A friend wrote jubuliantly on her Facebook page earlier this week:
Etan, my previously reluctant reader, begged me to let him stay up late so he could keep reading the book, Eragon: "I just read the best part and it was so exciting my teeth were chattering."
I grinned. Because it sounded a lot like my own son's Harry Potter moment, which I wrote about here last week. And also because it was the perfect segue into this week's Parentlode Book Club topic, which is specifically about fostering a love of reading in boys.
Boys are different when it comes to reading. Which doesn't mean that some boys don't devour books from day one, and girls who never find the joy. But, overall, by their senior year of high school boys have fallen nearly 20 points behind their female peers in reading, says Pam Allyn, author of Pam Allyn's Best Books for Boys, among other reading titles.
"These disparities begin in elementary school," she says, where "boys are twice as likely to be placed in special education classes than girls, and also more than twice as likely to be diagnosed with learning disabilities."
She agreed to field a few questions about why boys lag, and what a parent can do to help. Then please feel free to use the comments to add questions of your own, and she promises to step in and answer those too.
Q. Is this gap rooted in the fact that boys are different as readers, or that we treat them differently? Or maybe the problem is they are different than girls and we treat them the same?
A. As Harvard psychologist William Pollack says, "today's schools are built for girls, and boys are becoming misfits." What will help our boys become dynamic learners and self-identified readers is an emphasis on creative innovation and choice in what they read and how they read. We are sometimes not even aware of how much we are evaluating what boys read as being less "serious" than what girls are reading. We as adults also need to revisit how we are defining "reading" and embrace new media and graphic novels and video game manuals and blogs and all of that as reading so that boys can believe in themselves as having authentic and valued reading lives too.
Q. You created the acronym READ (touche') to sum up what it takes to make a child "feel like learning belongs to them." Walk me through the pieces?
A. READ stands for Ritual, Environment, Access, and Dialogue.
Rituals are key: comforting, familiar routines built around reading can give life an enjoyable sense of continuity.
A boy's reading environment can help shape his perception and involvement with reading: allow for spontaneity and whimsy in his reading environment. (Or perhaps the toilet will do!)
Surrounding boys with text on and offline--newspapers, baseball cards, magazines, baskets of books, etc.--is fundamental to crafting an appreciation of reading. Access is about us not judging the older boy who wants to read a comic book, or the older boy who wants to browse a website about sea animals. Access means we value volume and stamina as much as we do the choice of what our boys read. Volume of print and stamina (building minutes) can be the two greatest ways we can raise boys who love to read.
Lastly, active dialogue that is thoughtful and genuine makes the reading experience social and nonthreatening. Who do they identify with in the story? What do they notice? Pay attention to the aspects that the boys find fascinating, quirky, surprising, and wonderful: this can further help identify books that match a boy's interests and help them as they grow older not to feel in any way shy or reserved about sharing big ideas that are simmering inside of them in response to what they are reading.
Q. So, in our zeal to make them readers, we are inadvertently getting in their way?
A. As parents we can, unintentionally, be very rigid and narrow about what we think reading "looks like" and what doesn't. Reading online and offline, from comics to how to books to cereal boxes are all ways real readers read in the real world. We so want the best for our boys, and so without even meaning to, we sometimes send very strong negative value judgments in relation to what boys are actually reading.
Let's be real about our own reading lives! We read from a variety of texts, some serious and informational, others light and distracting. Let's let our boys have that variety in their reading lives too. Nurturing a sense of belonging is also important: choose characters and authors with whom boys identify and who can help them make sense of an often confusing world around them. A sense of belonging does not have to fall along gender lines: often boys gravitate more towards boy characters, but this obviously is not a hard and fast rule (they may love Angelina's Ballerina or relate more to Hermione in Harry Potter than even Harry himself).
Along those lines, make sure your sons have male role models: guys they can see actually love to read. Seeing a strong, grown man read a simple picture book or a tender story will erase any notion in their mind that men don't enjoy reading or feel compelled by themes of humanity and understanding.
