Boys That Read

A while ago I had to speak to our Town Council in defense of our small town library. That’s right, they wanted to cut the library from the budget to pay for more parks and playing fields. Shouting over the noise of a torrential downpour pinging off metal-roofed fire station, I tried to explain to the all male town council why a local library was so important to a community, especially the children. To be perfectly honest, I think they were so shocked to see a female under the age of 65 at a Town Council meeting, I’m not sure they heard me. But after some follow up, the library was saved…for the next fiscal year.

The fact is I was just plain sad to have to go and make the argument for keeping our library open and sharing the treasure of books with our community. With the onslaught of the digital world, the Town Council saw the library as becoming obsolete. Statistically, they did have a point. Until the economic downturn, the library usage was down. Now many community members come to use the computers for job searches in the poor economy and parents looking for more free activities frequent preschool story time in addition to checking out books for free.

As a mother of (only) boys, I cringe when I hear the reading stats for children, especially boys. Which is why I  love, love, love this article by Tom Spence in the Wall Street Journal called, How to Raise Boys That Read. I couldn’t agree more with what he says on why dumbing down books for boys to potty humor is the wrong approach, as is bribing with video games. Here are some excerpts, but I highly recommend reading the short piece in full:

One obvious problem with the SweetFarts philosophy of education is that it is more suited to producing a generation of barbarians and morons than to raising the sort of men who make good husbands, fathers and professionals. If you keep meeting a boy where he is, he doesn’t go very far….

The secret to raising boys who read, I submit, is pretty simple—keep electronic media, especially video games and recreational Internet, under control (that is to say, almost completely absent). Then fill your shelves with good books….

People who think that a book—even R.L. Stine’s grossest masterpiece—can compete with the powerful stimulation of an electronic screen are kidding themselves. But on the level playing field of a quiet den or bedroom, a good book like “Treasure Island” will hold a boy’s attention quite as well as “Zombie Butts from Uranus.” Who knows—a boy deprived of electronic stimulation might even become desperate enough to read Jane Austen.

  • Mary Alice

    I loved this article, too. Bethlehem books and others are bringing back some great adventure stories for boys with wonderful morals. Here is a tip for a reluctant reader — continue to read aloud until your child is enjoying reading on his own, and beyond! My reluctant reader happens to be a girl, but she will often pick up and re-read a book that I have read to her. Also, starting a book as a “you read to me, I read to you” chapter by chapter project can make more challenging material accessible, sometimes the child will then take off to finish on his own, just to find out what happens. Lastly, the reading level on good newspaper stories is fairly high, so instead of the gross out factor, if you have a boy who is not into fiction, why not chose a few current events stories for them to follow. nnMy son also just got a kindle, and I am all for using the novelty/fun/cool factor to get kids to read good books — now, he was a big reader anyway, but this makes reading feel like a video game to him!

  • Anonymous

    I read this article last week, I think because your husband, Mr. Incredible, linked to it from his facebook account. I really liked it as well, and since I really, really, really dislike video games, the connection between electronic stimulation and reading seems pretty strong. But I will also add, that in homeschool households, the difference between boys and girls and reading is slim to none (as discussed in the article). I found this statistic startling, and it really just emphasizes to me that our current education system is NOT working for boys. I don’t think this statistic can be explained away simply by saying that boys who attend school play more video games. Sadly, I think there is something about a large industrial classroom setting, where silence and stillness are a huge part of educational achievement, that works against the maturation and educational development of a little boys. Maybe reading becomes just another “boring” activity because they are so tired of sitting around? Maybe they associate reading with school and so it’s doomed from the start? Just some thoughts…

    • Kat

      Red, our son is also a reluctant reader, but I think for different reasons than you describe. I think he’ll love reading once he gets over that hump and can read books that he’s actually interested in, but for now, he would rather have us read aloud to him because the books that we read to him are much more exciting than the ones he can read himself. I can’t say that I blame him! nWe are blessed with a really great public school system that uses an integrated theory of teaching our children how to read. I’ve been very impressed and have learned a lot as a parent, and I have loved watching the progress in Christopher’s reading ability. Their approach is thoughtful and makes a lot of sense. nIn terms of boys being asked to be quiet and still in a classroom, I think that most teachers understand that this is harder for some little kids than others, but the fact is that this type of behavior is necessary for a classroom to function! This coming from a mom of one of the kids that has a hard time sitting still, not whistling during class, etc. :) Our teachers have been great at communicating with us and working on solutions that address everyone’s needs.

