Tuesday, August 01, 2006

If Your Boy Won’t Read

Chill out and get down with what he loves, starting with the comics.

If you're the parent of one, like I am, it's no surprise to you that tween and teen boys read less, and tend to score lower on standardized reading tests than girls. You know that your son has things he finds far more interesting than actually reading a book. There's the countdown to "Halo Tuesday," the red-letter day the latest version of the popular video game "Halo" hits store shelves. When playing Halo gets old, there's instant messaging while he simultaneously flips between the Cartoon Network, the Sci-Fi channel, and Comedy Central. That's life in the video age. When you shut that down, he turns to anything that involves action, from a neighborhood game of Capture the Flag to soccer, football, biking, or skateboarding.

Not that you haven't fought a valiant battle on behalf of books. You've tried trips to the library and bookstore, and made sure that every title on the school's summer reading list is in the house. You've limited video games and television, which turned into an endurance test for both of you, as your son whined, complained, wheeled, cajoled, and pleaded to win those privileges back. When forced, he skimmed through those classic books, making sure you understood what a bore they were. By now, you're even bored with your own lecture on the critical importance of reading as an essential life-long skill, a source of pleasure and power, the key to academic success.

In other words, he's still not engaged in reading. He never asks for a book, and often complains bitterly about the ones assigned at school. In fact, he tells you he'd rather die than read classics like Little House on the Prairie or The Diary of Anne Frank.

Make Reading Useful, Fun, and Funny
Don't despair. A new generation of experts on boys and reading finally has some cures. "Any boy can and will get excited about reading, if you make it useful, fun, and funny," says John Scieszka, author of The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales and founder of the popular web site GuysRead.com. "We have to give them more choices, and especially more nonfiction. Boys like to read for a purpose, to find out how to do things, like how to build a dirt bike or skateboard. That's just not encouraged enough."

Exactly right, says Jeff Wilhelm, associate professor of English education at Boise State University and one of the nation's leading authorities on boys and literacy. "Boys like to read what's toolish, not schoolish." By "toolish," Wilhelm says, he means that boys eagerly devour anything that connects to their daily life, interests, and imagination. "Boys prefer reading things that have something they can immediately use, talk about, argue about, or do something with," he says. "They are very, very impatient with the reading they do in school, because it's not useful or interesting to them. Even worse, they then have to take a test on it."

Wilhelm comes to these conclusions based on a major study of boys in grades 6 to 12, who, he says, were not just disinterested in reading, but downright cynical, based on their experience in school. "These were great kids, very smart. Some went on to places like Harvard and MIT. But they were all cynical about reading, as it was promoted at school and by many adults in their lives," he says.

One of the big problems, Wilhelm says, is that much of the real reading the boys did wasn't recognized or supported by their schools or families. "Teachers and parents often conceived of reading narrowly, as 'literature' only, and failed to see that there's all kinds of reading that boys do, like magazines and even formulaic novels," he says. "I tell parents and teachers to take a chill, expand their idea of what reading is. Even expert adult readers go through phases of reading pulp fiction or romance novels. It's something boys outgrow, but it helps develop skills."

Even graphic novels, comic books, and video game guides? "Reading is reading and the more practice kids get reading on their own, and the more they hear books read aloud, the more skills they pick up," says Lisa Von Drasek, head children's librarian at Bank Street College of Education in New York City. "They are hearing and seeing words, building a vocabulary that they will recognize as they read, and that makes reading easier. They know how words sound, what they mean and what they look like in print. It's all part of expanding literacy."

Start with What He Loves
So if you have a kid who hates books, where do you begin? All three experts agree that it's crucial to begin at the beginning, with what your son loves. "Kids will read when you focus on what they love. If a kid is a sports kid, I'm going to do my darnedest to find a book about a sport that kid loves," says Von Drasek. "If he loves bikes, I'm going to look for books about bikes, bicycling, anything that feeds that interest."

Try books that are about how a kid would love to be. "Boys will read themselves into a book about a character who allows them to be who they'd like to be. Even books that seem like wild fantasies are about real stuff to the boys who are struggling with similar issues," says Wilhelm. The wild success of the Harry Potter series is a case in point. "Even though the books are fantasy, many boys identified with Harry because he was struggling with the day-to-day problems of every young boy, how to make his way in the world," says Wilhelm.

Humor is another winner with boys. "Humor is underrated on school reading lists, but boys love it," says Sciezska, whose own hit, The Stinky Cheese Man, is a playful book that pokes fun at classic fairytales. "Calvin and Hobbes, Lemony Snicket, those books get them excited about reading, because it's fun. It's important for parents and teachers to accept these things as reading, instead of acting like it's not 'real' reading, like there's something wrong with them. Those books will get boys hooked on reading."

Other ideas from the experts:
  • Model reading. Studies show that when parents read and have books around, both boys and girls are more likely to be readers.

  • Give your boy a book. "It sounds like a small thing, but it can make a big impression. Choose one that's related to a hobby, an interest, or is just fun," says Wilhelm.

  • Make reading social. "Invite them to talk about something out of the newspaper," says Wilhelm. "For boys, the purpose of reading is often social, something they can use with their friends, something to connect about, talk about."

  • Don't give up. "Sooner or later, using comics, magazines, anything that connects to an interest or a passion, you can hook any child on reading. It's all a matter of patience," says Von Drasek.

Indeed. Just last week, for example, I witnessed a band of boys at a local middle school talking about a book they'd just read. The conversation was lively, heated, and engaged. The book? The latest edition of the Halo series, the fantasy novels that describe the world behind the video game. And from Halo, it turns out, it's not such a giant leap to mythology, science fiction, and a long and pleasurable reading list for many of these boys. "The main thing to remember is not to judge the reading," says Wilhelm. "If boys are engaged and find it pleasurable, it will lead to more reading."

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