Monday, September 27, 2010

Raising Boys into Readers: A Response

Thomas Spence, president of Spence Publishing, in The Wall Street Journal (September 24, 2010 "How to Raise Boys Who Read") addressed a recent report from the Center on Education Policy where:

“…substantially more boys than girls score below the proficiency level on the National Assessment of Educational Progress reading test….Everyone agrees that if boys don’t read well, it’s because they don’t read enough…[research found] Boys with video games at home spend more time playing them than reading, and their academic performance suffers substantially…"

Spence's remedy:
“…keep electronic media, especially video games and recreational Internet, under control (that is to say almost absent).  Then fill our shelves with good books….[and not] books that exploit love of bodily functions and gross-out humor.

So WHAT DO WE AS PARENTS DO NOW if our sons don't read well? And what do we do if we aren't even home to enforce internet control?  Here are some suggestions:

  • No one is ever to old to be read to.

  •  If your son is falling behind in school, help him catch up (while encouraging him to read for fun on his own).  Read aloud the books he needs for school, or introduce him to the audio or video versions (if available).  Watch the video together, talk about it.  Talk about how the movie and book are different.  Make reading less daunting and more fun.
  • Make reading come alive.  Find places near you to visit that relate to the theme or time period of the book.  Talk about the content, use the internet together to find related clips, satire, pieces that make it more fun. 

  • Introduce/have access to fun books (with low "gross-out factors", solid vocabulary and varied sentence structures).  If he 'isn't into books' begin with graphic novels (ONLY for older kids 5th grade or older).  While there are some poor graphic novels with a great deal of sex and or violence, there are also some really good ones (two of which I list below).  Begin with these, read them together (independently), talk about them and then go to the library or book store to find books of related genres and topics.

  • If your child loves sports, find books about athletes, with their favorite sport in them.  Find high-interest books to begin with, then slowly introduce other genres.

  • Start a parent/son book club with his friends.

  • Read aloud whenever you can and depart the text.  Talk about the illustrations, the characters and their problems/issues and brainstorm possible resolutions.  Make the text meaningful on multiple levels.  (Please see my earlier blog entries: "Goodnight, Sweet Gems!" and "Departing the Text 101" for more details).

  • If you can enforce limited access to gameboy, nintendo, wii, the Internt, do so, allowing for occasional viewing and play when earned.  We did this in our home and I have never regretted it - but you have to make it work for you.

Some of my favorite classic books (please recommend yours in the comments):
Frindle by Andrew Clemens - about a 5th grade boy who tries to outmaneuver a teacher who wants to give homework by distracting her with the age-old question 'what makes a word a word?'

The Redwall series by Brian Jacques.  Action packed middle age adventure with woodland characters.

The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander (the first The Chronicles of Prydain series) about a boy, Taran, ward of a prophetic pig who becomes a reluctant hero fighting evil to save all he holds dear.

The Graveyard Book (or Stardust another favorite) by Neil Gaiman, a contemporary author for kids of all ages.  The Graveyard is an empowering book about a boy raised in the graveyard by a motly crew. 

Dragonwings by Laurence Yep (the first of two historical fiction books) takes place in San Francisco at the turn of the twentieth century and is all about immigrants, the Great Earthquake, and flying.

Note three of the five books suggested belong to a series.  Read the first aloud.  Let it grab him with great characters, adventure and fun and he will begin reading them on his own, for fun.

My favorite graphic novels (please recommend yours in the comments):

Mouse Guard a series of graphic novels by David Petersen - about mice struggling to live and prosper among all of the world's harsh conditions and predators.  It is beautifully illustrated and the characters must cooperate and think creatively to ensure safety and success.

I Kill Giants by Joe Kelly and JM Ken Nimura - is a gripping stoary of a young teenage girl battling monsters and giants, both real and imagined, and how she faces her greatest fear.

Mr. Spence's final reflection:  "...a boy raised on great literature is more likely to grow up to think, to speak, and to write like a civilized man...I offer a final piece of evidence that is perhaps unanswerable:  There is no literacy gap between home-schooled boys and girls.  How many of these families, do you suppose, have thrown grossology parties [based on the gross-out humor and literature of Goosebumps and Captain Underpants series]?"

I have taught language arts honors/enrichment courses for many years in grades 1-8, and am currently teaching a critical reading course for Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth.  When teaching in school, class membership was optional BUT the students had to be reading well above their grade level.  Interestingly,  in the lower school the girls had a slighter edge.  In the upper grades, however,  (above grade 5) there were consistently more boys in my class than girls.  Furthermore, in middle school I noticed a tendency for the girls to 'dumb down' because it was not cool to be smart.  Why is it that reading is so important but also so overlooked by our youth?  I don't think it is about restricting internet and games, I think it is about making reading come alive, making it more fun and making it more meaningful.  More about this in future blogs, just wanted to sow seeds for further thought.

