Friday, January 11, 2013

Motivating Reluctant Boys to Read

Most teachers will tell you that when it comes to motivating their students to read, boys are a much harder sell than girls. We've certainly met lots of boys who are voracious readers, but we agree that when we ask kids if they read for fun, boys are more likely to scoff, “No!”

This aversion to reading is a problem. In the younger grades, pleasure reading builds important fluency skills. And, as they get older, kids acquire more and more of their vocabularies from the words they encounter in text rather than from words they hear in conversation.

A recent article* in The Reading Teacher caused us to reflect on our experiences in language arts classrooms and libraries over the years. While it can be tough to engage boys in literature, here are some considerations we've found to be helpful when making reading recommendations:


Many boys seem to like books that are action-packed or funny. Some parents shy away from offerings like Captain Underpants, and this is understandable. Still, we like to see boys engaged in reading, even if they’re reading silly books. All too often, boys find themselves forced to read the kind of “classics” embraced by their parents and teachers. This can lead to listless reading and hostility toward reading in general, which is a scary prospect. Graphic novels and humorous books, frivolous as many adults consider them, may be just what’s needed to spark a boy’s interest in reading. (We've seen boys enthralled to discover Roald Dahl for the first time, so don’t forget that his canon includes many funny stories. And Calvin and Hobbes is practically unparalleled in its use of sophisticated vocabulary.) Another genre often not considered by adults or by boys themselves is non-fiction. Boys seem to be keen to learn about things that interest them and this tendency should be whole-heartedly embraced. Offer boys factual books like the wonderful Eyewitness series, developmentally appropriate magazines about topics that fascinate them, and, if they’re ready, newspaper clippings. Pleasure reading should be just that – the chance for boys to read what they enjoy. Let them experience more traditional literary experiences at school while they build a love of reading at home.


Boys tend to gravitate more toward books about sports and action-packed adventures. Sports books by authors like Matt Christopher (grades 3 and up) and Mike Lupica (grades 5 and up) indulge boys’ fascination with athletics, and most of them teach important lessons about sportsmanship, fairness, and perseverance. Adventure books abound as well. Malcolm Rose’s Traces series for instance (grades 5 and up), chronicles the adventures of prodigy Luke Harding, the youngest person ever to qualify as a forensics investigator, as he attempts to solve crimes based on evidence the criminals left behind. Boys love these realistic, adventurous novels. They also seem to be particularly captivated by survival stories. Point boys toward My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George (ages 8 and up) and the Hatchet series (grades 4 and up) by Gary Paulsen. Many boys also find science fiction enticing. Start with futuristic reads like Feed by M.T. Anderson (ages 14 and up) and The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer (ages 12 and up).


Boys (and girls, for that matter) should be given plenty of choice when it comes to picking out their leisure reading material. Parents and teachers should feel free to offer plenty of suggestions, but a boy is most likely to be engaged in the texts he chooses himself. And engagement in text is critical for building comprehension, fluency, and vocabulary skills. After all, aren’t those the reasons we want kids to read independently in the first place?

*Senn, Nicole. (2012). “Effective Approaches to Motivate and Engage Reluctatnt Boys in Literacy.” The Reading Teacher, 66(3).

Photo: Katie Hiscock / Creative Commons

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