Book reviews for Aussie teachers and their students.

Archive for the ‘Strategies to get Boys (and Girls) Reading’ Category

Book Review: ‘My Brother is a Beast’ by Damon Young, illustrated by Peter Carnavas, University of Queensland Press (2017)


Picture books, especially those targeted at pre and early readers, tend to be at their best when they are shared.  While for the most part reading to our five-year-old daughter is the responsibility of my husband and myself; I love it when I find a picture book that has other members of the family clambering to get in on the action too.  This was the situation when My Brother is a Beast appeared on my door step.  “Awesome!” proclaimed Master Eleven as he turned to his younger sister, “I’m reading this to you tonight.” Our youngest child, by way of positive reaction, promptly squealed with delight.

I firmly believe that books are meant to be shared, and that while parents are ultimately the key players in fostering a love of reading in children, there is nothing more powerful to this endeavour, than when the whole family (especially older children) get involved in the promotion of reading as a joyful activity.  You see, often it doesn’t matter how many books children have, unless the home is one where reading is the dominant culture for all, it can be difficult to engage children in this activity (or get them to think positively about reading as a form of leisure).   Indeed, Young and Carnavas’ series of books are exciting, in that they not only encourage the sharing of stories but they promote positive relationships between siblings (and other family members) with books as the vehicle.

My Brother is a Beast   is the fourth book in a series of books celebrating family (My Sister is a Superhero, My Nana is a Ninja and My Pop is a Pirate).  This, along with other books in the series will provide a perfect entry point for discussions about family structures and diversity.  Directed primarily towards children in the early years, My Brother is a Beast is appropriate for use in child-care, pre-school and junior primary settings.  Of course, with the strong focus upon family it will certainly become a favourite choice shared between siblings. As with the other titles in the series, the simple language is accessible for even the youngest of children, while beginning readers will find enough challenge to be extended without being overwhelmed.  Children will enjoy the rhythmic language in a narrative that makes use of simple alliteration and a clear pattern and rhyme that will encourage participation.

I was again enamoured with Carnavas’ delightful watercolour illustrations rendered in cheery colours. Text is clear and easy to read for beginner readers and children will enjoy following the words with their fingertips as they weave and move across the page. As with the other titles in the series, children will enjoy finding the various animal characters scattered throughout the story. Children will also appreciate exploring the sepia illustrations found in the inside of both back and front covers.

My Brother is a Beast is a light, yet deeply engaging read that demands to be re-visited, all the while fostering a love of language in young readers.

Tanya Grech Welden

Strategies to Get Boys (and Girls) Reading: Tip 8

buy booksTip 8: Reward Kids with Books

To my detriment my kids understand too well the weak spot that I have for books.  When we are at the shopping mall my son will always beg to go into the book store.  He knows that his chances of a treat in there are higher than in any other store at our local Westfield.

While I tend to give away the vast majority of books I am given to review, my own children are book hoarders.  I love the glint they each get in their eyes when they have a crisp new book to read, and so, their personal collections keep growing; spilling in fact, from their book shelf to cover every available space in their rooms and everywhere else.  While I could bemoan the mess (and I often am heard to scream ‘Put these books away so I have some space to cook dinner!’), this is a good thing.  After all, as a wise person once said, ‘Books are the only thing that money can buy that will make you richer.’

This brings me to my 8th tip.  Reward kids with books.  In fact, I’m going to extend this to rewarding children with books and anything related to books.  For teachers this translates to book marks and reading related stickers.  It also might mean giving children the special experience to watch the movie version of a book they read and enjoyed, or, attend a book talk of one of their favourite authors.

There was a time once, in the not so distant past, when books were considered a luxury and the few volumes that people owned, were treasured and read, cover to cover, many times.  If you go into any antiquarian bookstore you can find old books, gifted to students as academic prizes, the fact which is recorded on the inside cover with a book-plate.  Do schools still do this?  I suppose in this information rich age, for many communities this is considered unnecessary, as children already have a lot of books.  However, in this country there are still too many homes for which books are noticeable by their absence.

