It’s a boy thing…

News is out today that boys are still lagging behind girls in reading. While this may seem like old news, perhaps newer to us is the recognition that there is no official strategy to deal with it.

To be honest, we probably all knew this anyway. Schools put a lot of effort into trying to encourage boys to read but, for myriad reasons, some are not engaging. Sensibly, the report, compiled by the National Literacy Trust for the Boys’ Reading Commission, states that there is no clear way of tackling this educational issue, instead suggesting that effort must take place both inside and outside school.

Why boys may not read as much as girls (or at least succeed in it)

Some of the reasons the report cited included:

  • Lack of suitable material – some boys do want to read but just don’t have enough books to choose from of interest to them.
  • Lack of awareness about what boys like reading – this ties in with the point above: teachers and other staff often might not be aware of what it is that could motivate disengaged male readers. One of the reasons for this is because primary school staff are predominantly female.
  • Lack of male role models. Boys often see reading as something ‘nerdy’ to do, or something that only girls really participate in. A good, popular, male role model from the celeb world could help drive things forward. Equally, it tends to be mothers who read at home, rather than fathers. If dads could get involved more, it might help show their sons that reading matters.

What boys apparently like reading

When I read with my boys from school, there is huge agreement on what is cool for them to be seen with. There are two clear winners:

  • Diary of a Wimpy Kid, by Jeff Kinney

  • Mr Gum, by Andy Stanton

They love the craziness of it all, the evilness of Mr Gum and the wimpiness (is that a word?) of the Wimpy Kid. These are quite interesting opposites, actually: evil versus powerlessness. Is it that they kind of admire one and empathise with the other?

One boy I introduced Mr Gum to hooted with laughter because of the writing style, particularly the heroine Polly, who uses double negatives and all sorts of grammatically incorrect language. ‘But the author is writing stuff that is wrong!’ he exclaimed to me, eyes shining happily. ‘That’s because after you’ve learned the rules of grammar and writing, you can break them,’ I explained, hastily adding, ‘When you’ve grown up.’

What about the classics?

I picked up a book in a second-hand shop the other day entitled Classic Boy Stories, chosen by Michael Morpurgo.

What I found interesting was that all of the stories had a male as the central character: Flat Stanley, Peter Pan, Pinocchio, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Jungle Book, Beowulf, Oliver Twist, Treasure Island, etc. It would seem to be a logical assumption to make that boys will identify best with male characters in stories, as in the Diary of a Wimpy Kid BUT although  Mr Gum is the star of the Mr Gum series (obviously!) his arch-enemy (and the one you root for really) is a girl. Equally, in David Walliams’ popular novel Mr Stink, Chloe is the heroine. Perhaps for boys there has to be an equally strong male counterpart in any story rather than just a girl calling the shots.

Burps, toilets, farts and non-fiction

The other day Holly and I were talking about the Diary of a Wimpy Kid and other, supposedly, boy-oriented books. I said that because we were writing a blog on children’s books we ought to review some that are aimed at the opposite sex.

‘No,’ she flatly refused.

‘Why?’ I asked her.

‘Because they’re always about burps, or toilets, or farts, or wimpy kids,’ she replied, disdainfully. ‘I do NOT want to read about toilets! That’s disgusting!’

Holly’s preference is for strong characters and great adventures and this ties in with the NLT’s report’s findings:

  • Girls are more likely to read adventures, ghost/horror stories, romance and relationships and animal tales.
  • Boys are more likely to read sci/fi, fantasy, sports and war/spy novels.

I was a little surprised that boys aren’t into adventure more and wondered if reading choices had changed. What about the old Biggles books? Treasure Island and Kidnapped? Don’t boys now read their modern equivalents, if not the old classics?

Moving forward

The report makes interesting recommendations on how we can possibly move forward to encourage more boys to engage with reading. Some of these include:

  • Schools need to have a framework that supports them in how to encourage boys to read, rather than feeling their way around in the dark.
  • Every child should be supported in their reading journey – and a crucial part of this is to foster an enjoyment of reading. Currently, while the systemic phonics system helps young children decode words well (boys particularly) it doesn’t help them necessarily understand what they are reading, and if they struggle with that, then it’s no wonder they turn away from books.
  • Every teacher should know what sort of books can help motivate disengaged male readers. And if not, they should have access to a school librarian who could advise. (This latter point is difficult in an age where schools are lucky to have libraries, never mind a dedicated staff member.)
  • More inter-agency work should be done to identify children who are least likely to be read with at home – libraries could work with children’s centres, for example.
  • Social marketing could be used to encourage parents to help with their child’s literacy.
  • Every boy should have a male role model who reads with them weekly.

I think the last point is crucial. Boys are influenced greatly by their peers and look up to older boys so if some sort of book buddy scheme could be implemented, where slightly older boys read with younger ones, real differences might be seen.

However, as Michael Morpurgo is quoted as saying, any of these will not produce overnight successes. It could take a while for boys to start tuning into books again.

Over to you:

Are you the parent of boys? Do they like reading and, if so, what is it that they choose? Do you work with boys who resist reading? I would love to hear your views.


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