Thursday, September 1, 2011

Making Reading Exciting for Boys

I've written a number of posts on boys and book for this blog. In an earlier post, 'The Challenge of Boys and Reading' I suggested that one of the great priorities when sharing books with boys is to make it interesting, enjoyable and satisfying. Encounters with books should stimulate every boy's imagination, enjoyment, curiosity, knowledge, sense of fun, creativity, sense of adventure, enjoyment of language and offer opportunities to learn new things.  For too many boys, encounters with books speak of boredom, inadequacy and separation from fun. This feeds a sense of failure, frustration and lack of interest in reading. Our job as parents and teachers is to break this cycle.

The fundamentals

1. Boys are more likely to be attracted to books and reading when they offer opportunities to discover, experiment, explore, learn new things, make them laugh, consider the curious or unusual, help them to play, see how things work, share trivia, tricks and facts with other boys, explore the unknown, and generally do interesting things.

2. Boys need to understand the value of story and storytelling from an early age. This can be acquired through early books, the stories you share with them (anecdotes, memories, tall tales etc), traditional stories and fantasy. Until boys value story, they will struggle to cope with reading.

3. Fathers and mothers need to learn how to listen to and read with your sons. Reading to and with you should be enjoyable, not boring or a chore. See my previous post on this topic (here).

4. Fathers have a key role to play in boys' literacy and learning development (see my post on research in this area here).

5. Pretty much every act of reading is relational. For boys, if the book is connected with people with whom they share strong relationships, then they will read. If parents, significant community leaders and teachers that boys love and respect value reading then they will too.

6. Whoever reads to them and with them should keep the following in mind:

Choices - Help them to make good choices, including stuff they can read and that they'll find interesting.
Enjoyment - Make it seem important, interesting and fun, not just a task.
Forms - Introduce them to as many different forms of reading as possible.
Model - Make sure you enjoy it too! If you're bored, they'll be bored. If you're having fun, they will too.
Early intervention - Start early and do it often. Don't wait till your boy is seven before you start reading to and with him. It's not impossible by then but it's tougher. 
Giving boys support and getting help

For many boys the narrative form is the best way into literacy, but some boys are reluctant to read storybooks. Having said this, all humans love stories, even if only in non-book forms like anecdotes, yarns, ballads, songs, jokes, video games etc. Our aim as parents or teachers is to develop boys who can read every imaginable genre when it is appropriate to their needs. We want them to read in a sustained way written text presented in traditional print forms (e.g. books, magazines, letters), electronic forms, or in fact everyday text found anywhere within the child's world. So we should seek to explore any form of reading available and then gently push them to explore other forms of reading, as well as to read in more sustained ways and for all imaginable purposes.

Varied pathways into reading

I've written before about the need for varied 'Pathways to Literacy', but below I've tried to offer a range of ideas for boys aged from beginning readers to young teenagers. All are meant to offer an alternative pathway for pushing forward reluctant readers. They are roughly in order of increasing difficulty and age appropriateness, but some examples are relevant across all ages.

Introduce them to magazines - boys will love to flick through the pages of magazines on topics that interest them. Something like National Geographic is ideal (or a children's version of this type of magazine like 'Kids Almanac'). If they are expendable (e.g. old National Geographics), let them cut out interesting pictures and get them to make a book by sticking them in and then labelling them. Later you can write words for them that they dictate or you can encourage them from a very early age to try to 'write' (see my previous post on 'When do children start writing' here) words that go with the pictures.

Explore websites together - from about 3 years most boys will love to explore computers with you. Choose some simple websites (I list a few on the sidebar of this blog site), National Geographic Kids is worth a look. The Australian Museum has a great site called 'Wild Kids' where lots of facts and pictures can be found about animals - great fun to explore (and it's reading!). Show them how you open the site. Then explore the pages of the site pointing to and reading words. Don't make this a reading lesson, the text is peripheral to the exploration, images etc. But you are 'warming them up' to print. There are some greats sites to explore on sharks, reptiles etc.

Explore factual books together - boys love to learn new things. Borrow factual books from the library about space, dinosaurs, cars, trains, reptiles, sea creatures, insects, how things work etc. Boys will flick pages and look at pictures for ages. Sit with them and selectively draw attention to words. Perhaps use the book as a springboard to other activities (e.g. craft, drawing) and encourage the use of writing to label or supplement drawings. A brilliant example of this type of book is 'The Way Things Work' by David Macaulay (the author's website is also worth a visit here). This book explains with words, diagrams and pictures how things work, for example, electricity, pulleys, microscopes, smoke detectors etc. This can be flicked through or read. It isn't a simple book but is ideal for an older boy who isn't keen on stories but may respond to a more difficult factual book that will encourage him to read for more sustained periods. And this is one of our aims, to give them reading 'stamina'.