    • Mama A

      This is generalizing a bit, but I think that there are not as many opportunities to read in school as there are in a homeschool setting. If you were to clock the amount of time a kid truly reads in school, you’ll find that it’s about fifteen minutes (ish) for a high school student (yes, I studied this in grad school:). Some schools have started SSR programs (Sustained Silent Reading) to combat this: students bring in a book of their choice and read for a certain period of time. LOL, most of the homeschooling families I know already do this daily (usually after lunch while little ones are napping)!nnI believe it also has to do with the reading material available. Choice is a huge thing- are the students picking what they get to read? Are there books available that boys find interesting? Lots of literature is interesting to girls but not boys, so they tune out. Again, most homeschooling families have an advantage here: they put out a basket of appropriate books and the children choose. Or your son shows an interest in space travel, so you go to the library and pick out books about that. With a large classroom, that situation can be tricky to replicate- imagine trying to figure out what 24 students like to read about and then offering them several choices about those topics. And trying to do that weekly would be tough; not impossible, but quite a challenge.nnChoice is perhaps even more so a factor than how long they’re expected to sit still. I’ve seen older kids who are seriously fidgety happily sit and read for 45 minutes straight in my classroom. The year I taught Hatchet in 7th grade, EVERYONE read the book and they liked it. They were able to make personal connections to the literature and critically think about the main character’s experiences.

  • Kat

    Thanks for bringing this article to our attention, Tex!nAnother great point is that kids who see their parents choosing to read books/magazines/newspapers in their free time will be more likely to choose to read in their free time as well. This is a struggle for Ed and I, because we usually read after the kids go to bed so they don’t often see us opening a book. I’m thinking of getting a newspaper subscription again, just so that the kids can see us reading the paper – they’ll see us reading the paper on the computer, but it just doesn’t have the same effect – for all they know, we could be playing video games on the computer! nAs far as video games go, we don’t have a gaming system but we do let Christopher play computer games on the weekend – he looks forward to it all week, and it’s also a privilege that he doesn’t get if he hasn’t had a good week at school. I’m wondering if we need to rethink our strategy on this…The computer games that he plays are all Lego, so they’re fairly benign, but still…nMA, I love that you got PT a Kindle!

  • Anonymous

    Kat, since you don’t think it is the structure of school that causes the discrepancy between home schooled boys and school attending boys, how do you explain the difference? Is it just that school attending boys play more video games? Or maybe thatt boys mature later in a school environment? Boys don’t see their parents read enough when they are at school for a long day? I don’t know, just throwing out some thoughts here…but there is a statistical difference, and my conclusion is to think there is something about school causing this difference.

  • Mary Alice

    There are also wonderful graphic novels, original ones and graphic novel forms of great books. Peter has loved the 20,000 leagues under the sea graphic novel, it is a great adventure story. He also loves kid versions of Sherlock Holmes and Chesterton’s Father Brown Mysteries. Mary Pope Osborne has written these terrific “Tales from the Odyssey” which contain just the right amount of thrill and adventure, let’s face it, the cyclops eating people is pretty gross, too, but it is leading boys in a better direction, I think.

    • Anonymous

      Another interesting point not mentioned in the article –girls read trashy stuff too! Often books aimed at little girls are gossipy, clicky, and emphasize a lot of really bad stuff. Unfortunately, the “gross factor” of these new books for boys gets all the attention, but quality reading material is important for both genders, and from my memory, “The Babysitters Club” should not qualify as good material for girls. There are plenty of classic books, and newer books with healthy uplifting themes for both genders. If my child gravitates towards poor quality stuff, rather than more uplifting books, then it is my job as the parent to redirect them to something better. Every person has their negative tendencies, and often these tendencies in girls are overlooked and sadly, gossip and clicky behavior is often thought of as part of the maturation process! I think parents are so desperate for their children to read, they are willing to have them read anything. Kat, you make a great point that your son is still learning to read fluently, and in this phase it is probably best to read with them, and encourage him, as MaryAlice suggested. Identifying why your child doesn’t want to read independently (like Kat has done), is an important part of the process. We can’t just throw trashy or extreme stuff at them in the hopes that it will motivate more reading. nnOne more random thought, boys do mature later than girls, and I’m wondering if they get discouraged in a large classroom setting because they aren’t reading as well as some of the girls. I know I have a tendency to lose interest in an activity if I don’t feel that I’m good at it. Just a thought…

      • Texas Mommy

        Red, great point about girl books, too. Not that we have any laying around, but your point is very well taken! Leonard Sax talks a lot about the differing rates of maturity in “Boys Adrift” and says that the best thing you can do for most boys is to hold them back a year before starting kindergarten. However, this is often impossible for financial reasons (public school demands it at a certain age, many do not have the financial ability to pay for private school/childcare for an extra year).