What do you think?  What are your reading with your boys/girls?  Please leave comments.



  1. Meryl,
    Your link on She Writes didn't work for me, just to let you know.

    This is a great topic. I have a son and I also write books with boys as the main characters, so I'm always interested in any ideas to encourage boys to read. At our house, we do limit tv and computer game time somewhat. We don't have any video games. I think the best way is to find great high interest books and make sure there is time to read them. When my son was younger, he loved the Alex Rider series by Anthony Horowitz. They aren't difficult to read and they aren't too long. Both of those factors will turn off a reluctant reader.

  2. Since I work with oral and written language, I'm always looking for ways to make reading fun. I like your suggestions.

  3. I don't think it does to get too uptight about whether boys are reading enough. The fact is: some children, boys and girls, just do not like to read, they prefer to exercise their creative imagination in other ways. Playing video games, while not ideal, does involve interactive imagination, especially role playing games, the characters in the game are similar to characters in a story book, a child will identify more with one than another...the adventure is played out in a visual way rather than via the writen word and boys tend to prefer the visual medium over the written one (moving into adulthood males prefer picture porn, while females tend to prefer written porn, or erotica as they tend to call it)

    That said, my own two sons have always been voracious readers. Perhaps it is because myself and their dad are also big readers and books were always a part of their environment when growing up. They were read to every day virtually from birth. We also never discouraged them from reading comics, some parents actually do not allow their children to read comics, which is a mistake in my opinion. Comics are as valid as books in encouraging a child to fall in love with the written word.

  4. I've been thinking this one over for a few days and I'm still feeling pretty ambivalent about it. In a perfect world, I'd rather my kids not read Captain Underpants and Sweet Farts (or whatever, they're still relatively little and not into these types of things yet). However, my daughter is a reluctant reader and quite frankly, I am quickly approaching the point where I'd do just about anything to get her to pick up a book voluntarily.

    My husband and I are both avid readers and I am a writer, and I have taken great pains to introduce my kids to quality books, but my daughter is just a highly kinesthetic learner who prefers to move, and who only enjoys stories with very high-tempo language and action.

    My son, on the other hand, would sit there and listen to someone, anyone, read to him for hours and hours. They were both raised the same - if anything, he got less by way of literacy activities because by the time he came along I was busy chasing his sister!

    And quite frankly - I was a book-devourer from the time I could read until I had kids and no longer had the time and energy for it (now I just consider myself an avid reader), and most of the classics never really appealed to me. The author of the article specifically mentions Treasure Island, and I have vivid memories of struggling through that book in particular when it was required reading the summer before my Freshman year of high school. I hated every single letter of it. A few of my grad school friends (I did not get my degree in English or creative writing ;) decided to have a book club and read the books on the New York Times list of the 100 most influential books of the 20th century that was put out in 2000, and I don't think I made it to the end of a single one. At that point in my life, I was reading seven or eight books a week.

    Now, I prefer non-fiction and occasionally historical fiction, and almost never read fiction and rarely enjoy it when I do. So I don't know if the recommendation to introduce children to the classics is necessarily a valid one - just because a story has stood the test of time does not mean that it will appeal to all children. And what do you do with the kids who are not inspired by those types of books?

    I'm going to keep thinking about it, I'd love to see what other people think...

  5. I'm very late with the comment. Such is the life of a homeschooling/working mother!

    I have three sons who are either voracious readers or on their way to becoming so. I really like your thoughts. I would add two points.

    First, I try to surround my boys with books. I pick up used books that will pique their various interests, and I leave them all over the house. If a boy is sent to his room for a timeout, it is perfectly acceptable to take a book with him. A bored child will find a book a welcome companion.

    Second, I model the behavior. Not only do I read to my boys, but let them see me reading my own books for pleasure. I always have a book with me. I show them that reading is a true form of enjoyment, not a school assignment.

    Anyway, although I seem to disappear due to other obligations, I'm really enjoying how this blog is progressing. Great work!!

  6. I love this post. I have 3 boys and 2 girls, and honestly, they're all avid readers, but I appreciate the discussion and especially your list of favorites. A couple of them I already know, but I plan to check out the others. One thought on encouraging reading: look for unconventional ways for your kids to be reading. For example, my oldest son (now 22), LOVED Godzilla when he was a kid. But this was before Godzilla made a comeback in the U.S., so the only videos we could get (when he was ages 6-8 or so) were in Japanese with English subtitles. So we got them, and it didn't seem to bother him a bit that he had to read his way through the movies. When we filled out reading logs for school, I was happy to give him credit for all that subtitle reading right along with his regular reading.

    Thanks for the post!
    Michelle (