Encouraging boys to read

My two charming, energetic nephews are exceptional athletes — 10-year-old Colin plays (and plays well) on a baseball team of mostly 12-year-olds — but have little use for books.

For Christmas, we bought Colin the “Bulging Box of Books” containing “Horrible Science” books with titles (and contents) designed to appeal to pre-teen boys: “Angry Animals”; “Blood, Bones and Body Bits”; “Bulging Brains”; “Chemical Chaos”; “Deadly Diseases”; “Disgusting Digestion”; “Evolve or Die”; “Fatal Forces”; “Frightening Light”; “Killer Energy”; “Microscopic Monsters”; “Nasty Nature”; “Painful Poison”; “Shocking Electricity”; “Sounds Dreadful”; “Space, Stars and Slimy Aliens”; “The Fight for Flight”; “The Terrible Truth About Time”; and, “Ugly Bugs Vicious Veg.”

We also bought him three books in “The Grosse Adventures” series, “The Revenge of the McNasty Brothers”, “The Curse of the Bologna Sandwich” and “The Extraordinary Adventures of Ordinary Boy”. All of these books were written specifically to encourage young boys to read.

I know Colin has read at least part of one of the books and actually enjoyed it. But I don’t think even these books — designed specifically to entice boys his age — have inspired him to become a reader. (Perhaps I should have enticed him with forbidden fruit and challenged him, saying, “You’ll have to wait six months to read these because you’re too young for these really disgusting books that are written with difficult words only older boys can read”?)

I see Colin only once or twice a year, so I’m not sure why he views reading as torture rather than fun, but part of the problem is that he so loves video games, TV and sports. Even books written to excite kids like him can’t compete. The “obvious” (to me) solution is to schedule reading time during which he’s not allowed to play video games, watch TV or run around outside. Ideally, everyone in the family would pick up a book during reading time, and reading time would become a cherished (or, at least, established) family activity/tradition. I’ve suggested that, but I’ve been told there’s just too little family time. They certainly are a busy family, but they find lots of time for all kinds of sports. And the kids find plenty of time for TV and video games. Couldn’t they cut back a bit to carve out time for reading?

Whatever the cause of my nephews' disinterest in reading, sadly, they have plenty of company. Nicholas Kristof discusses boys' academic failings today:

A sobering new book, “Why Boys Fail,” by Richard Whitmire, cites mountains of evidence to make the point:

  • The average high school grade point average is 3.09 for girls and 2.86 for boys. Boys are almost twice as likely as girls to repeat a grade.

  • Boys are twice as likely to get suspended as girls, and three times as likely to be expelled. Estimates of dropouts vary, but it seems that about one-quarter more boys drop out than girls.

  • Among whites, women earn 57 percent of bachelor’s degrees and 62 percent of master’s degrees. Among blacks, the figures are 66 percent and 72 percent.

  • In federal writing tests, 32 percent of girls are considered “proficient” or better. For boys, the figure is 16 percent.

There is one important exception: Boys still beat out girls at the very top of the curve, especially in math.

In the high school class of 2009, a total of 297 students scored a perfect triple-800 on the S.A.T., 62 percent of them boys, according to Kathleen Steinberg of the College Board. And of the 10,052 who scored an 800 in the math section, 69 percent were boys.

Many American boys don’t engage with school, though many who do engage in school do fabulously well. These statistics demonstrate how crucial it is to encourage your boys to love reading. Boys who develop a love of reading do very well in school, whereas those who view reading as a chore learn little from school. Oversimplifying a bit, academic success vs. failure boils down to fostering an early love of reading.

So, how can you help your young man develop a love of reading and learning? Kristof suggests “guysread.com, [which] offers useful lists of books to coax boys into reading… helpfully sorted into categories like ‘ghosts,’ ‘boxers, wrestlers, ultimate fighters,’ and ‘at least one explosion.’” But just having interesting books is not enough. Boys must also be nudged to read them… until they discover how fun reading can be and develop a passion that drives them to the library. (I fondly recall my excitement visiting the library as a teen. It seemed a world of knowledge lay before me for me to pick through.)

Encouraging reading means parents must read with their young children regularly, and moms especially must model a love of reading. According to the superb How to Make Your Child a Reader for Life, research at Harvard identified these factors — in descending order of importance — that encourage younger children to read:

  1. Home “literacy” environment: books, newspapers, attitudes
  2. Mother’s educational expectations of the child
  3. Mother’s own education
  4. Parent-child interaction

The father’s expectations and background apparently had no effect on reading, but they were important in promoting the child’s development of writing skills.

Posted by James on Monday, March 29, 2010