About a year ago I made a commitment.  With three children and an abundance of birthday parties to attend, I would commit to only buying books as gifts.  ‘But Mum’, my eldest daughter said at the time, “. . . we like books but most of our friends can’t stand them.”  I must admit, at first, her statement threw me a little.  How could anyone not get excited by the prospect of a new book?  Of course, as an English teacher, I’ve seen the general apathy towards books from too many of my students.  Irrespective of this, I vowed to honour this commitment.  I just needed to try harder, do some research and select a book appropriate for the given child’s interests.  Since this time I have purchased books for my children’s friends, many of whom are reluctant readers.  Quite often they have approached me later to thank me for the book and tell me how much they enjoyed it.  It seems that even children who express their reluctance to read will appreciate a book if it has been selected for them, based on their personal interests.

Of course buying books can become an expensive activity.  It is the main reason why I have become one of the book depository’s best customers.  As educators with limited resources, we need to think outside the box on this one.  I have one colleague who created laminated bookmarks for her secondary students.  Each of the bookmarks was personalised with images that tapped into the various interests of the students.  No doubt flattered by the extra care and effort taken, the students thought they were awesome.

Tanya Grech Welden

How do you use books (or book related items) as gifts for children? What tips do you have for doing this in a cost effective way?

Strategies to Get Boys (and Girls) Reading: Tip 7

men readTip 7: Get men to share their positive reading experiences with children.

I grew up in a household where it wasn’t the women who read, but the men.  My background is defiantly working class.  At the tender age of 14 my Maltese Grandfather told my father that “year 7 was enough education,” and he was promptly sent out to work.  Despite being forced out of formal education prematurely, my father has maintained a life-long love affair with books.  I remember as a small child poring over a set of encyclopaedias that my father had purchased as a young adult.  If I had a question my father was always there encouraging me to “go and find out for myself”.  Books, I am proud to say are something which was always cherished in my childhood home.  We even had a special room that was dedicated to storing the books and reading them.

It took me until I was an adult before I realised a couple of important things.  Firstly, I realised the gift that my father had given me.  Of course I am not speaking of the set of encyclopaedias, but of the love for reading and books.  Secondly, I realised that a passion for reading is too frequently something that is inherited.  It is usually a parent or grandparent who facilitates this, but sometimes it is a teacher or a librarian that fosters this appetite.  A short while ago I asked my father where he had inherited his love of books.  I had assumed that it had come from outside the family home since his father clearly had little value for what the education system might offer.  To my surprise he named his own father.  His father, it seemed, despite his views on education, was a book lover.

Indeed I was a fortunate young woman.  Although it was probably my brother (and my own son) who have benefited the most from my Dad’s love affair with books.  Increasingly, many Australian children live in homes where they don’t have this.  In fact, many children live in homes where not only does their significant male role model not read, but he may explicitly (or implicitly), convey the message that “reading isn’t cool” or (even worse), that “real men don’t read”.  It is a horrifying thought, and one which I have seen the consequences of daily in the classroom, with too many boys bowing to social pressure and blatantly refuse to read.  Even worse, many regurgitate the same messages that have been fed to them by the man in their life they most admire and aspire to.

While it is important that as educators we always talk positively about books it is crucial that our male teachers are given a dominant voice in this discourse.  This can be a great challenge in schools where male teachers make up a small minority in our English and Humanities departments.  This is especially the case, where men from “other” faculties refuse to support literacy initiatives in the school.  Fortunately, I belong to a school community where male staff are provided opportunities to voice their positive experiences of reading.  We have some awesome librarians working behind the scenes to facilitate opportunities for this.  However, we are also fortunate a to possess a few male educators who understand their role in developing literacy especially with the boys they teach.

I have a vision of Science and Maths teachers everywhere digressing from their lesson plans to highlight an important link to a Science Fiction novel they have recently read.  Similarly, I’d love to hear Physical Education using Michael Jordan’s biography to make links to their curriculum.  Of course, within the reality of the busyness of school life, this is a growing challenge.  It is hard to get staff to surrender their lunch time to share their reading with students.  Likewise, it is crucial that the school leadership team take time to break open these issues with staff and develop a school-wide approach to literacy where every member of staff from every faculty is a stakeholder.

