Here Come the Boys

My goodness. Boys. We don’t quite know what to do with them. As recently as February this year the What Kids Are Reading 2012 report by Professor Keith Topping found that the level of difficulty of the books read by boys was no longer lower than that of the girls, whereas The Boys’ Reading Commission findings published this week reveal that three out of four (76%) UK schools are concerned about boys’ underachievement in reading. Last year an estimated 60,000 boys failed to reach the expected level in reading at age 11.

The all-party Parliamentary Literacy Group Commission’s report compiled by the National Literacy Trust reveals that the “reading gender gap” is widening and says action needs to be taken in homes, schools and communities, with recommendations including boys having weekly access to male reading role models.

The problem with politicians and survey findings of course is that a) they always want action but have no idea what it should be, b) they want a quick fix when it almost never exists, and c) they usually believe the solution lies in introducing a new test, or the revision of an old test, or a compulsory ‘reading hour’ or some such, all of which are only likely to compound the problem.

My own experiences over a long number of years as a reader, a father and an English teacher lead me to believe that the problem is not so clear-cut as the figures suggest, but nonetheless there are some measures which can sensibly be taken to encourage reading, especially among boys.

Finding Positive Role Models

One of the more constructive suggestions of the Commission’s report is that boys need strong male role models. There is no escaping the fact that most teachers, especially in the primary sector, are women, and many boys have no positive male role models in their lives. Schools should go out of their way to find strong male readers in the community, whether they are parents, local sportsmen, community artists or whatever, and invite them to conduct reading sessions in school. I saw a suggestion on Twitter recently that men should consider volunteering to read to boys in their local school, but the initiative has to come from the school. Having created an ethos where adult males seeking involvement in their local school are often treated with suspicion, we need to take steps to redress the balance.

The Teacher as Learner/Reader

Teachers – male and female – must realise that first and foremost they themselves have to be a reader and a role model. Too often I meet teachers who have hardly picked up a book since they graduated from college or university. They should be immersed in books and reading, and it should be a frequent topic for discussion. This means that, apart from adult fiction and current literature relating to their own professional development, they should constantly be seeking out and reading books relating to the age group for which they have responsibility. This will often mean reading material which would not necessarily have been their own choice by instinct.

To understand how important this is, and how to make it happen, one text which should be on every teacher’s list is The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller.

Finding the Right Materials

In my experience, when it comes to reading in schools, the emphasis is firmly on the reading of fiction. There needs to be much more of a balance. While fiction of course is important in so many ways, boys often favour non-fiction, and given a choice when visiting the library will overwhelmingly go for factual material, yet when it comes to the serious study of texts in the classroom, fiction wins out every time. We need to provide good quality non-fiction material, including biography, which will engage those who demand the facts!. Teachers should also consider seriously the place of comic books and graphic novels, both of which play an important part in in the development of boys’ reading but are often ignored, or even more bizarrely dismissed, as an inferior form of storytelling. Speaking as an adult male reader, my own preference is to read fiction and non-fiction texts more or less alternately.

(see Literacy Adviser book lists for 10-14 year olds here

Embracing New Technologies

While many of us still prefer to pick up a paper book, especially when it is a picture book or one that has particular aesthetic appeal, new technologies have resulted in a revival of interest in reading for many adults, and the advent of the eReader presents new opportunities for a new generation. Boys love gadgets, so why not take advantage of these new technologies to introduce them to texts which they might otherwise ignore. If you can’t afford a class set of Kindles or iPads, buy one or two and direct them specifically at those boys who don’t think reading is cool but think that machines are. The more gadgetry the better. Repeat after me – playing with gadgets and reading are not mutually exclusive.

Timing is All

The thing about reading is that there is a time and a place, and that time and place is different for every individual. I have followed some very interesting discussions recently on the blogosphere on the place of silent reading in the classroom, the pros and cons, the optimal amount of time to spend and so on (see Kenny Pieper and David Didau in particular) This is a hugely complex issue depending on so many variables, including those already mentioned above. One thing of which I am fairly certain, and that is we are too often asking young people – especially boys – to read at the wrong time, a time which suits us rather than them. Silent reading is something which requires full attention and the right conditions, which are extremely difficult to replicate in a classroom full of tightly-packed bodies. Reading aloud, when done well and with the right texts, can motivate and engage even the most reluctant reader, but moving them from there to reading willingly on their own is a different matter. Another factor which is often overlooked, is that most boys need to be moving around and doing something physical before turning to more cerebral matters. I know that most of my reading is done after exercise, and not before it, when I find it more difficult to concentrate. Perhaps there is something to be learned here by anyone planning a learning timetable.

Reading Doesn’t Have to Involve Writing

One of the surest ways to kill an interest in reading, especially among boys, is to insist that every time someone reads a book they have to write a review, or a ‘critical evaluation’. To develop a genuine love of reading, young people need to be encouraged to TALK about books, read aloud and listen to extracts from the best writers, and make recommendations to each other. If you do want them to be writing about their reading, make it less formal and with a real purpose, such as a discussion forum in the form of a class blog or wiki.

