Before I had my own children and was working as a children’s librarian, one of the most frequent questions I got from parents was “How do I get my boys to read?” This perplexed me, as I had grown up a voracious reader, and simply thought all children were born with a natural curiosity and great appreciation for books. I never imagined there to be such a large disparity between genders when it came to literacy. It wasn’t until I looked deeper that I realized there were always more girls and than boys at my toddler and preschool story times. This disparity continued throughout the elementary years, when little girls heavily outnumbered little boys in after school and summer reading program participation, and continued well into adolescence, when boys all but disappeared from 'tween and teen library programs.
Where did they go and why aren’t boys readers?
Why does study after study continue to show boys score significantly less on reading and writing achievement tests than their female counterparts?
Educational researchers have tried to explain this, and among several of the reasons for the disparity includes the very basic principle that the sexes are simply wired differently for literacy. Cultural and societal influences tend to steer boys toward non-literacy related activities, such as more physical competitive sports, while girls, even at pre-kinder ages, show higher verbal maturation and a much stronger desire to enjoy sitting and reading as their favored recreational activity.
It wasn’t until I had my own children, four BOYS, that I understood all of above, as well as huge differences in how boys and girls view books as a whole, and reading for recreation and pleasure. Let’s face it, boys DO NOT sit still, and not high on the top of their to-do list is to kick back, relax, and tear through 20 chapters of an emotional story about vampires and girl crushes.
So just how am I managing to turn my reluctant boy readers into book lovers?
Well, I’ve taken off my mom hat and put on my librarian hat and come up with these tips for all the boy moms out there with the same question, ”How do I get my boys to read?”
1. Books, Books, Everywhere
And I do mean EVERYWHERE. Keep books all over the house, in all the places your boys will be; by their bedside, on the breakfast table to encourage reading over cereal, on coffee tables, end tables, backseats of cars, and even in the bathroom. I always have a basket of books sitting in the boys’ bathroom at all times, and I switch out titles every few days. Set up a book display corner and highlight seasonal and holiday titles, in the same fashion bookstores do in order to entice readers. Garage sales and thrift stores are great places to purchase cheap books to build up your home’s library. Another great tip is to start a book swap co-op with neighbors and friends. Every week boys can meet to exchange books, and you just might find that this will encourage them to “talk” about what they're reading with their peers- a vital step in keeping their reading interest piqued.
2. Adjust Your Idea of What "Reading" Is
Just because your son isn’t devouring thick fiction chapter books at all times doesn’t mean he isn't reading quality material. For boys, consider many different forms of written word as reading; comic books, manga, joke books, magazines, and even blogs are all excellent forms of “reading.” To put it in terms some boys will grasp, consider non-traditional forms of reading as you would consider “practicing” in sports. Baseball players spend hours at batting practice before they step up to the plate in a game, so even reading atypical non-fiction is preparing them to be better critical fiction readers in the future.
3. Boys Gravitate to the Gross, the How-To, and the Survival/Adventure Genres
Hand a boy a book with the word “fart” in the title and you can almost guarantee that boy will give it a look. Don’t let the fact your boys may spend years in phases of reading only one type of genre- the gross one- bother you. They will outgrow this, and it's developmentally age appropriate for boys to gravitate towards topics they find hilarious and can heavily relate to. Boys also do well with reference and list type books, how-to's, almanacs of all kinds, biographies, and anything adventure and survival related. If this is what they want to read, don’t discourage it and attempt to do their book choosing for them. As a matter of fact, teach them to be independent in the library. Which reminds me…..
4. Go to the Library Early, and Often
Make visits to your local library a family habit, and as common as a regular visit to the grocery store. Introduce your children to the librarian, and reiterate the fact this community helper is more than just the woman or man who does story time, rather, it's their job to be able to know all about every book in the library, and to help you find your next favorite. Boys as young as age four can peruse picture book shelves on their own and can and should make their own book choices, as well as have their own library card. Teach elementary aged boys how to read book summaries on book jackets, as well as how to use the library's catalog to search for books on topics of interest to them. Encourage 'tween and teen boys to be involved in the library’s youth programs, even if it’s only as a volunteer for programs for smaller kids. It will keep them coming to the library, using its resources for high school assignments, and ultimately picking up a novel here or there.
5. Listen to Books
If your son insists on having earbuds in his ears all the time, have him try an audiobook. Audible has an impressive collection of children’s audiobooks, and audiobooks are especially suited to boys who don't do well sitting down for long periods of time. My boys listen to audiobooks while shooting hoops, or riding skateboards or scooters in the driveway. (Don't encourage listening anywhere near traffic, as kids need to be able to hear cars.) Also, continue to read aloud to boys well into the middle school years. You can even do it while they are outside playing catch or doing other physical movement. Often I will offer to read only the first chapter of a book, getting them hooked on the story, and then handing it off.
6. Model, Model, Model
Boys not only need to see their mom reading, it's vitally important that boys see other boys, especially their dads, grandpas, uncles, and other male relatives reading. Since boys thrive on competition, bursts of activity, and physical skill based activities, think of ways dads and sons can enjoy reading time as a compliment to something physical. Read the sports page after little league practice, plan a campfire and books night, and even use reading a how-to or home fix it manual as a chance to practice reading comprehension.
7. Embrace the eReader
If always having a tablet in their hands is your son's thing, install a cloud reading app on it. There are thousands of free downloadable digital titles and ebooks available for children from vendors such as Amazon and Nook, as well downloadable titles available to "check out" to your device free from your public library. Sites such as The International Children's Digital Library offers children ages 3-13 free access to the best available children’s literature in more than 40 languages.