“The Problem with Boys’ Reading”

You may have observed some patterns among students that help you differentiate reading instruction. In class many teachers look for the soft skills that lead to better reading skills: ability to choose an appropriate text quickly, ability to sit quietly, ability to focus or ‘reading stamina’, ability to avoid distractions. All of this tends to confirm to teachers that, in general, girls appear to be better readers than boys.

In this newsletter I want to unpack some problems with how we may be approaching this issue. Yes, by the way, it appears that adolescent boys ARE on average less proficient readers and girls DO read for pleasure more than boys, on average. If you have a class full of fourteen year old boys engaging in classic reading avoidance while the girls are quietly reading, your class is not unique.

What we do with this data defines us. Very few teachers would point to all of the observable steps that boys could have taken but are not taking and simply declare, “I’ve done my job!” We all feel the frustration, but this is a gatekeeper approach that simply observes and penalizes.

When I was a less experienced teacher I might have sought to make the reading process even more clear and document every time a child fails to model good reading skills. Imagine posting their names on reading ladders so that every child knows exactly ‘where they are’ and what they need to do to improve. This is a perfectly logical approach to the mind of a technocrat but cringe-worthy to those of us who spend a lot of time with children. I can destroy a child’s self-esteem even without assigning dunce caps to the lowest achievers.

Here are some concrete steps you can take to make reading more pleasurable for all students, but especially attending to the needs of boys:

(1) Unpack the social cues that lead us to misinterpret the reading experience. A girl who flashes a smile when I sit next to her to conference during reading and a boy who rolls his eyes may be pursuing the same objective: “get the teacher to move on quickly and leave me alone“. The theatrical roll of the eyes might be for the amusement of his peers, but a boy who craves the social approval of his peers has just revealed what he wants most. You’d be crazy to react with disapproval! React with contagious positivity because that scene he just made is likely not about you.

(2) Take seriously the genres that your students are interested in. If you have a set of motorhead magazines in the target language that your boys grab for pleasure reading, consider spending a book talk exploring them. Same with the encyclopedias of athletes. Sports journalism and the art of writing about automobiles deserves to be lifted up as serious, important pursuits. When a reluctant reader perceives that their reading choices are not ‘high-prestige texts’ they are left in a no-win situation: read what they like and remain a problem to be solved, or read the high prestige texts and hate the reading experience.

One of the big take-home points of a study by Theresa Cremini is that boys find it difficult to escape the label of deficit readers, even when they struggle to gain the teacher’s respect. A student who has a pleasurable conversation about books when conferencing with the teacher has a different experience than a student who senses that they are ‘a problem to be solved’. While pleasure reading should be about pleasure, we can use our book conversations to counter the negative self-perceptions that our students hold.

(3) Stop limiting your student’s selection of pleasure reading material (within reason, of course). I recently came across a teacher who claimed that her middle school students only like realistic fiction and hate fantasy, and so she removed books with ‘unbelievable’ plots. I suspect she was reacting to criticism received by students in class. Most probably these were highly vocal students who were forced to all read the same class novel (that is why in my class whole class texts are all short stories and short texts that can be read in one class session… ideally any whole class text will not drag on). However, by removing fantasy she limited selection for a quiet minority of students who are looking for their homerun book to hook them on a lifetime of reading. I think we need MORE CI books with dragons and zombie pirates, even though those plots are not for everyone.

(4) Novels, in my opinion, should be mostly reserved for choice (pleasure) reading. A whole class ‘forced march’ through a single novel inspires adolescent rebellion. You may be engineering a teaching situation that lures boys into a non-readers camp. When students are required to develop a serious, ongoing relationship with a text, they should at least have some say in which text they choose. Instead substitute a daily Write & Discuss class-created text to be the communal whole class text. Or read an exciting scene from a different novel each time you do whole class reading to expose learners to a wide diversity of texts.