(see for example Kenny Pieper’s 1B2’s Bookworms Blog)

The Library as the Beating Heart of the School

The school library should be the learning hub from which all else emanates, the librarian a thorough professional and integral part of the learning team, not simply someone who issues books and collects fines. Too often, when budget cuts are being considered, it is the library which suffers first. In too many schools restrictive practices reinforce the notion that reading is something for a privileged elite, and boys are made less welcome because they are seen as boisterous and ill-disciplined. This can be witnessed most often when a teacher and/or librarian expects a prolonged period of silent reading without first cultivating the environment for this to happen. A more productive use of library time is to explore, discuss books and work with individuals to find the right connections – the right book at the right time – a key role of the teacher/librarian.

Finally, a word of advice to politicians. The world moves on, times change. Perhaps it’s time for you to revise and expand your definition of ‘reading’ to include all forms of reading, especially as it relates to moving image, transmedia and web-based texts. Who knows, when you do this you might discover that in fact there isn’t such a gender gap after all

Read previous post Boys Will Be Boys here.

11 thoughts on “Here Come the Boys

  1. Bill, Thank you for this posting! I am a librarian in an all-boys school in the U.S. and I must say that our boys do read. Our blog includes some lists of what they chose this past year that may be helpful to others. For Form A scroll down to December:; Form B, and our book club,

    Your list of books is very helpful and I am so glad to add this link to our pages!

    Tina H.

  2. Hi Tina,
    Thanks for looking in and thanks for the links. It’s always interesting to look at what others are reading especially in another part of the world. As you can probably guess from the blogpost I’m not really convinced that boys don’t read, just that they often have different preferences. I would be interested to know whether attending a single-sex school has any influence on reading development – a whole other research topic!

    Best wishes

  3. Hi Bill!
    Really interesting post. I was often heard to. Say that even if it was the back of a cereal packet, get them reading. I agree that stats & surveys can give us data but often the ‘solutions’ that come along with them are not appropriate to the whole picture. I love the idea of the library at the heart of a school but I suspect many have been taken over by IT and budgets are no longer focused on buying books.
    It needs a focus on reading across the piste rather than keeping on that the poor boys!

  4. Hi Julia,
    I think the library v tech debate is a false one. The library should be a multimedia centre where ‘books’ come in all forms. Similarly, if ICT is seen as separate from, rather than an integral part of, the curriculum, it can lead to fights over budget. In terms of the whole gender gap issue, I’m not sure how much of a gender gap there actually is – it may be more of a perception than a reality- and I am also aware that constantly bringing attention to it can potentially make matters worse. In an ideal world, and by extension an ideal school environment, boys and girls would be treated in exactly the same way.
    Thanks for your contribution,

  5. Bill, this is a great post where you have pulled together so many of the things we say about promoting reading in schools. Good role models are essential – we’ve been working hard to promote the idea of ‘teachers as readers’ and always ask our Subject Leaders to come to INSET sessions with a children’s book to recommend to others. A ‘read aloud curriculum’ is another thing that we’ve been working on in Coventry – getting our schools to list the books that they want all children to hear read aloud before they leave the school. School libraries are key; isn’t it sad that prisoners are entitled to a library but children aren’t – how can that be right! Like you we want them to be multi-media hubs – getting folks to realise that reading from a screen is reading is, we think, is one of our next challenges.
    Rachel Clarke, Coventry Primary English Consultant

    • Thank you for the kind words Rachel, and good to hear that what I’m saying makes sense from a primary perspective since my own background is in secondary English teaching. Much of my focus now is in what you call ‘reading from the screen’, particularly in moving image education, which I believe has long been the poor relation of literacy teaching and learning.

  6. Pingback: Quote by Donalyn Miller | Belletristic Book Babes

  7. I have always heard that boys do not like to read and that they are underachievers when it comes to reading scores. But, I have never seen the data or read about the studies done to prove that hypothesis. I am the mom of two boys. One loves to read, the other hates it. One read for pleasure from an early age, the other would rather have his teeth pulled with no anesthesia. Like you, I am not so sure the problem is clear-cut.

    The suggestions you offer to encourage reading are spot on! Positive role models (including the teacher!) are a must-have. Teachers want parents to do their part at home, but need to remember they “should constantly be seeking out and reading books relating to the age group for which they have responsibility.” Knowing the child and how to motivate him/her can make a world of difference. My “hater” is very competitive, loves anything science, and is a gadget fanatic. His first grade teacher (he is not in the 6th grade) used all of that to her advantage and figured out how to get him reading. She let him read e-books on the tablet, offered related fiction and non-fiction texts to him, and had him participate in the Accelerated Reader program at our school. Despite her efforts, he still does not love to read, but his reading achievement sky-rocketed and he continues to read above grade level. Putting the library as the heart of the school is the suggestion I love most. I am lucky enough to work in a school where that is true. Our media specialist stays up-to-date with reading trends and regularly purchases new titles the children. She knows the students and talks to them about what they are reading, series they may like to try, etc. I wish all schools were blessed with a fabulous media specialist like the one at my school.

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