Get ready for this profound statement: Some boys love to read. Others don’t. Okay, so maybe it wasn’t that weighty, but there’s no debating that boys are less engaged than girls in reading the types of texts we often use in school.

On average, male comprehension is less than that of their female counterparts. This difference is often attributed to the fact that boys read less than girls. Boys are efferent readers (meaning they read to obtain information), whereas girls are more aesthetic in nature (in other words, they read for enjoyment more frequently). As a result, by the time they enter high school, almost 50% of boys consider themselves “nonreaders.” Boys tend to learn to read at an older age than girls, and they often have more difficulty comprehending narrative texts (like many of those we use in academic studies).

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In Pam Allyn’s book, Best Book for Boys, How to Engage Boys in Reading in Ways that Will Change Their Lives, she writes that over 300,000 boys are dropping out of high school each year in America, and over 93 percent of teenagers incarcerated are men. Illiteracy is a correlating factor, no doubt.

Research has proven these realities time and time again. The question is, what can we do about it? In this post, I’d like to mention a handful of tactics teachers and parents should consider when trying to foster an appreciation for reading in students, specifically as it relates to male adolescents.

I’m well aware of the fact that the aforementioned research and the tips that follow do not pertain to all males. Likewise, some of these points may be true for females. In an earlier post, I wrote about how to address children in general who have either lost or never possessed a joy for reading. You can read it here. Please keep in mind that the ideas in this post are merely intended to help parents and teachers address the reading gap that exists between boys and girls, particularly among older students.

Disclaimer: This is kind of one of those topics I could write an entire set of encyclopedias or a doctoral dissertation about, but since I’m afraid no one would read that, I’m cramming a bunch of ideas into an itty bitty living space: this post.

Know What the Research Says About Genres Boys Like 

While I’ve heard many kids say they dislike nonfiction, older boys actually tend to enjoy nonfiction more than girls. Take my husband, for example. He’ll sit around reading hunting magazines all day. My son – Ranger Rick is right up his alley. Books like Blackhawk Down, Unbroken, A Long Way Gone, and How They Croaked are often popular among my ninth and tenth-grade students.

Still, boys enjoy certain fictional genres also. Research shows that comedy (think The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian), action (The Fifth Wave is a frequent choice for my students), horror (Stephen King, Edgar Allan Poe), science fiction (The Maze Runner, pretty much any Ray Bradbury story), fantasy (Harry Potter, The Hobbit), and graphic novels are favorable choices for boys…as are books that are written in a series, like The Hunger Games or Lord of the Rings. It’s also important to note that boys usually don’t enjoy reading about girl protagonists. Go figure.

Of course, there will always be exceptions to these research findings, and no one wants to stereotype boys and place them all in the same cookie-cutter mold, but parents and teachers would benefit from asking about boys’ interests when trying to engage an apathetic reader. Most boys enjoy reading about their favorite sports, hobbies, and activities.

Check out Guys Read, a web-based literacy program developed specifically in light of the decline in boys’ reading amounts and abilities, for excellent reading recommendations for male students. Happy Hooligans has a useful list, too.

Recognize All Kinds of Reading Materials

Boys need validation that the type of literature they enjoy matters…that engaging with those types of texts counts as reading. Too often, in academic settings, we undervalue magazines, newspapers, Internet articles, and fun texts (like comics).  When students
slide1are given a choice in reading, these sources that males often enjoy should be included within the realm of opportunities. Many of my male students have chosen books like The Guinness Book of World Records or Oh, Yuck! The Encyclopedia of Everything Nasty (shudder!) when reading for fun my class.

Allowing choice of reading somewhere in the class is imperative. Even so, it’s important that educators not only use the texts males are interested in during independent reading but also that we incorporate those types of texts into our mainstream curriculum. As mentioned earlier, comic books and graphic novels are usually a hit among the male subgroup, so last year, I used the graphic novel version of The Odyssey instead of the original epic poem, and I noticed more investment in class discussions and more student questions about the reading (from both genders!) than I had experienced before…simply because more students were interested in the text. We had read a graphic novel together, which validated their enjoyment of reading that genre. Did I enjoy it as much? Heck no! But I had to set aside my subjectivities for the benefit of the greater good.

