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Boys and Reading: Tips for Making Reading “Boy-Friendly”

Dawn Little, Links to Literacy | August 6, 2009

The Children’s Book Review presents a guest post by Dawn Little, founder of Links to Literacy. She holds a Masters Degree in Education with an emphasis on curriculum and instruction, and literacy. Enjoy…

There has been a lot of talk lately (well, several years lately) about boys and reading.  Why don’t boys like to read?  What can we do to encourage them to read?  What is the difference in learning for boys and girls?  As an educator and a mom of a six year old boy, I am intrigued by this “new” phenomenon.  I am a reader.  I do not know a life without reading. I hope that my children will become avid readers, too.  But, I worry about my son.  I know the statistics.  Even though boys are pretty much developmentally even with girls when they start school, by fourth grade an average boy can be up to two years behind.  How is that possible?  What can we do to ensure that our boys don’t stray from the path of reading?

What Does the Research Say?

Boys are active beings.  They have “boy energy.”  They have a need to be physical, in motion, and kinesthetic (Gurian, 2005). . . pretty much all the time!  They want to have fun!  Instead of looking at these qualities as detriments, why don’t we use them to help our boys?  Instead of teaching boys the way society dictates we should, perhaps we should start thinking about how boys learn best.  If we begin to provide strategies that encourage boys’ interest in reading, we may begin to increase the possibilities for boys to experience success in school and beyond (Neu and Weinfeld, 2007).  More importantly, we may encourage a lifelong love of reading in our boys, and isn’t that what we all want?

How Do We Make Reading “Boy-Friendly?”

The educator in me knew from the moment I had my son that I would have to work hard to raise a boy that enjoyed school and reading in particular.  Through five years of teaching, I can probably count on one hand the number of boys that I taught that actually enjoyed reading when they arrived in my class.  If we can work on making reading a more “boy-friendly” activity, we may be able to encourage more boys to read and to want to read.   If we can attend to boys’ needs more when we read, perhaps we can encourage more boys to want to read and to enjoy reading!  Here is a list of ten tips to help make reading more “boy-friendly” in your home or classroom:

1.     Make Reading Active

Boys thrive on activity.  Provide opportunities for boys to “act out” what they have read.  For younger children, after reading a book, create puppets and put on a puppet show.  For older boys, create a Readers Theater script.  Have boys act out parts of the book.

2.    Provide plenty of informational/nonfiction texts

Choose books based on interests. (See #8)  If a child is going through a truck phase, borrow books from the library about different kinds of trucks.  Provide boys with nonfiction subscription magazines.  There are some great ones out there: Animal Baby (National Wildlife Federation), National Geographic for Little Kids, Sports Illustrated for Kids, Ranger Rick, National Geographic for Kids.

3.    Provide Male Reading Role Models

This is probably one of the most important tips!  My husband, a self-proclaimed non-reader, reads to our son every night and has done so since he was about a year old.  They enjoy their time together and this gives them the opportunity to read gross, silly, fun books that I might not necessarily read with my son (see #10).  Equally important is for boys to see men in their lives reading themselves.  My son mostly sees his father reading news on the computer, but that is still reading (see #6)!

4.    Graphic Novels are Boy Friendly

Boys tend to be visual learners.  Therefore, graphic novels/books are excellent for boys.  These are typically books that have been written in comic book form, but are not comic books (like your traditional Marvel comics).  My son has a graphic book of The Lion King.  It is probably at a reading level of a third grader, but we enjoy reading it together and looking at the pictures.  I recently found Phonic Comics by Innovative Kids.  They are written on various levels for your emergent reader all the way to your independent reader.  More publishers are beginning to see the need for graphic novels and are translating known stories into graphic novels for all levels of readers.

5.    Make Literacy Hands-On

For the preschool age child, put pudding on a cookie sheet and allow him to practice writing his name in the pudding.  This is a great pre-literacy activity.  For older boys, allow them to practice writing their spelling words in pudding.  When they are done, they can eat the pudding!

6.    Incorporate Technology into Reading

According to Neu and Weinfeld (2007), there is not necessarily a greater value in reading a book than in reading online.  Boys tend to gravitate to the computer and the Internet can be a great source of informational text for boys.  If a child wants to know the answer to a particular question, use a book and the Internet to find answers.  This provides lessons in reading multiple sources, as well.   Encourage older boys to use publishing programs to create visual representations of the text (See #4).  This provides boys with an opportunity to process their reading.

7.     Create Competitions

Challenge boys to informal spelling bees, brainteasers, or studying competitions.  Boys thrive on challenges and competition can be the stimulant they need to really care about reading (Gurian, 2005).

8.    Match Books to Interests/Allow Choice

One of the most important things we can do for boys is to allow them to choose their own reading materials.  Even if the material is above or below their reading level, if it is a text on a topic that interests them, allow them to read it.  A book that is “too easy” may allow him to feel good about reading; a book that is “too hard” may allow him to stretch his reading skills.  By allowing boys choice, we are providing opportunities for them to develop reading skills without the added stress of disliking the text.

9.    Encourage Audio Reading

Make recordings of yourself, or a male role model reading your child’s favorite books (or buy commercial books on CD).  When you are unavailable to read to him, have him listen to the recording and follow along.  Hearing books read aloud is a powerful way to increase boys’ interest in reading.

