn't be boring or a chore. See my previous post on this topic (here).

4. Fathers have a key role to play in boys literacy and learning development (see my post on research in this area here).

At a more basic level:
  • Boys need a lot of help choosing books that they will not only like, but which they will be able to read. Take the time to help your sons choose books, if they pick up a book with an exciting cover and find that they can't read it this will be a disincentive.
  • Fathers have a special role to play in encouraging boys to see reading as a worthwhile pursuit. Fathers who read will have sons who read. Fathers need to read to and with their sons. A good way to do this with older boys who struggle is to read the first few pages aloud and then ask your son to read on. In this way you'll find that your son can read for longer and cope with harder books.
  • Don't forget the importance of non-fiction. Boys want to learn and non-fiction is often a good way in. Try books about sea creatures, space, sport, transport, technology of any kind (see previous post here). There are varied paths into reading (see previous post here).
  • There is also a place for riddles, joke books, cartoons, poetry and silly rhymes (see my post on this here).
  • Comics and magazines are also a good place to start - get them reading. But don’t forget that it is the quality of the story that will ultimately motivate boys to want to read and so quality literature is important to develop long-term readers (see previous post here).
  • Online reading and research is also a good source of reading challenge for boys.
I hope I haven't given the impression above that only fathers can motivate boys to read. Let's face it, more often than not it is mothers who read more stories to their younger children. But there is an important place for men reading books to and with boys, and research evidence shows that fathers have a key role to play with boys' literacy and learning (see my previous post on this here).

Some sure fire starters for young boys

If you can't get your 3-5 year old boy to listen to a story try one of these ideas to turn this around:

1. Read a book dramatically that lends itself to lots of action, loud noises and maybe a rumble half way through (when the wolf eats Grandma, or the boy gets falls out of the tree). Be dramatic, get their attention!

2. Read a story that they've heard before but mess up the story line as you go along. This is probably how writers invented fractured fairy tales. For example:

The first little pig built his house from straw, but he wasn't stupid, so he used super glue to hold the straw together. The wolf knocked at the door and said, "Little pig, little pig, let me come in." The pig replied, "No, no, no, I've used super glue, get lost." "Then I'll huff and I'll puff and I'll blow you're house down," roared the wolf. "Two chances wolfey, get lost" and so on. It doesn't matter if the story logic breaks down, they will still love it anyway.

3. A simpler version of the above is just to change the odd word. Boys (and girls) love listening for the words you change. They will roar 'Hey, you changed it from dog to frog'! To which you reply, 'Did I?' Even a story with some limitations will suddenly become more interesting.

4. Get out some dress-up clothes and get them involved in acting out the story. Try to involve all members of the family and have lots of fun. You can sacrifice the accuracy of the story in favour of having a great time. Creative and dramatic play based on stories can be a great motivator for story.

Some Great Books for Boys 

I've written a number of posts on good books for boys (including here, here & here), so I won't repeat them here, except to list just 18 wonderful books to read to and enjoy with boys. These books will rarely fail if you read them with boys aged 7-12 years and do it with excitement and passion.

'The One and Only Ivan' by Katherine Applegate (2012)
'Dragonkeeper' by Carole Wilkinson (2003) [And other books in the Dragonkeeper series]
'Boy: Tales of Childhood' by Roald Dahl (1984)
'Prince Caspian' by C.S. Lewis (1951)
'A Monster Calls' illustrated by Jim Kay and written by Patrick Ness (2012) 
'The Hobbit' by J.R. Tolkien (1937)
'Crow Country' by Kate Constable, Allen & Unwin
'The Silver Donkey' by Sonya Hartnett (2004)
'Rowan of Rin' by Emily Rodda (1993)
'The Machine Gunners' by Robert Westall (1975)
'Strange Objects' by Gary Crewe (1990)
'The Iron Man' by Ted Hughes (1968, new edition 2010)
'The Pinballs' by Betsy Byars (1977)
'Watership Down' by Richard Adam (1972)
'The Adventures of Tom Sawyer' by Mark Twain (1876) 'A Wrinkle in Time' by Madeleine L'Engle (1962)
'The Wheel on the School' by Meindert DeJong (1972)
'Incident at Hawk's Hill' by Allan W. Eckert (1971)
'Vinnie's War' by David McRobbie (2011)

A final comment on literature

As I've stressed above, while it isn't essential for children to begin reading via books or fiction, there is a critical place for traditional forms like children's literature because of the importance of narrative to people. What I'm saying is that while boys might start reading in many different ways, they shouldn't be allowed to avoid the narrative form. As I commented in the third part of a series of posts on the 'Power of Literature' (here) I believe that while it is possible to learn to read without a rich tradition of books and literature, I would argue that it isn’t possible without a foundation of narrative and story. Why? Expert in narrative Harold Rosen offers the perfect answer to my question:
Narratives in all their diversity and multiplicity make up the fabric of our lives; they are constitutive moments in the formation of our identities and our sense of community affiliation.
We build our relationships with one another, share our humanity through the stories we tell about our own lives and those that we have heard from others. So our aim in using factual forms of reading, and alternative forms like graphic novels and factual texts is of worth in it's own right, but it shouldn't completely replace rich narrative forms like literature.

