There is a common (mis)conception that boys don’t read. I put the mis in parentheses because although I have seen that the love boys have for reading books dwindle as they reach the middle grades, it doesn’t mean that they aren’t reading. Students are overscheduled. As they get older, this only gets worse and so their time for reading for relaxation or to escape into worlds unknown is limited. Reading must compete with sports, family time, school work, and the ever present budding social life.
Consider this for a moment. Your son or student plays HOURS of games on their Playstation or Xbox. Many of these games–Resident Evil, Uncharted, Assassin’s Creed, Persona 5, etc.–all have in-depth storylines that the gamer must READ to succeed. Sure there is often the option to “skip through,” but most tried and true gamers read and listen to every word. I often see the same engagement with the boys I teach when we’re reading something particularly juicy like Ender’s Game or Unwind. The amount of intrigue is too good to pass up, and before they know it, they’ve devoured the entire book. So I propose that boys DO read, we just have to find the find the right texts and tools to KEEP them reading. Read on for my own criteria/rules for getting my boys to fall in love with reading again.
- Boys prefer to read GOOD stuff. It seems like a no-brainer, but time and time again we assign them things that are tedious and odious texts. But the standards?! But the tests! I know. I know. That is another post for another day. The fact of the matter is if he doesn’t like to read for pleasure, there is little to no chance of getting him to read passage upon passage for a state test. In short…if you assign it, he’s not going to read it unless it’s good or you’ve convinced him that it’s good enough for him to commit his time to. Some classics are classically boring and telling him to read “just because” does not hold up in the court of “I have more fun things to distract me.” Give them a reason to get past the first page and chapter.
- Annotation is not always the best practice. There is a time and a place for annotation, and when he is reading about an intense fight scene or nail-biting heist is not it. Annotation, especially DEEP annotation requires the reader to pause, leave the text, highlight, write, recap materials, and then re-enter the text. The flow of the moment of lost. While annotation is an excellent skill for short passages, challenging primary and secondary sources, and poems, we should not require that students mark up every single text that they come across. My boys HATE this. Annotating just to have something on the page is not what the skill is intended to do. Teach them how to annotate when they come across a reading block or struggle, but don’t let annotation interrupt the flow of a good read. When I tell my students just to READ, no annotation required, you can hear the sighs of relief and joy. There is more than one way to check for reading comprehension, and if the only way you’re checking to make sure students have read is by how much highlighter is in the book then you need to reevaluate the goals you have for reading in your class.
- Give them a good reason to re-read. Layer in argument, pop-up debate, and low-stakes writing. Students NEED second, third, and fourth reads. As a loyal follower of Kelly Gallagher, I can attest to the power of Deeper Reading; however, students, especially boys are reticent to do a plethora of close reads when they’ve already read it once. I hate to stereotype by gender, but there is a reason why so many comedians make a note of a man’s unwillingness to follow directions. Why? Because he has to read and re-read them. I’ve found that my boys are willing to re-enter a text if they have a reason to, and an argument is a great reason to go back to the text and dig deeper. Any book or passage we are reading in class is often followed by a pop-up debate or a quickly constructed response for them to collect their thoughts and provide evidence for them. I play devil’s advocate a lot to entice them to prove me wrong, i.e. go back into the text and prove me wrong. It works every time.
- Boys need choices. The more choices they have in the text they are reading, the more likely they are to actually read the text. Instead of providing one core text or excerpt, provide multiple ones from multiple perspectives. Literature circles work great with boys because they feel ownership over their chosen text. After all, they chose it.
- Get over the gore factor. Most boys like gore. There is a reason why Stephen King is a bestseller. My boys like to read gore and write gory stories. The more mysterious, the better. There are some who shy away from stories about death and monsters, but the majority of them will read it because of peer pressure. I should feel bad about this, but I don’t. My class library favorites of my boys are The Graveyard Book (Neil Gaiman), Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes (Jonathan Auxier), the Unwind Dystology and Scythe (Neal Shusterman), anything by Cinda Chima Williams, Endgame (James Frey), Ripper (Stefan Petrucha), and Lockwood and Co. Jonathan Stroud. All of these are middle grade and/or YA, and all have at least one cringe-inducing moment of gore that the boys can’t wait to talk about.
- If your current novel list doesn’t include at least two sci-fi, dystopian, fantasy, graphic novel, or juicy nonfiction, then you’re doing it wrong. These books tend to have plots that not only appeal to boys but also add conversations and connections to current social and political situations. During a study of 1984, I had my boys read excerpts from Art of War, Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” “Harrison Bergeron,” “Minority Report,” and watch V for Vendetta. They are analyzing these supplemental texts under the guise of “understanding Winston more.” If I taught these texts out of context from the book, they would never get read with the same level of interest and depth.
- Either throw away the “reading schedule” or be okay with them reading ahead. Plan ahead for “spoiler” kids. Strict reading plans tend to stifle students. Once they start reading, they will inevitably read ahead. I’ve had to relax my type-A personality and let this be okay. As long as they don’t “spoil” the book for others, they can read ahead. In fact, I encourage it. I also let them come and talk to me about what’s happening in the book.
- Allow them to get comfortable. When you’re reading in class, let them get into relaxation mode. If this means you endure smelly feet and have to step over boys who are sprawled out on the floor and under their desks, then so be it. As long as they’re reading.
- Read what they’re reading and engage in authentic conversations about the texts they like to read. I teach at a boys school because I love teaching boys. I also read many of the texts that my students read. They recommend a variety of texts to me, some that I like and others that I don’t, but it opens the door for conversations. Without this, I would have never discovered the Reckoners series or watched Death Note on Netflix. Turning my nose up at what they like, even in jest translates to “I’m judging you.” (Let’s be honest sometimes I am) Boys are sensitive, in my experience more so than my girls because they simply shut down rather than showing me how upset they are. I’ve had to work really hard to at least try what they like and show them that I care about the same things they do.
- Audiobooks are a gift from Amazon. Many people dislike audiobooks. I don’t know why. For struggling readers, they open a new world of seeing the book. Once I opened the door the audiobooks in my classroom, my boys started reading again, especially my struggling readers. They can get them for free from the local and school library on Overdrive. My one concession is that I want them to follow along with the actual book as they listen so that they see the words on the page. They especially love the full cast productions (again The Graveyard Book is a favorite here).
That’s it, my TOP TEN ways for getting your boys to read. Try one or try them all!
Click here for my summer reading list of Books for Boys.