On Raising Boys Who Read

GeekMom
boy-reading
Photo: Flickr user KellyB.

My boys are voracious readers. Sometimes I’ve even been tempted to make them put the books down and do something else. Anything else. A friend of mine tells me that this is a good problem to have. Her son, the same age as my youngest, won’t pick up a book to save his life.

“How do you do it?” she asks.

She’s not the only one wondering. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal ponders How to Raise Boys Who Read. From the article:

According to a recent report from the Center on Education Policy, for example, substantially more boys than girls score below the proficiency level on the annual National Assessment of Educational Progress reading test. This disparity goes back to 1992, and in some states the percentage of boys proficient in reading is now more than ten points below that of girls. The male-female reading gap is found in every socio-economic and ethnic category, including the children of white, college-educated parents.

How did we get to this point with our boys? Some blame technology and video games. Others blame the reading material itself:

A considerable number of teachers and librarians believe that boys are simply bored by the “stuffy” literature they encounter in school. According to a revealing Associated Press story in July these experts insist that we must “meet them where they are”–that is, pander to boys’ untutored tastes.

While I don’t disagree with the idea of letting kids read what interests them, I didn’t have to pander to my kids with books like Zombie Butts from Uranus. My youngest did pick up Captain Underpants on the recommendation of a friend, but it didn’t cause him to seek out more books in the bathroom humor genre. I think he had enough sense to realize that while there may have been a few chuckles in the book, it really wasn’t as enjoyable as some of the other stories he’d read.

As a homeschooling family we’ve had the freedom to let reading occur at a more natural pace. I never sat down and said, “Today, we learn to read.” Instead, I read to the boys. A lot. I pointed out signs, telling them what they said. I made sure they had access to plenty of interesting reading material. Not just books, but maps, games, Pokemon cards, and LEGO catalogs. And they learned to read. Note that I didn’t say, “I taught them to read.” I didn’t. I gave them the opportunities and they essentially taught themselves. I answered plenty of  “How do you spell ___?” questions and told them what the unrecognizable words were when they asked. But that’s been the extent of my reading lessons.

My eldest was reading picture books at the age of four, and asking the librarian to help him find non-fiction books on topics of interest at five. My youngest was a late reader. At age eight, he didn’t read much beyond some familiar and basic words but he was desperate to know what all the Harry Potter fuss was about. I told him that when he could read, he could read Harry Potter. He’d finished the first book in the series two weeks later because all of a sudden, reading became interesting and important to him. Today? Both boys are reading at levels well beyond their respective grade level.

I think that because my boys have had the opportunity to read what interested them, at their own pace, they’ve learned that reading isn’t a chore that must be completed, but rather an activity to be enjoyed. My youngest – the late reader – carries a book with him everywhere he goes in case there’s a down moment when he can squeeze in a little reading for pleasure.

That Wall Street Journal article closes with this interesting fact:

There is no literacy gap between home-schooled boys and girls.

This is not to say that every homeschooling family uses the same method. Certainly that’s not the case. But somewhere between home and school, something is going on. Is it the push in schools for high scores on standardized testing? Is it the long hours of seat time leaving boys with the desire to do nothing but move when the bell rings?

My friend whose son is a reluctant reader feels very strongly that he was pushed to read when he wasn’t ready. His first two years of school was full of forced memorization. In her mind, those lessons did nothing but teach him to hate reading. Forcing our boys to sit and read when their brains are simply not there yet is counterproductive.

I’m not suggesting that everyone run out and homeschool. Absolutely not. And I’m not suggesting that kids with learning disabilities be left to their own devices. But why not take a lesson from what seems to be working and ask schools to ease up a bit? Give these boys the resources, let them read at their own pace, and I’d bet that in no time this problem will be a minor one. Let these poor kids learn to enjoy reading.

So, GeekMoms. Is your son a reader? What did you do to encourage a love of reading? Was there one teacher who really inspired him? This is my story; tell us yours!

