Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Boyz n the Book: Johnny can read, but won’t and who can blame him?

This post appeared first in my Making Connections blog on Thursday, November 6th, 2008. I was pleased to receive several thougthful comments, which I will include at the bottom of this post. I continue to welcome thoughts from men and boys about what inspired them to love reading, and what got in the way


A thought provoking article in a recent Weekly Standard magazine points out that there are far more women than men in college these days. The article, Boyz n the Book: Johnny can read, but won’t and who can blame him? (by Mary Grabar) states that “a generation ago, women made up less than half of students. …In 2005 that made up 57 percent of fall enrollments, and the Department of Education estimates the gender discrepancies will increase every year in the foreseeable future.”

Why? The article suggests that the problems that boys are having with reading create a set of problems with study habits and school performance that affects their future success in school.

And, it suggests that their reading problems may be connected to a lack of male influence, and books written to appeal to their interests. “Socially … boys have few male reading role models at home or at school.”
Boys like action, danger, competition, conflict, tests of strength, and strategy,” in their play and their books. This may explain their love for video games, especially those that “present a quest in which the imperiled hero tries to find clues or treasures so he can go on to the next level.” But, the article points to a “lack of ‘masculine’ books that appeal to boys on such topics as sports, war and competition.”

Research on children’s reading interests “consistently shows that boys like to read nonfiction, especially historical nonfiction, (biographies, books on important wars/battles), adventure stories, books on sports, books on facts, and science fiction. Yet, most of the books assigned in school are novels or memoirs.”

Pair this with the fact that most librarians and teachers are women; that mothers read to children more frequently than fathers, and that “those responsible for promoting reading … promote those virtues that appeal to girls, … games and books that tend toward the virtues of cooperation and sensitivity,” and a possible answer to why boys don’t read as much as girls (and therefore are less academically successful) begins to take shape.

The research in this article makes it clear that if we are to encourage boys to love reading, they need books that provide masculine themes and role models. They need stories about soldiers, heroes, male athletes and adventurers. They need to find what they love in books … AND YOU CAN HELP.

Men, please tell me about your favorite books. What books turned you on (or off) to reading? What books do you teach in your classrooms? What books inspired you? Which were the ones you could not put down? Which are the ones the boys you work with love the best? What books would you recommend for the boys you know?

If you could suggest one way to get boys to read, based on your experience, what would you suggest?

Please share your answers and comments here – click on the COMMENT button below. Thank you in advance for your responses.
• I always loved to read - even though my Dad wasn’t a reader - except for newspapers. Favorite books - anything by Assimov or Clark, whether from their SciFi or hard science collections. Also loved Hawaii, and the classics.
• What was a turn off for me was having to write book reports. That took all the joy out of the books I read.

• Best way to get boys - or girls for that matter to read is to read to them and/or bring them to a good library with a solid story hour program. What is key is that the reader put an effort into his or her reading so as to bring the characters alive. A flat or dull tone will not work.
• I think the key is to help boys find books about topics they already like. For me it was sports and adventure. I read lots of magazines such as Sports Illustrated and National Geographic. Books - anything on football, basketball, baseball, track. Adventure stories about climbing Mt. Everest, K2, Annapurna, about exploration - Antarctica, Magellan, Sir Francis Drake, etc. The books can be about the topic, or they can be biographies about the people involved. The biographies, if selected well, can impart broader life lessons to kids.
• Speaking from my own experience only, neither of my parents read for pleasure. My mother did try the last 10 years of her life. I never did either. What I read were how-to books; manuals for a wide variety of devices, everything from tools to computers, to how to build or fix something. When I went to Engineering School I did more of this type of reading. All this reading had to be done slowly and carefully. It wasn’t done for fun; it was done to learn something. Reading was for accuracy not fun. And it frequently got tiring. What I did like was Shakespeare. It too had to be read slowly due to the difference in the language. I enjoyed reading most after seeing the play. Then I didn’t have to struggle with the language.

• I never liked sport or war stories. I never had exposure to adventure stories; perhaps they would have been attractive to me.
• The research in the story you cite and the previous comments track with my own experience. As a child I remember reading sections in an old set of Encyclopedias we had - descriptions of far away places like Rome and Athens that I had heard about in stories.

• I especially agree with the comments about using magazines. Most younger kids have a short attention span, and magazines like Sports Illustrated or ESPN magazine have great photos to help tell the story, but are also well-written. For much younger kids, don’t forget about comic books. I used to read and re-read the same 40 or 50 comic books all summer when I was 7 or 8 years old.