What Is It About Boys and Reading?: How to Help Boys Become Readers
When my son was a baby, I anticipated so many opportunities to sit and read together. My heart sank when I sat on the floor with him one day, and he pushed the book away. The more I tried to read, the more adamant he became about getting away. I was devastated. I understood the importance of reading to children while they are young for language and cognitive development. I was a kindergarten teacher helping kids flourish as readers and providing tips for their parents. The read alouds were legendary in my classroom. It was the part of the day that both my students and I looked forward to the most. Yet, here was my own child, making it known that this “reading thing” was not for him. At least that’s what I’d convinced myself to believe.
As he got older, he shied away from traditional children’s literature. He had an expansive vocabulary and could tell you anything about any basketball player past or present but show him a Henry and Mudge or book with a realistic fiction plot. He was unimpressed. I can even remember him hiding a summer reading book and saying, “this is just not my kind of thing. There’s no action in it.” I began to question. What is it about boys and reading?
Now, don’t get me wrong. Gender isn’t determinative, and differences between girls and boys aren’t always stark, but it would be silly to pretend they don’t exist. Research continues to show that there is a great disparity between the reading lives of males and females. On the U.S. National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), boys have significantly scored lower than girls in reading at all grade levels every year since 1992 (the first year scores were available). We know that research suggests that reading more can improve reading outcomes. Yet, girls typically read more frequently than boys and have a more positive attitude toward reading for pleasure.
This isn’t to say that boys aren’t great students and can’t be avid readers. They are and can be. Though it may mean that we adjust our perceptions of how an enthusiastic reader looks and sounds and provide additional support to help them find joy in being a reader.
So how can we help our boys? Here are a few tips:
1. Give Them Choice:
Kids read more, understand more, and are more likely to continue to read when they have an opportunity to choose what they read. Find books, boys like. This may sound simple, but a lot of what’s seen as reading has been widdled to literary, realistic fiction. According to Smith and Wilheim in Reading Don’t Fix No Chevys: Literacy in the Lives of Young Men, boys differ from girls in the choices they make in reading materials. Boys tend to read about hobbies, sports, things they like doing, or are interested in trying. They are inclined to read more graphic novels, comic books, informational texts, and articles. As we all do, they also want to see themselves and relate to their books’ characters and experiences. Boys also tend to like escapism and humor, which explains my son’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Captain Underpants phases. On his Guys Read website, author Jon Scieszka features booklists and compiled anthologies with fellow authors geared towards guys. However, if you have boys that are fans of princesses, Junie B. Jones, and ballet, fill their libraries with those too. Pay close attention to your child’s interests. Don’t yuck their yum! You can never have too much of the stuff they like.
2. Talk, Talk, Talk
Foster language development by keeping boys talking. Studies consistently show that boys develop language later than girls. So, even if your boys are constantly on the go, nurture conversations with them. If they are obsessed with trains, then encourage conversations about trains. Talk about the colors, shapes, sizes, and functions of different types of trains. Create stories together about trains and have them come up with their own. Consistent, high-quality conversations help nurture vocabulary, comprehension and aid in overall cognitive and language development.
3. Reading is Reading
We must expand our ideas of what “reading” is. Reading does not have to be limited to our traditional ideas of children’s book literature. The genres that boys gravitate to can be just as helpful in developing reading, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills. Boys who read instruction manuals or sports pages should be applauded and recognized as readers. Consider adding comic books, the backs of cereal boxes, trading cards, and newspapers to your bookshelves. Download audiobooks and children’s podcasts. If your boys like legos, add some instruction manuals, how-to’s, or books about architecture into the mix. Read the signs around the neighborhood or the signage in the stores you frequent.
4. Be a Role Model
If we want boys to read, they have to see the adults in their lives reading. Model reading, read together, offer book suggestions, talk about what you learned in a book, or want to learn about in the future. Look up information together to show the value of problem-solving.
In today’s culture, one challenge that presents itself is that most teachers are female, and mothers over fathers are often the conveyors of the importance of reading. This leaves room for boys to perceive reading as a “feminine” activity. Recruit and encourage the men in their lives to be reading role models. Infuse reading into the activities they do together. Show them the episodes of Bookmarks on Netflix with men like Common, Karamo Brown, and Kendrick Sampson reading and embracing the joys of reading.
5. Keep it active
If your boys would rather be playing than reading, pair reading with an activity. Read Do Not Bring Your Dragon to the Library and go on a scavenger hunt at the library to find all of the book’s places. Read Young Pele: Soccer’s First Star, then kick around the soccer ball and talk about the book. Download the Lego Batmobile instruction manual and work together to build it. Read a book about exercising, and with each page, have them do the exercises. I once caught my son reading a football almanac and then finding the game on Youtube, watching part of it, and then moving to another game. 🤷🏾♀️ Hey, whatever makes you happy. Reading doesn’t have to be a docile activity. Have some fun, and make it active.
Boys are capable of being engaged readers, just as girls appear to be. It may just require us to shift our ideas of reading and approach it in a manner that appeals to their sensibilities. The end goal is an enthusiastic reader. If we keep that in mind, we can be more flexible with the journey to get there.
How do you keep your boys excited about reading? Add your comments to the chat below.