10.     Encourage Reading of Humorous, Gross, Violent and/or Silly Books

Oh boy!  This is a big one!  If it grosses out mom, then a boy will probably find it engrossing.   And that is the goal when getting boys to read.  We want them engrossed in whatever it is that they are reading.  If it takes a gross, humorous, silly, and/or violent (within reason) text to do it, then so be it!

A Few “Boy-Friendly” Books My Son Would Recommend:

Smash! Crash! (Jon Scieszka's Trucktown)

The Trucktown Series by Jon Scieszka

Trucktown came about as a series of books for preschoolers (girls like them just as much as boys!).  Scieszka actually researched at a preschool near his house and has stated that all of the characters (which are all vehicles) are based on the preschoolers he worked with.

 Fly Guy (a series of books) by Tedd Arnold

A great series of books about a boy and his pet fly.  Seeing as the main character is a fly, you can only imagine the gross things you may encounter when reading.  However, the author writes humorously, as well.  I enjoy reading these books with my son – not so gross, that I’m grossed out!

Chicken Butt!

Chicken Butt by Erica S. Perl

This is an example of buying against type.  Not typically a book that would catch my eye for my own pleasure reading, but the title did catch my eye for my son.  And, of course he loves it!  So does my husband.  It’s based on the classic joke, “You know what?”

Smelly Locker: Silly Dilly School Songs Smelly Locker: Silly Dilly School Songs by Alan Katz

We came across this book in the bookstore one day.  My husband and son were looking for something to read together while I perused the shelves.  Written about school life, each new song can be sung to the tune of a classic children’s song.

Gurian, M. & Smith, K.  (2005).  The Minds of Boys: Saving Our Sons from Falling Behind in School and Life. Jossey-Bass: San Francisco
Neu, T.W. &Weinfeld, R.  (2007).  Helping Boys Succeed in School. Prufrock Press:  Waco.

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  • What a fantastic article! I am one of the bloggers for Gettingboystoread.com. I am also the mom of three boys who love to read, but I am always looking for great tips and book recommendations. I will definitely be mentioning this article in an upcoming post on GBTR.

    August 15, 2009
  • I’m so glad you enjoyed Dawn Little’s article and have found it useful. Enjoy “growing” your little readers and congratulations on your crusade to “get boys to read”.

    August 15, 2009
  • Thanks Holly! I’m glad you liked it! And thanks again, Bianca for the opportunity to share with your readers!

    August 18, 2009
  • Dear Dawn,
    I can understand your fears for your son – there is certainly ALOT of media concerning boys and reading out there. As a reader, an educator and a researcher who cares about boys I am also troubled by the statistics. It was this care that caused me to spend some time researching the issue and talking to real kids about their lives in school. Sadly, I came away thinking much of the research out there (including Gurian) is making the problem worse, not better.

    Gurian is committed to the idea that boys and girls are inherently different. He is constantly talking about “what boys like” and yet anyone who has worked with more than one boy can tell you that “boys” are a very diverse group of people. They have diverse interests, fears, likes and desires. And they have even more diverse interests etc. when they live in a culture that allows them to think for themselves and be fully human.

    I found it particularly interesting to note that there didn’t seem to be a “boy reading problem” in all cultures. Newly immigrated South Asian and Asian boys in the school where I worked as a teacher-librarian were avid readers. My guess is it isn’t a biological issue.

    While I applaud your desire to offer practical solutions and I love that you included talking to your son as part of your research, I can’t help thinking that what he has given us here is a list a of what boys are *allowed to like* not what they *naturally like* . The more I talk to boys the more I learn about how cultural pressures on them to be active/masculine/tough/into fart jokes make it difficult for them to be anything else.

    My hope is that we can recognize that reading is just communication – and all humans desire to communicate – it is a human impulse. If some of our kids are choosing not to communicate, or not to use a certain form of communication, then we need to ask why they might make that choice and what is at stake for them?

    I hope your son benefits from you inquiries – he obviously has a mom who cares and seeks answers.

    Respectfully yours,

    Lyndsay Moffatt

    August 18, 2009
  • Thank you for your thoroughly thought through response to Dawn’s blog post.

    I agree with your point: “I can’t help thinking that what he has given us here is a list a of what boys are *allowed to like* not what they *naturally like* .”

    I like the way this was addressed by Dawn: “By allowing boys choice, we are providing opportunities for them to develop reading skills without the added stress of disliking the text.”

    September 3, 2009
  • We recently upgraded and lost the following great comment from Julie—I’m posting it now:

    Fantastic piece with more than just the “same old” advice. I was particularly encouraged by #6 since my husband does most of his reading online. I think we just need to communicate when he is actually reading for pleasure (vs. working, which is also on the computer). Also love the pudding idea! Thanks so much for the inspiration.

    February 9, 2010
  • Thank you so much, Julie! I’m glad you found this helpful and not the “same old” advice! My husband does most of his reading online as well — we must remember not to dismiss this as true reading! I checked out your blog and am so excited to see that your daughter is reading! How exciting! It really is such a joy to see them reading on their own, isn’t it?

    February 9, 2010
  • Thanks so much for sharing-very informative- hope you don’t mind I passed the article on via my blog http://www.growinguptoronto.com.


    February 19, 2010
  • I agree with your idea of incorporating technology into reading and I want to suggest you to take this one step further, there are some e-readers emerging on the market these days, and provided boys will always love gadgets, this could be a great investment, plus it’s cheaper to buy e-books, and eco-friendly and you can carry them anywhere, they are less cumbersome than a normal book.

    August 12, 2010

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