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96 thoughts on “On Raising Boys Who Read

  1. I am passionate about this topic. In fact, I have an entire blog category on Reluctant Readers (http://www.pragmaticmom.com/?cat=3154). I think the key to try lots of different thing. Mix it up and realize that what works now, will need be changed up. Model reading and read together (daily!). Get lots of book recs to test out from librarians, teachers, and peers of your child. Try audio books. Try graphic novels. Give reading incentives. Make reading fun. Put books everywhere including the bathroom. Change those books up weekly.

    It’s the gift that keeps on giving.

    ps is that a picture of your child? can i use it for my post on Caught in the Act … of READING? I love that photo!

    here’s a sample post; it’s my weekly Monday feature and I’m struggling to get pics! http://www.pragmaticmom.com/?p=12892 Thanks!

    1. The photo is not mine, but isn’t it great? It’s from FLickr and used under the Creative Commons license.

      I agree with you on all of your suggestions but one: incentives for reading. I feel strongly that reading and the story should be incentive enough. I recommend reading Alfie Kohn on the topic of praise and external motivators.

  2. I am passionate about this topic. In fact, I have an entire blog category on Reluctant Readers (http://www.pragmaticmom.com/?cat=3154). I think the key to try lots of different thing. Mix it up and realize that what works now, will need be changed up. Model reading and read together (daily!). Get lots of book recs to test out from librarians, teachers, and peers of your child. Try audio books. Try graphic novels. Give reading incentives. Make reading fun. Put books everywhere including the bathroom. Change those books up weekly.

    It’s the gift that keeps on giving.

    ps is that a picture of your child? can i use it for my post on Caught in the Act … of READING? I love that photo!

    here’s a sample post; it’s my weekly Monday feature and I’m struggling to get pics! http://www.pragmaticmom.com/?p=12892 Thanks!

    1. The photo is not mine, but isn’t it great? It’s from FLickr and used under the Creative Commons license.

      I agree with you on all of your suggestions but one: incentives for reading. I feel strongly that reading and the story should be incentive enough. I recommend reading Alfie Kohn on the topic of praise and external motivators.

  3. This is a question near and dear to me. I am a reader, that’s just what I do. I devour books, and our house has always been filled with books of all sorts. Even though my boys are older (10 and 12), we still read books together – the only difference is that now they sometimes are the ones reading aloud. We make bi-weekly trips to the library together, and I really encourage them to read whatever interests them, whether it be novels or comics.
    My younger son, he is a reader as well. He sneaks books at bedtime (with the booklight I so unwisely bought him), it is not unusual to find him half-dressed when it is time to leave for school, because he was more interested in reading than dressing. He usually is in the middle of 3 or 4 books at once, as his weighty backpack will attest.
    My older son, however, is not much of a reader, which has been very difficult for me to understand, because our entire family are readers, and I just can’t fathom a life not filled with books. He can read just fine, he just isn’t all that interested. Occasionally, he will find a book or series of books that really interest him, and will plow through them, but that is not the norm. He seems to like the idea of reading (every library trip he brings home a huge pile of books) but is not terribly fond of the execution. My youngest brother was much the same way, but now as an adult is a voracious reader. So, I just let it lie, continue to encourage reading without pushing, and cross my fingers that one day he will learn to love reading like I do.

    On the subject of audio books, while I understand that it is definitely not the same as reading, I think they can be useful. My son’s teacher (a former reluctant reader himself) suggested that he start listening to audio books for his required nightly reading, because it was becoming a huge battle to get him to read each night. Several of the books he listened to have become favorites, that he has since read himself. Listening to the audiobook was enough to spark his interest in books that he wasn’t terribly interested in prior (A good example is the Artemis Fowl series – I had encouraged him to read them for a couple years, and the paper copies sat on his nightstand without being touched. Post-audio book, he is now about halfway through reading them for real.) Books with online components, such as the Skeleton Creek, Trackers, and 39 Clues Series, have been a hit with him as well – the online component has been enough to draw him in, and he ended up enjoying the books.