How does your school provide opportunities for men on staff to share their positive experiences of reading with students?  How has your school leadership team involve all teachers in the development of literacy amongst students?  I’d love to hear your thoughts. 

Tanya Grech Welden

Strategies to Get Boys (and Girls) Reading: Tip 6

rich booksTip 6: Talk Positively About Books and Reading

If you teach English I am probably preaching to the converted with this tip as there is a strong likelihood that you already talk positively about books.  In fact, most English teachers I know, living and breathing books as they do, manage this effortlessly.  However, in my travels I have had the misfortune of meeting a few with this specialisation, who for various reasons (time constraints is usually a strong factor), don’t read much at all, or, refuse to read what their students read.

There is a debate which manages to rear its head every so often, that questions the merit of Children’s and Young Adult Fiction.  The debate asserts that fiction of these types is somehow lacking in literary merit and consequently is something that “serious” adults should not be wasting their time with.  As a writer and avid reader of Young Adult Fiction I want to make it clear that I don’t ascribe to this.  Fiction, be it written with an adult, adolescent or child audience in mind, can be amazing or it can be horrifyingly awful.  It follows then, that any person who teaches children, should rise above negative attitudes related to fiction aimed at children and adolescents, sourcing the best examples of each, to read and promote to their students.

I once had a student teacher who professed to only read Science Fiction for adults.  It took a great deal of coercion to help him understand the importance of him reading and promoting a broader range of fiction, particularly that aimed with a younger audience in mind.  As I explained to him, “Your role as an English teacher is to promote and encourage reading.   How can you expect to do this effectively if you are incapable of meeting your students where they are at?”

However, in schools, it is usually teachers from outside the English faculty who present the biggest challenge.  I’ve been in primary and secondary settings where teacher’s negative attitudes about reading have lead them to say to students things like, “I’m not a reader”, “I personally hate reading” or that “reading is boring”.  These kinds of statements aside from making my blood boil, must be immediately challenged as part of any school’s literacy policy.  As teachers we must collectively, and actively, voice a view about the importance of reading for its inherent value in every subject on the school’s curriculum.  Furthermore, school leaders must guide teachers to understand that fostering reading is a school-wide responsibility, not something to be left in the basket of teachers from the English or Humanities departments.

While we can control what occurs within our own school communities, we have a limited control over the experiences our students have in their own homes.  We can ensure that we provide students with vibrant libraries filled with engaging titles to tempt our students.  However, we can’t guarantee that our students will have access to books in their own homes (no matter how many Book Fairs we have).  Similarly, while schools can develop policies to ensure that books and reading are spoken of in a positive manner by staff, we can’t prevent parents from doing the opposite in their own homes.  While we must strive to educate communities about the many benefits of reading, we do this with a keen awareness that we are somewhat limited in our ability to exert any real influence over any kingdom outside our own.

What has been your experience of ‘negative talk’ about books and reading?  What have you done to challenge and overcome this?

Tanya Grech Welden

Strategies to Get Boys (and Girls) Reading: Tip 5

graphic-novels-melbourne-482x298Tip 5: Think outside the box when selecting reading materials

As an English teacher, what I really want my students to read is fiction.  In fact, I’d love them all to read quality fiction.  I’m talking Thomas Hardy, William Shakespeare, Charlotte Bronte or Charles Dickens.  Actually, never mind literary Canon, I’m ecstatic when a kid pulls out something by John Green or Suzanne Collins.  Heck, even Stephanie Meyer is great from where I sit.  I often go back to my own memory, as a year 8 student, when my beloved English teacher informed us that “we must read fiction with literary merit.”  She liked to follow this up with “and that means none of that Virginia Andrews rubbish!”

Somehow, I don’t think I don’t think the average grade 9 class would accept this too readily.  Most would put up a fight to the death.