        • JMB

          We held our son back (he has a late summer birthday), so he started kindergarten at 6. Looking back, I have no regrets for holding him out for an extra year. I don’t know if it helped him academically (he still struggled learning how to read), but behavior wise, I think it did.

  • JMB

    My son is 15 and he is a reluctant reader. I never homeschooled him. He attended two different elementary schools – the parochial school from k to 2 and then we switched him to public from 3 to 8. He is now at an all boys private Catholic high school run by the Irish Christain Brothers. So far, he’s doing well there. nHere are my observations. I think school in a general way sucks the enjoyment out of reading. The compulsory “reading logs” and record keeping of nightly reading is cumbersome. It’s cumbersome for the parent and the child. Reading becomes another chore after a long day of constant activity. And to me, that’s the crux of the issue – the constant activity. There is so much more for children to do after school than to read. Reading is solitary.nMy son was a typical energetic, athletically orientated little boy. nAfter being in school for 7 hours, he would need to run around on the playground. As a newbie parent, I signed him up for every activity under the sun – which took place after school. Then homework and dinner and the kid was just plain worn out. In order to read, you have to have solitude and time. And time, quite frankly is what most kids don’t really have. nnI do think that reading is a hobby. Not everybody likes to read for enjoyment. I’m a functional “readaholic” and would prefer to read something-even a back of a cereal box, than nothing. I am hopelessly addicted to newspapers and blogs. But not everybody shares that. Some people are just more outgoing and would rather play a team sport all afternoon or take a dance class and interact with real live people than read. As much as everyone needs to learn how to read and think critically, not everyone will enjoy reading as a hobby. Lots of adults don’t read novels. nMy son knows how to read, and reads the newspaper like I do. But he’s not one of those boys that read the entire Harry Potter series. We did read his summer reading books together and discussed them, and I enjoyed doing that with him. n

    • Mary Alice

      I think you make a really good point here about time. One of the things that I love about homeschooling is that it creates additional leisure time for my children. They mostly read in the early afternoon — they have done plenty of school work and this is how they relax before we leave for various sports and activities. Children are in school for such a long day that it makes sense to have a half hour set aside, after lunch perhaps, for a reading session. Jim Trelease says that a key to success is that the teacher read also, not grade papers or do other prep. We do spiritual reading together in the early afternoons, then break for quiet time. I have also sometimes let the older kids stay up for an extra half an hour for a family reading time, where we just all sit in the living room with our books, which solves the problem Kat mentioned.nnAudio books are useful for in the car in between activities, my kids love them and it gets the younger ones interested.nnA good newer series for young readers is the A to Z mysteries, my 2nd grader loves these and they are good for boys or girls.nnKat, it sounds like you are blessed in your school system, but I don’t think your experience is typical. Our parochial school experience was that at the end of the year six boys, the most fidgety, were encouraged to find other schools. In a small classroom with 24 desks there was just no wiggle room, literally and figuratively. The children had very limited use of the school library and that was restricted to books designated for their age level, so my eager reader could not look at books outside of the kindergarten section of the library. Time and space resources were given to a computer lab, they spent one period a week learning to use a mouse. This is a waste for a kindergarten student, who would be much better served by an extra read aloud, free reading or recess period.

      • Texas Mommy

        JMB, thanks for your thoughts. I agree with you on the limited time for children to have at leisure to choose whatever activity stimulates them, whether or not it is books. Our son on the way home from school this afternoon (which is 6.5 hours, twice a week with 2 snacks, lunch and 3 recesses) told me he felt “exhausted from not going to the park today.” Probably not the way a social scientist would have put it, but I got his message!nnI think the author’s main point was the actual literacy gap and your son can read, and the newspaper at that! I hope it didn’t come across as judging those who would rather play sports than curl up with a book in the late afternoon. There are a substantial number of boys (and, of course, girls as well) who have not reached this milestone with proficiency by the time they are in high school. The attempt to use potty humor to reach these boys is doomed to fail. nnI was very shocked to find out how many movies are watched in school. My son last year watched a PBS show often and his class was only 2.5 hours long! Instead of reading a delightful picture book on plants growing in a garden, they watched the Magic School bus. Not that that is all bad, though it is certainly easier for the teacher, but the rush to teaching kids via engaging sensory-stimulating multi-media just might not be the best approach. nnMary Alice, how do you do spiritual reading with your kids before quiet time? Do you have a book basket with appropriate books? What a great idea to do it together!!