  4. This is a question near and dear to me. I am a reader, that’s just what I do. I devour books, and our house has always been filled with books of all sorts. Even though my boys are older (10 and 12), we still read books together – the only difference is that now they sometimes are the ones reading aloud. We make bi-weekly trips to the library together, and I really encourage them to read whatever interests them, whether it be novels or comics.
    My younger son, he is a reader as well. He sneaks books at bedtime (with the booklight I so unwisely bought him), it is not unusual to find him half-dressed when it is time to leave for school, because he was more interested in reading than dressing. He usually is in the middle of 3 or 4 books at once, as his weighty backpack will attest.
    My older son, however, is not much of a reader, which has been very difficult for me to understand, because our entire family are readers, and I just can’t fathom a life not filled with books. He can read just fine, he just isn’t all that interested. Occasionally, he will find a book or series of books that really interest him, and will plow through them, but that is not the norm. He seems to like the idea of reading (every library trip he brings home a huge pile of books) but is not terribly fond of the execution. My youngest brother was much the same way, but now as an adult is a voracious reader. So, I just let it lie, continue to encourage reading without pushing, and cross my fingers that one day he will learn to love reading like I do.

    On the subject of audio books, while I understand that it is definitely not the same as reading, I think they can be useful. My son’s teacher (a former reluctant reader himself) suggested that he start listening to audio books for his required nightly reading, because it was becoming a huge battle to get him to read each night. Several of the books he listened to have become favorites, that he has since read himself. Listening to the audiobook was enough to spark his interest in books that he wasn’t terribly interested in prior (A good example is the Artemis Fowl series – I had encouraged him to read them for a couple years, and the paper copies sat on his nightstand without being touched. Post-audio book, he is now about halfway through reading them for real.) Books with online components, such as the Skeleton Creek, Trackers, and 39 Clues Series, have been a hit with him as well – the online component has been enough to draw him in, and he ended up enjoying the books.

  5. You’re certainly right about reading to kids. Decades later, it’s easy to recall my father sitting by the bedroom door, answering the plea to read just one more chapter. As an occasional treat, he’d read to us at length. Unfortunately, this had to end before the youngest was really able to read.

    I enjoyed this performance the longest, and read dad’s classic tales and fantasy voraciously, like a little paper cannibal. My younger sister also learned to associate reading with happiness, but quickly moved on from dad’s stories and discovered her own taste in the girl’s fiction of the day. My brother, the youngest, wouldn’t have read much if he hadn’t been allowed to pursue very different reading interests. First, comic books, then magazines, then war history… eventually he sought out hefty authors such as Harry Turtledove, but he needed to be allowed room to read things that few people would have recommended.

    Also vital –
    Providing half an hour between bedtime and lights out, and offering regular trips to the library.

    I suspect that having a computer or video game with written menus also helps, I think most of our generation of nerds had to learn to use the command line to get to our games. My husband certainly recalls using it a fair amount, and is an even bigger reader (Now he reads programming books as often as fiction. I suppose I may never make sense out of guys reading preferences. )

    If you read to them, eventually they’ll want to read something of their own… even if it’s not what you expect 😉

  6. You’re certainly right about reading to kids. Decades later, it’s easy to recall my father sitting by the bedroom door, answering the plea to read just one more chapter. As an occasional treat, he’d read to us at length. Unfortunately, this had to end before the youngest was really able to read.

    I enjoyed this performance the longest, and read dad’s classic tales and fantasy voraciously, like a little paper cannibal. My younger sister also learned to associate reading with happiness, but quickly moved on from dad’s stories and discovered her own taste in the girl’s fiction of the day. My brother, the youngest, wouldn’t have read much if he hadn’t been allowed to pursue very different reading interests. First, comic books, then magazines, then war history… eventually he sought out hefty authors such as Harry Turtledove, but he needed to be allowed room to read things that few people would have recommended.

    Also vital –
    Providing half an hour between bedtime and lights out, and offering regular trips to the library.

    I suspect that having a computer or video game with written menus also helps, I think most of our generation of nerds had to learn to use the command line to get to our games. My husband certainly recalls using it a fair amount, and is an even bigger reader (Now he reads programming books as often as fiction. I suppose I may never make sense out of guys reading preferences. )

    If you read to them, eventually they’ll want to read something of their own… even if it’s not what you expect 😉

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