Kids have changed.  Where reading used to be a popular leisure pursuit, today it’s competing with so many other forms of entertainment.  Too often, children and young adults think of reading as a chore.  Of course as educators and parents we know too well the benefits of reading, and the limitations it has for a child’s learning, if they are reading below appropriate standards.  Where teachers of the past could be picky about the kinds of fiction their students read, today’s teachers are happy if kids are reading regularly.

Do not be mistaken, I firmly believe that students still need to be challenged.  I don’t count reading facebook, for example, as reading.  I am simply suggesting that if we want kids to read then we need to meet them where they are at.  We need to have a broader range of appropriate material at our disposal for our students.

I have a 9 year old son who is an avid reader.  He will read some fiction.  I’d like him to read more.  However, what he really loves is non-fiction.  He devours it.  As a parent, my strategy is to provide him with lots of what he really loves (non-fiction) in the best quality that I can find.  However, I am always on the hunt for fiction which will draw him in, often taking my cue from stories he has enjoyed previously.  In fact, there are tremendous benefits for students reading non-fiction, as this often engages a broader range of reading skills that includes the interpretation of tables, graphs and annotated diagrams.

Of course, some of our students are more resistant than he is.  For these students I bring out my new friend, the graphic novel.  Increasingly it seems, I have large numbers of students (mostly boys but not exclusively) who tell me that they struggle to follow a novel.  They tell me that by the time they get to the bottom of the page they can’t remember what happened at the top.  For these students graphic novels allow engagement with a story that is broken up with images.  There is an ever-increasing range of these novels available, with graphic novel translations of popular fiction books and even Canon fiction becoming readily available.  The latter has the added bonus of making excellent companion books for students studying challenging texts (especially Shakespeare).

A few students seem to struggle when it comes to reading anything.  For these students I like to negotiate (often in communication with parents) reading of alternative materials.  I usually start with the student’s interests and from here we settle on reading material on a topic of interest in a magazine or newspaper.  I like the students to summarise what has been read at the end of each reading session.  As an educator, my aim is to establish a habit for reading (see tip 3).  Once a habit is established you can extend the student into other text types.

As English teachers, an important role is to extend our students beyond where they currently are.  Firstly, this requires that we listen to our students about their positive and negative reading experiences.  It also requires that we are widely-read ourselves, especially if we are to offer appropriate suggestions to entice even the most reluctant of readers in our care.

Tanya Grech Welden

Strategies to Get Boys (and Girls) Reading: Tip 4

its called readingTip 4: Limit Screen Time

A few years ago our family purchased one of those gaming console entertainment systems.  It was only after a great deal of soul searching that I finally agreed to this.  In retrospect, at the time I was probably only swayed by clever marketing which promised that it would make my kids (and I) fitter and smarter (yeah right).  Four years on, and it really goes without saying, but I definitely won’t be upgrading to the latest and greatest version.  Personally, I’d rather toss the whole thing in the trash and return to life as it was pre-gaming console.  However, outnumbered as I am, I’ll need to be somewhat content with placing some serious restrictions on its use.

I’ve always been aware of the potential that technology (gaming systems in particular) has for drawing children away from reading.  My conversations with parents, in my role as a teacher, has alluded me to numerous negative implications of this technology.  More personally, about 20 years ago I had a relationship breakdown, when my then partner decided that he liked his gaming system more than me (well that was the message I got).  In the time that these systems have been around I’ve noticed a couple of important things.  Firstly, I observed boys, rather than girls, are more inclined to an addiction to these things.  I also noticed that boys and girls tend to use the machines differently, with boys gaining enjoyment from the machine when used in a solitary manner (yes even when they are playing online with their real or virtual friends).  Girls, on the other hand, seem to enjoy using the systems most when they are physically with others.  In other words they tend to be more social in their play.  In my mind at least it explains why I’ve noticed boys (although girls can do this too) withdrawing from all other activities with gaming dominating their waking hours in preference to what they really should be doing (reading, doing homework, sleeping and eating).

