How to Get Boys to Sit Down with a Book

Researchers and educators blame the gap between books and boys on everything from a built-in fidgetiness to low expectations to a lifelong association of reading with their mothers, teachers, librarians — all female role models.

But now more are suggesting that the problem may not lie entirely within the boys themselves. Some educators believe that the way schools teach reading tends to favor girls, both in terms of teaching style and reading materials chosen. It’s a concern that has pushed teachers to work harder to both find materials that boys like to read, and to find more “boy-friendly” ways to present that material.

“Boys have a more tactile, ‘hands-on’ learning style,” and they favor subject matter which reflects that, says Linda Milliken, reading specialist at Chester County Intermediate Unit near Philadelphia. “They like lots of nature topics — bugs, dinosaurs, how things work,” she explains. “They like to identify with a character who has his life in control.”

What they may not like is the problem-focused reading popular with many teachers today — stories about divorce, abuse, single-parenthood, addiction, and such.

Girl readers are generally drawn to narratives that focus on relationships between people, while boys tend to prefer adventure, science fiction, war stories, history, and, of course, sports. —Mary Beth McCauleyHow to Get Boys to Sit Down with a Book (ABC News)

My son (age seven) recently selected a series of books on the elements (Oxygen, Carbon, Nitrogen… we even tracked down Magnesium) for me to read to him at bedtime. We’re working our way through another series of books on Energy of the Future (we finished Biofuel of the Future the other day, and we’re on Solar Power of the Future now.

The men in my American Lit course generally liked The Great Gatsby and James McBride’s Miracle at St. Anna, though one student who has called herself a literary snob spoke out against both works. But some of the female students who didn’t get into the heavier literary works also liked McBride, so clearly gender is only one factor in a complex equation.

As for gender differences in literary styles, see this great spoof of a tandem writing assignment, an e-mail that has been passed around for years.

2 thoughts on “How to Get Boys to Sit Down with a Book

  1. MJ, I think the books are there, but because boys like adventure stories and non-fiction, those books are less likely to be assigned in English classes during their crucial middle school years. Boys who read sports pages, manuals and tipsheets for their computer games, and comic books don’t often get to study those works in class.

    For almost a year now, when I ask my son what book he wants me to read him at night, he chooses a science book — sometimes of the Magic Schoolbus variety, but lately more often a straight non-fiction book about the elements. The Magic Treehouse is a series about a time-traveling pair of siblings who find themselves everywhere from dinosaur times to the deck of the Titanic. One of the clever elements of that series is that it’s a magic book that takes them to other places, but instead of somehow falling into the book, they bring the book along with then, and consult it during their adventures.

    When left to his own, my son will spend hours studying Star Wars cross-section books, or looking at the instruction manuals for his favorite games. While he likes Star Wars space combat simulation games, he also likes Sim City and other problem-solving games, such as The Incredible Toon Machine (which teaches the basics of programming, in the context of a cat-and-mouse Rube Goldberg contraption game).

    He wants me to ask him quesions about his games, so that he can reply with instructions on how to perform a certain task, or how one kind of missile weapon differs from another.

    Your serial story sounds like fun… it makes me wonder whether it would work to give several groups of students the same prompt, and give each group a wiki, to see where the story develops from the prompt. Even if we didn’t use a wiki, if the students got peer feedback as they were writing, rather than only at the end, that would change the dynamics of the assignment.

  2. Ha! I haven’t seen the tandem writing assignment before, but it reminded me of a true story. When I was on yearbook staff in college my co-editor and I took turns writing a serial called “The Wicked and the Weary” (pseudonymously) on a whiteboard outside our office. I had taken a community ed class in romance writing over the summer and wanted to try out my chops. I’d write segments that had the heroine tossing back her tawny hair as she stormed off to a steamy confrontation with the hero; my male collaborator’s segments usually involved car chases and mob bosses. We kept the newspaper staff down the hall entertained for a couple of months, until yearbook deadlines and midterms left our hero and heroine permanently stranded in chapter 4. :-)

    But more on topic, it bugs me when I read stories about teachers assigning too many “problem-based” novels for children. While a lot of YA problem novels appear on “recommended reading” lists, I don’t think they’re *required* reading all that often. I keep intending to do a survey of middle- and high-school teachers and librarians and find out, because I keep reading that teachers are requiring lots of dreary, dark reading–but parents I talk to say their kids are still required to read the classics.

    Right now the YA market seems to be dominated by romance and teen chick lit, neither of which would appeal to boys at all. There’s still a lot of fantasy in YA and middle-grade, though, which both genders enjoy. While there are quite a few male YA fantasy authors, there aren’t so many male authors in other children’s and YA genres; perhaps if there were more men writing YA and children’s books there would be more books for boys. Just a thought.

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