A sub-category of this approach is the use of 'key fact' books. Many boys will love books that offer a mix of drawings and pictures with facts about things that fascinate them. Some of these books use extended text, but others use short 'sharp' statement with good accompanying graphics or images. Popular topic areas with boys include:
  • Egyptology
  • Jet planes
  • Weather
  • Animals of all kinds
  • History
  • Sport
  • Science
  • Engineering
Here are a couple of examples:

A recently published book is 'Into the Unknown' by Stewart Ross with illustrations by the incredible Stephen Biesty. This wonderful hard cover book from Walker Books tells the story of 14 famous journeys throughout history, including 'Pytheas the Greek Sails to the Arctic Circle in 340BC', 'Admiral Zheng He Crosses the Indian Ocean in 1405-07', 'Neil Armstrong & Buzz Aldrin Land on the Moon in 1969', 'Marco Polo Rides the Silk Road to China in 1271-74' and many more.

Each story has multiple drawings, maps and a giant fold out cross-section. Boys will read and look through this book for hours. You will also enjoy reading this exciting book to boys. There are many other 'cross-section' books by Stephen Biesty and others (here), including 'Egypt in Cross Section', 'Castles' and 'Rome'.

There is a sub-group in this category that present interesting short facts that boys love dipping into, showing to friends and revisiting again and again

1001 Unbelievable Facts, by Helen Otway (there is a whole series of '1001 Fact..' books, 'Backpack Books' published by DK)
100 Things You Should Know About Ancient Rome, by Fiona MacDonald
Dinosaurs (Pocket Series), produced as part of a series of non-fiction books by DK Publishing

There are also scientific books produced by major organizations like museums. A wonderful example is My Panda Book, by Stuart P. Levine. This is one of a series of books published in partnership with the Smithsonian.

A wonderful example of a fact book that my wife bought for me (and which I've shared with my grandson) is 'One Small Step'. This was produced to commemorate the first moon landing on July 20th 1969. The book is a replica of a scrapbook put together by a 12 year old boy whose grandad was working in the Houston Control Room on the day when man first made it to the moon. It’s a collection of Moon-landing memorabilia (e.g. space menus, certificates, transcript of the first steps exchange etc), photographs and so on. It also has more recent space science information, including the future of space travel.

Joke books - There are numerous joke books that boys will use for hours with family and friends. For some reluctant readers joke books are the place that they will drift to in order to avoid sustained reading. The aim isn't to allow this to happen, but these books if managed well can be a way to get boys reading more difficult material. There are lots of books of this type; the following are just a couple of examples.

Knock Knock Who's There: My First Knock Knock Book by Tad Hills is a great introduction to humour in books with answers under flaps.
The Everything Kids' Joke Book
, by Michael Dahl offers Jokes for upper Primary children (aged 7-12 years) plus a second section on how to write jokes.
The Family Joke Book, by Brad Taylor

Books that encourage boys to make and do things - there are many examples of books of this type. They show boys how to make simple things, conduct science experiments and so on. Places like the National Geographic stores can be a good place to look for books of this type. A well-known recent example is The Dangerous Book for Boys. This book offers a range of ideas for making and doing things. For example, how to make the greatest paper plane in the world, building a tree house, all about dinosaurs, making a G0-cart, how to go fishing, juggling, all about Australian snakes, skimming stones and so on. This isn't a simple book (about grade 4-5 standard) but the content will help boys to 'stretch' themselves. It is also a great book for boys to read and 'do' with an adult.

Graphic novels and comics - While this category often uses narrative, there are many good examples that are non-fiction. Whereas the comic is essentially a sequence of pictures with conversation and texts, the Graphic Novel is a more complex text.  Graphic novels use a combination of text and varied art. More recent examples also draw on music, sound, related web-based resources and so on.  They can include biographies, narratives, memoirs and journals, classic story retellings etc. For example, there are now graphic-novel editions of the works of Shakespeare, and many classics such as 'The Red Badge of Courage', 'Beowulf', 'Greek myths', 'The Adventures of Robin Hood' and even 'The Canterbury Tales'. Nicki Greenberg's 427 page 'Hamlet' offers us one of the most ambitious efforts I have seen as she presents (in fact she 'stages') Shakespeare's play as a graphic novel. Mind you, not many boys will find this accessible.