However, gaming consoles are really just one example of how technology is dragging our children (boys especially) away from books.  My 11 year old daughter recently purchased one of those hand held things which isn’t actually a mobile phone but may as well be since it does everything that a mobile phone does without actually being a phone.  She thinks it’s awesome.  She can chat ‘real time’ with her friends (as long as they have the same device) without the expense of a contract or phone bills.  My husband is more cynical, suggesting that what is really happening here is a major corporation ‘training’ our kids to be the technology consumers (of their brand) in the future.  It doesn’t end here though, there is no limit it seems to the end of technology which is vying for our kid’s attention and ultimately reducing the amount of time they have for reading.  Of course the people who produce this stuff are sensitive to the concerns of parents.  This is the reason why there are so many apps and toys on the market claiming to engage our kids more in the activity of reading.  While some of these things are innovative with some educational merit, a good deal of them only seem to prime our kids for using more technology (and reading less).

I’m not suggesting that as parents we need to go all Steiner, returning to the pre-digital world.  That would be unrealistic and would hardly prepare our children to engage effectively in the world today (or the world of tomorrow).  However, what is needed is an awareness of the issues coupled with parental imposed limitations on the use of these devices.  A parent once complained to me “I can’t seem to get my son to do his homework let alone read.”  When I asked what the child was doing when he should be doing these things her response was simply, “Oh, he’s playing x-box.”  Too many parents assume that their children will be able to self-regulate their use of these devices.  Most of them can’t.  It is simply beyond the cognitive capacity of their developing brains.  For other parents it is too hard to set limits and too easy to placate their children by giving them what they want (rather than what they need).  I’d like to say it’s easy, but is that would be untrue.  However, sometimes as a parent you need to ride the tide of tantrums and confiscate the device or hide the game controller.  In this case the benefits far outweigh the pain.

Tanya Grech Welden

Strategies to Get Boys (and Girls) Reading: Tip 3

reflections-what-shaped-your-reading-habits-L-xl4M8OTip 2: Make Reading a Routine Part of Life

When many people think of habits they tend to think of them as being bad.  I suppose because bad habits, like smoking, drinking too much or biting your nails stand out.  However, habits can also be neutral, having neither a negative or positive impact upon our lives; or they can be positive, in that they add to our lives in a meaningful and enriching way.  However, good or bad, at the end of the day, we tend to go to habits automatically.  Habits are not something we even need to think about.  Often they can be comforting, adding predictability to our lives.

I learned early in my teaching career that human beings, students in my case, love routine.  It became evident that incorporating positive habits in the classroom could be very useful.  Of course, as educators we know this well.  We know that using the same piece of music in the classroom might be used to trigger a response in students to ‘clean up’.  We also know that simple ‘morning routines’, listed on a poster with appropriate visual cues, can assist even the most disorganised of students get ready for the day.  As a mother I extended this wisdom to many aspects of family life.  In the Welden household we have a morning routine, an after school routine and an evening routine.  Perhaps it seems a little militant but it certainly reduces chaos and teaches my children the importance of ‘putting first things first’ (for more on this check out Stephen Covey’s awesome books).  It is important to remember when establishing any routine it will feel unnatural to begin with, however persistence will yield a habit that becomes as natural as breathing.

Part of the night time routine with my children has always been reading.  It is the last thing we do before lights out.  Since they were babies we have followed a simple structure for this.  Dinner, bath, book and bed.  Obviously when the children were very young we shared a story with them.  As they began to read themselves they would quite happily tuck themselves into bed at 7pm with a book and read on their own.  Even our three year old (who is only just learning her letters) likes to spend some quiet time on her own ‘pretending’ to read to herself.  It has become such an ingrained habit that our older kids (now 11 and 9 respectively) tell me that they need a book to wind before they can even consider sleep.  The biggest problem we have is getting then to turn out the lights (they will happily read until midnight if we let them).

Of course you don’t have to use bedtime as your cue.  Each family is different and whatever fits into your family schedule is fine.  The important thing to remember is to do it religiously on a daily basis (until it becomes a habit) and start with a short period, increasing the time gradually as you go.   Of course, while you need to be rigid with it to begin with, once reading has been established as a habit you can usually back off as a parent and nurture your child’s reading in other ways.  Stay tuned for more ideas for doing this in future posts.

Tanya Grech Welden

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