I’m not suggesting that we throw all the original classics out the window. Teachers need to use the knowledge they have about their own students, classes, and reading lists to determine where texts that appeal to males can be substituted. It’s important that teachers and parents don’t undermine an adolescent’s appreciation for reading the types of texts they relish.

Help Boys Apply their Reading to Real Life

Sometimes the type of text is not the issue. Then what is? The purpose. Boys often approach literature with the goal of learning more about their world. This notion is certainly true for my son who is full of questions about animals, the earth, outer space, creation, and so much more…even when we are reading a fictional piece of literature! Therefore, if students are reading a book like Charlotte’s Web, the most fascinating part about that text might be the opportunity they have to learn about spiders. If the book involves pirates, host a treasure hunt in the backyard or the neighborhood. Does the boy enjoy books about outer space? Read one and then lay in the back yard as a family, doing some stargazing together. Teachers and parents should seize these precious moments. Let teens complete a research project based on the area of the text that fascinates them most, using nonfiction sources to learn more about that interest.

Some texts are nonnegotiables. For example, I teach freshmen. I must cover Romeo and Juliet every year. Generally, many of my students groan about this play before we even begin (especially the boys). In order to make this type of classic literature appealing for males, teachers and parents can show them how pervasive the plot, conflict, and themes are in pop culture. We can tie it into movies and songs they enjoy, and we can even offer them opportunities to research hatred, prejudice, gangs, and teenage rebellion in real life. Talk to teens about dating, friendship, betrayal, disobedience, and suicide. These types of activities can engage male students in texts they would otherwise despise.

Find them Male Role Models Who Read

This one might be the single most important influence in a boy’s interest in reading. It’s huge. It all boils down to the male role model.

It’s no secret. Reading is generally considered “uncool” for boys. Too often, a lack of male role models who read are present, and students begin thinking reading is a “nerdy” or “girly” hobby. What we need are males (fathers, teachers, coaches, administrators) who are willing to read out in the open and even to teenagers. Our adolescents need to see that it IS a male activity and that it IS an activity of value. Boys follow the lead of the men in their lives who they look up to most. America needs men to stand up and change this toxic cultural unstated belief that boys are not supposed to read for fun.

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A couple ideas for how males can read with boys so that we can reverse this ridiculous “reading is uncool” mentality.

  1. Men can take reading materials with them and read while they are waiting (for a tire to be changed, at a doctor’s office, for their wife to finish shopping, for students to finish a test, on a road trip, before practice begins, etcetera). Boys will observe their fathers or adult role models reading during this downtime, and in their own time, they will most likely pick up the habit.
  2.  When students have questions, men can look up the answer to that question with students, demonstrating how to use real-life problem-solving skills by reading to find the answers they seek. Teaching boys how to read texts like manuals and maps is extremely important, as is helping them understand how to navigate the web safely.

Employ New Literacies

New literacies, in a nutshell, are literacies that are new. No, just kidding. Well, sort of. New literacies involve technology and whether or not students are capable of navigating them. For example, how many of your students can decipher a source’s credibility? That’s a new literacy skill. Social media and all of the means of technology at our teens’ fingertips…those are forms of new literacy that change what it means to read and write text. So?

Well, it appears (based on research) that many boys appreciate assignments that allow them to engage with new literacies. This is a positive thing; while many students enjoy technology, not many of mine are well-versed in traversing it, deciphering truth from fallacy, or utilizing it intelligently. As teachers and parents, we can provide our students the option of reading from a computer, reading news articles from the Web, reading blogs, and more. The possibility for assignments to accompany the new literacies bandwagon are endless. Capitalize on them, and you might just notice a difference in boys’ engagement with reading.