        • Mary Alice

          We do five minutes of bible, five minutes of another good book (saint biographies for them usually) and five minutes of mental prayer. We have a basket of appropriate books to choose for spiritual reading, each child has an age appropriate bible and then anything from Tomie dePaola, Nancy Nicholson, Vision Books, it goes on up to fourth grade level. nnThis is an appropriate activity for children who can read on their own for 5 minutes, or who will quietly look at pictures. I sometimes read a bible story to the younger ones at the same time, and just count that as my own scripture reading!nnThese are the sorts of things that become possible as the kids get only a little bit older, it is a dramatic change. I would say around age 7.

        • JMB

          I read the original piece in the WSJ. I agree with the author that the recent crop of boy’s literature leaves much to be desired for. I’ve always objected to the notion that it doesn’t matter what the kid reads, as long as he reads. Imagine if you substituted “eating” for reading. Who thinks it’s ok to shove junk food in your body all day long?nThe other issue is, I think, is that not everyone enjoys leisure reading. For someone who is isolated or an introvert, curling up with a book on a Saturday afternoon is a wonderful way to pass the time. But for those kids who would rather go outside and play ball or head to the cinema with friends, reading is not something that they naturally gravitate towards. So I think this whole “everybody should read fiction and enjoy it” is silly.

          • Mary Alice

            Perhaps not everyone must read fiction and enjoy it, but everyone should read, and I really do think that everyone can find something to read that they enjoy. For the most part, fiction reading is a hobby which, in the past, was even looked on as frivolous, though I do think that it can be both relaxing and thought provoking or character building, which are good things to keep in mind when choosing a hobby. However, reading is an important compliment to any interest, so those who prefer sports or mechanical work should be able to read about that and enjoy it, or at least understand it enough to enhance their work. Additionally, everyone Christian NEEDS to be able to read well enough to read scripture and good spiritual reading, and hopefully to enjoy that.

          • Maria

            I agree that leisure reading is a hobby. My husband, who is the most intelligent person I have every known (I’m a little biased, but not that far off!), really doesn’t enjoy reading that much, especially fiction. While he reads quite a bit of current events, news, and legislation for his job, he does hardly any reading for enjoyment. He is an extreme extrovert and would much rather talk to an expert in the field than read a book about it.rnrnI’m more of an introvert and love to read.

  • Max Elliot Anderson

    I recently blogged about this same subject.rnrnMax Elliot Andersonrnrnhttp://booksandboys.blogspot.com/2010/07/must-we-be-gross-to-attract-boy-readers.html

    • Anonymous

      Max–I went to your blog, great thoughts! Thanks so much for the comment.

  • Kate

    Sorry to come late the to discussion. Having spent a better part of my adult life trying to get the right books into the hands of kids (right for the kid that is) this is a fascinating glimpse. Some thoughts…n1: I think not every kid is going to LOVE to read. That’s cool. But reading is something you have to do and comprehension is a necessary skill. That’s why you might hear someone say “It doesn’t matter what, just get them to read”. That’s not to say that it has to be gross-out, potty stuff. But it does mean that newspapers are reading. Non-Fiction is reading. Graphic Novels are reading. Calvin and Hobbes books are reading (with very advanced vocabulary). Picture Books are reading (and not just for little kids). This is a pretty enlightened group but you’d be surprised how many parents, teachers, and even librarians can turn kids off reading by poo-pooing their choices.nn2: Boys read some junky books. Girls read some junky books. I have been known to read some junky books too :) Reading doesn’t have to ALWAYS be “the best” book out there. It doesn’t have to be gossipy, clicky girl books, or poop filled boy books. But it’s ok to have a light read now and then. I call it the “sorbet”, a little cleanse of the palette before you have to dive back into the deep stuff.nn3: It just takes some kids, and yes mostly boys, a much longer time to figure out how the whole reading thing works. In the meantime, do what Kat is doing and keep reading to them…every dang night! Non-Fiction easy readers are a great way to keep them from getting bored with Biscuit, Frog and Toad, Poppleton, etc. As they get older those early books can really drag in comparison. But they do make books for those kids (high interest, low vocab)…you just have to hunt for them.nn4: The right librarian goes a LONG way. That was what Tex was fighting for (and hugs and kisses headed her way, keep fighting the good fight babe!). I’m the first to admit that there are some baaaad librarians out there. But if we keep cutting funding for school and public libraries how do we expect the right books to get into the right hands? Yes, I encourage parents to read what there kids are reading…but do they have time to read the 10 other books that might be wrong for their kid? I have made plenty of mistakes in my book recommendations but after a steady decade of mostly reading kids and teen books I can probably get one or two good ones that will tempt and engage your kids. I bet your local librarian has too…I bet she or he is just waiting for you to ask!


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