Some books about Boys and reading

Some of the following books offer good general advice about boys and reading

'Bright beginnings for boys: Engaging young boys in active literacy', Debby Zambo and William G. Brozo, International Literacy Association
'Pam Allyn's Best Books for Boys', Pam Allyn which I reviewed here
'The trouble with boys', Peg Tyre
'Best books for boys: A resource for educators', Matthew D. Zbaracki
'Raising bookworms: Getting kids reading for pleasure and empowerment', Emma Hamilton
'The Reading Bug', Paul Jennings

Other Resources

All my posts on boys and education (here)
'Making Reading Exciting for Boys' (here)
'Guys Read Website' - I don't like the design of this site but it has a great set of links to authors who write books that boys might like.
The UK Literacy Trust has a great list of resource links dealing with boys and literacy (here).
The Hamilton Public Library in Canada has a useful site with some good booklists and advice (here)
Max Elliot Anderson's blog 'Books for Boys' has some very useful material and links (here)
You can read all of my posts on boys (here) and boys education (here) using these links.
Family Action Centre at Newcastle University has an Excellent Fatherhood Network and many programs (here)


Cid and Mo said...

Excellent advice for how to help boys get into reading. All too often it is boys who fall into the reluctant reader trap at the end of Key Stage 1 when they become too old for picture books but are not yet ready for the standard A5 novel. Good role models and the right texts are vital if a they are to make good progress in reading. As the Department for Education rightly points out, reading ability is a more important determinant to children's success than their family's socio-economic status.

Jen Robinson said...

Great stuff, Trevor, as usual. I especially like your points about the involvement of fathers, and the importance of narrative.

Fiona Ingram said...

Excellent article. Hopefully this will inspire parents, especially fathers, to read more with their kids.

Carole P. Roman said...

I am an avid reader, but my boys were not. Their father doesn't like to read at all. When they were young, I found that they liked reading aloud together. There is a five year age gap between them. I tried to pick action, but oddly enough, I found they both loved Shakespeare. We spent hours defining meanings and they recognized many expressions (a pound of flesh) that was familiar to them. They delighted in it's source. When they became adults, they both ended up choosing non-fiction as a choice of reading matter for themselves. I don't care, a book is a book.( Or for that matter, A rose by any other name...) I am delighted to see them read to their own children with drama and swagger. Maybe it wasn't the material, but the delivery in which they received it.

Trevor Cairney said...

Thanks everyone for your generous comments. Glad the post struck a chord with you all. I'm also pleased that your experiences also match mine in relation to the importance of role models and finding exciting ways to get children into narrative and language. Carole I hope you've read my post on Shakespeare (a few weeks ago HERE). Trevor

Carole P. Roman said...

Thanks for the note, Trevor. You are so right. I went to a theater called Stratford on Avon in Conn. in the US when I was in grade school. They made special morning performances for schoolchildren and it was a whole day affair. We would see the bard's plays, and then have to write about it. I don't know if they are still in business, but it was a highlight of my youth. I went maybe eight times, and only once did the actor interrupt his performance due to ill behaved children. I remember being ashamed for my rude classmate. We were lucky to see something special and I was overjoyed to be included. It remains one of the best memories of my youth.

Anonymous said...

My wife tells me that it's common for parents to read more to their daughters than to her sons, and I find myself falling into that trap too with my son. I don't read to him as much as I read to my daughter (although part of the reason is that it's hard to find time with 2 kids).

He's a rough-and-tumble kid, and it's easy to start thinking that he's not the "type" to read. Boys are doing worse in school these days, and it's important that we, as parents, try to reverse this at an early age.

Here's a poem written from the perspective of a little boy:

Terri Little said...

The statistics you provided are eye-opening. The large percentage of boys being in special education classes, having ADHD, and being repeaters makes you think- “What can I do to change these statistics? You mention that boys need to see their fathers read. Is this the key to closing the literacy and achievement gap between boys and girls between the haves and the have nots? I do not think the interests of boys will ever change. When boys visit the library with their classes they often ask for joke books, car books, and sports books. Much of this reading is only because of weekly library visits with a teacher. Many of these boys will just check the book out and never read one page. Maybe replacing missing fathers is the key to developing a love of reading in boys. As you mentioned, most mothers are reading to their boys. I wonder if reading programs like father and son days during the elementary school years, the middle school years, and throughout high school would help increase literacy among our boys. Even if the father is not active in the student’s life, a grandfather, a brother, or an uncle could have the same positive effect as the real father.