Find Ways to Make Reading Active and/or Competetive

For many years, I’ve subscribed to Scholastic Scope magazines. They are awesome resources for high-interest nonfiction texts for middle school readers, but one of my favorite features is in almost every issue, they have a script that can be used for Reader’s Theater, and it’s usually for a classic piece of literature. I’ve seen excerpts of classic poems (like The Odyssey), traditional plays, and famous short stories included. With my ninth graders, I couldn’t replace “The Cask of Amontillado,” for example, with a middle school play; it just wasn’t rigorous enough! But…I could read the short story with the class and then have the students act out the play excerpt for kinesthetic involvement. The boys have always LOVED this type of activity. One time they pretended to be sheep and moved around on all fours, baaa-ing and having a grand old time. I’m pretty sure we’ll all remember that positive experience with reading for a long time.

I’ve made reading competitive on different occasions in my classroom. One of the most successful was by hosting a “Survivor” simulation while reading Lord of the Flies with both seniors and sophomores. I’ve also divided the class into “Capulets” and “Montagues” while reading Romeo and Juliet, and each family was pitted in competition against the other. Teachers can use quiz scores, special challenges, games, and homework completion in these competitions, and the kids generally eat it up. I’ve also had class projects where everyone works together to rewrite the ending of the play. My male students L.O.V.E. this…the movement, the creativity, the ability to add more realistic, relevant elements.

Our whole school has recently moved to a Million Pages of Books Challenge, thanks to our incredible librarian who has orchestrated the whole thing. Kids record the number of pages of books they read, and teachers determine how to motivate and reward their classes on an individual basis. This challenge has been so successful for both genders that we barely have any books left on the library shelves! When boys have these elements of competition to motivate them, they are more likely to engage in the texts that accompany the activities.

slide1Make it Fun

Need a few additional ideas for how teachers can entice boys with literature through engaging activities and assignments?

  1. Create a fantasy sports league with fictional characters. Have students nominate players for a fictional “dream team” based on what they are reading in class. They should support their choices with textual evidence, of course!
  2. Host a book banquet, and have students create a “menu” of books for their peers.
  3. Link characters in books to popular video games, television shows, and movie characters that interest boys.
  4. Have students read horror or mystery books packaged in black bags and then write reviews of the scariest reads.
  5. Host a crime scene investigation if there is a death or murder in the book or story.
  6. Include students in selecting books for the library, classroom, and home collection. Hold a “box opening” party when the books arrive!
  7. Take students to the library frequently, and let them just sit down in a chair and immerse themselves in the rows of amazing books available to them.
  8. If a boy enjoys the outdoors, read a book about, for instance, how to build a treehouse…and then build one with him. If this is too complex, a fort or something similar might be an option. The Dangerous Book for Boys has some great how-to ideas.
  9. After reading adventure books like Camp X, boys could research their own communities to see if there are any surprises in the story of their own town.
  10. After reading a humorous book, students could keep a joke book where they write their own original jokes and collect their favorite witticisms from others.
  11. Engage boys in new literacies. If they read stories about controversial topics (as most books have), they could do a research project about that topic in real life, poll friends, family, and school personnel, and present their findings to their peers in the form of a debate, speech, or news clip. They might also enjoy using social media to survey others and to publish their work.
  12. Parents can take their boys on trips (long or short – near to home or far away) to explore the settings of the books their sons are reading. This real-life research activity would be very appealing to most students (if it’s feasible).

As I mentioned earlier, this topic is huge. Like Paul Bunyon. Or Clifford. If you know a young man who could benefit from some reading engagement ideas, check out the websites below for further research on this topic.

Please leave a comment if you have suggestions to help parents, guardians, and teachers engage boys in books. The best teacher is experience. Let’s work together to change the tide of America’s reading culture.

“What We Want: Boys and Girls Talk About Reading” – American Library Association

“Books and the ‘Boy Problem'” – High-Interest Publishing

“Strategies to Engage Boys in Reading (And Girls, Too)” – Ohio State University

“How to Engage Your Boy in Reading – A Q&A with Pam Allyn” – Read Aloud Dad

“The New Literacies” – Reading Rockets

“Boys and Girls” – Reading Rockets

“Helping Underachieving Boys Reading Well and Often” – ERIC Digest

“Engaging Gifted Boys in New Literacies” – Gifted Child Today

“Me Read? No Way!” – Ontario Education

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