Most boys will prefer simpler examples of this form. For example, Raymond Briggs has used the format to powerful effect with works like 'When the Wind Blows' (1986) that tells of the impact of an atomic blast on an elderly British couple who approach the impending disaster as if they were simply trying to survive the Blitz of WWII.

Some people lump comics and graphic novels together but they are different forms. Whereas the graphic novel uses more extended text mixed with varied illustrations and images, the comic makes use of sequenced pictures and speech balloons. There is still a place for comic books (see my previous post on this here). There are also an emerging range of electronic comics that boys will enjoy including many classic comic series like 'Archie' but I doubt that this is the future of reading for many boys. Putting traditional comics online simply to read won't appeal in the same way that graphic novels will or gaming.

eBooks - I've written quite a bit in recent times about the limitations and opportunities of eBooks to help get boys into reading. While many of the earliest examples of electronic books are either simply novels for readers or picture books with more gadgets than words, boys like gadgets and some are more likely to look at an eBook than a traditional paper version.  Like any book, parents and teachers still need to give boys support in choosing and engaging with the text not just the gadgets.

There are a number of good examples that many boys will enjoy reading that I've reviewed previously (here, here & here). My recent favourite is 'The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr Morris Lessmore' by William Joyce (Moonbot Studios). It is a story about people who devote their lives to books and how books in turn enrich our lives. It is a poignant, humorous allegory about the power of story. It uses a variety of illustrative and animation techniques to create a moving story.  It is presented in a style that offers echoes of the great silent films of the past. It has so many features, but on the whole they don't necessarily distract from the story. The reader can repair books, descend deep into a great storm, learn the piano, become 'lost in a book', and fly through a magical world of words. There is a surprise on each page of this app which boys love.

Gaming - While parents who want their boys to read usually see video and computer games as the enemy of reading, some of the most popular games for boys and effectively games in which they create their own world and narratives. Many have asked whether gaming might have crossover impacts on reading in more conventional ways. You can read a report on this topic that explores the possibilities of gaming for reading here. I'm not yet convinced that encouraging gaming will lead to boys who read books as well, but for some boys it might just act as a bridge. I intend to blog on this at some future time when I think I have more to say on the topic.

Books for Boys - I've written a number of posts on good books for boys (including here, here & here), so I won't repeat them here, except to list just 12 wonderful books to read to and with boys. These books will rarely fail if you read them with boys aged 7-12 years and do it with excitement and passion.

'Boy: Tales of Childhood' by Roald Dahl (1984)
'Prince Caspian' by C.S. Lewis (1951)
'The Hobbit' by J.R. Tolkien (1937)
'Rowan of Rin' by Emily Rodda (1993)
'The Machine Gunners' by Robert Westall (1975)
'Strange Objects' by Gary Crewe (1990)
'The Pinballs' by Betsy Byars (1977)
'Watership Down' by Richard Adam (1972)
'The Adventures of Tom Sawyer' by Mark Twain (1876) 'A Wrinkle in Time' by Madeleine L'Engle (1962)
'The Wheel on the School' by Meindert DeJong (1972)
'Incident at Hawk's Hill' by Allan W. Eckert (1971)

A final comment on literature

As I've stressed above, while it isn't essential for children to begin reading via books or fiction, there is a critical place for traditional forms like children's literature because of the importance of narrative to people. What I'm saying is that while boys might start reading in many different ways, they shouldn't be allowed to avoid the narrative form. As I commented in the third part of a series of posts on the 'Power of Literature' (here) I believe that while it is possible to learn to read without a rich tradition of books and literature, I would argue that it isn’t possible without a foundation of narrative and story. Why? Expert in narrative Harold Rosen offers the perfect answer to my question:
Narratives in all their diversity and multiplicity make up the fabric of our lives; they are constitutive moments in the formation of our identities and our sense of community affiliation.
We build our relationships with one another, share our humanity through the stories we tell about our own lives and those that we have heard from others. So our aim in using factual forms of reading, and alternative forms like graphic novels and factual texts is of worth in it's own right, but it shouldn't completely replace rich narrative forms like literature.

Related posts

All my posts on boys and education (here)
Pam Allyn's excellent book 'Pam Allyn's Best Books for Boys' which I reviewed here.

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