Q. You mentioned that schools can have expectations or philosophies that have a "chill effect" on boys. Tell me more?
A. The paradigm in our culture that learning is symbolized by children sitting quietly in their seats has been, in some cases, very very challenging for active boys (and girls). Absorption is one quality that I believe is sorely missing from school environments: we jump from activity to activity, skill to skill. What we can do at home is create a reading sanctuary to allow time and space for engaged reading. But school has often forgotten to include the whole point: reading is FUN. Reading is deeply collaborative, interactive, transformational. Some of these lessons have been pushed to the side in service to a test driven culture.
It's also worth mentioning that paring down the child's reading life into something manageable and fun is a vital role for the teacher. A "book stack" should reflect variety in the boy's reading life (not chaos). We want boys to approach all their books with curiosity and excitement: there should be little difference between reading for school and reading for fun. But right now there is a big difference. Boys I interviewed for my book told me over and over the books they read they loved were all read outside of school.
The whole class novel approach where everyone in the class is all reading the same book at the same time has also been detrimental to the progress of boys as readers. Boys report to me that the books selected are often written by women and are not books they want to read themselves. They also report they feel embarrassed when others seem to understand the selection faster or when the teacher requires them to read aloud in front of others. In this new era, I hope there will be far more opportunity for boys and girls to read widely during the school day and yes, to have opportunities to talk about shared texts, but also for the teacher to allow far more choice and independence in what our children are reading and how they read.
Q. What to do for a boy (or girl...or adult, frankly) who just doesn't sit still long enough to really read?
A. My suggestion is to make reading part of active lifestyles: let boys act out scenes from books; take nature guidebooks out on walks; have the boys record their own experiences in reading notebooks, or record you an audiomessage on a podcast about a book they read. The problem is not that boys are "too active;" our classrooms tend to not allow them to be themselves. Spend time with your children in a dynamic reading atmosphere: find books with strong character voices and flex your acting skills! Surely there will be some laughter involved, and this relationship of elation and reading could be the key to your boy's healthy reading life.
It is also important to support "quick reads" to help build stamina and patience. Value the brevity of a comic strip or short story or great poem. Mix it up--nothing wrong with setting a goal for how much reading your son does at home, but allow those minutes to be rich with varied texts if his attention or stamina is currently low. When reading shifts from "boring" to "exciting" for your boys, they'll be begging for something new to read, whether they are sitting in a chair or pacing back and forth on the back patio, or reading aloud to you from a funny riddle in the back seat of the car. And more likely than not, that sensation will continue into adulthood.
Q. Are there simply more "girl" books out there? Where to find books that will interest boys?
A. I think it comes down to us asking and listening to what boys like. And I mean, really listening: get the details down. Tailor book choices to boys' interests and give them options that are at their reading level, as well as some slightly above and below. We need to assist our boys and enroll them in the search for finding the ones that make them look forward to reading. Perhaps he enjoys aquatic animals at the moment. Or a book on our solar system has significantly enhanced his curiosity on planets.Or a visit to a Broadway musical has gotten him inspired to study singing. Or a detective protagonist in the latest cartoon has sparked an interest in mysteries. Our technological advantages in the modern age allow us to research and find books that satisfy any interest. The first step is to discover those interests and then provide a healthy balance of reading levels among the chosen texts.
Q. Your book is called Pam Allyn's Best Books for Boys. Care to name some names?
As I said, the goal is to find the right book for your particular boy, rather than the right book for any boy. I do offer parents about 20 lists, dividing books into interest categories, like Fantasy and Imagination, Realistic Fiction, How-to, Mystery and Horror, Comic Books and Graphic Novels, Math and Numbers, and then I divide into categories ranging from "Emerging Readers" to "Maturing Readers."
Q. One of those categories is Humor. I thought it might set a good mood here to end with that. (And you can also go see Devon Corneal's laugh-out-loud suggestions, here.)
A. Here you go: