As a middle school English teacher I spend a minimum of one lesson per week with my class in the library. During this lesson the expectation is that the students will select a book and, on their own, read.
If only it were so simple.
While there is a general reluctance amongst students to use this time effectively, it is most pronounced with my male students, many of whom have developed a creative array of strategies to avoid the task. For the most part, they do read. Some of them might even borrow the book, although I suspect only a few of them will read it at home. My observations suggest that as a whole while many students are not reading, it is boys overall who resist the most.
For a while there, a lack of material appealing to the tastes of boys was one of the key reasons touted to explain a lack of enthusiasm with boys for reading. While I’m not sure that there ever was a lack of material available, there is definitely an abundance of books (both non-fiction and fiction) specifically written to appeal to boys now. A good deal of this is what I refer to as ‘toilet reading’. Not because it is best read on the loo but because it tends towards a content that is largely reliant upon fart and poo jokes. Of course some of this is really well written and highly entertaining, although I can’t help from thinking that it is pretty limiting to make an assumption that this alone is what boys will read. Furthermore, I really don’t think it has done much to get many of our boys reading more, let alone selecting books that extend and challenge them.
Don’t get me wrong, some boys read a great deal. My son, aged 9 is an avid reader. In fact, my biggest problem as a mother is not getting him to read but convincing him that “no, you do not need to take your book with you while I pop around the corner to get milk!” I often get asked seriously by other mothers how it is that I have a son, and in fact 3 children, all of whom seem to have an obsession with books. My response to this is quite often something like, “Well resistance is useless when you have a mother who is both a writer and English teacher?” Although I am a little tongue in cheek when I say this, it is actually the truth. I believe that the reading culture at home has a lot to do with it. Of course there will be exceptions to the rule, but as a whole children who are surrounded with reading will themselves develop a passion for it. Furthermore, my experience as an educator has taught me that having one parent passionate about books is not necessarily enough, particularly if they are getting mixed messages about reading (and who does it) from within the home or wider society. Numerous times I have sat in parent-teacher interviews and I have listened to a concerned parent wonder why their child (often a boy) won’t read. The conversation usually goes something like this:
Mum: I don’t know. I can’t get Jimmy to read. He’s always hated it since he was in primary school. This is despite me sitting down with him every night with his reader.
Me: I see. Tell me, do you read?
Mum: Yes…..not as much as I probably should.
Me: What about Jimmy’s father, does he read?
Mum: No, he hates reading.
Quite often children, especially boys, inherit negative attitudes about reading from one (or both) parents. When negative attitudes come from a male in a position of authority, the implications can be especially powerful. I had one year 8 boy who actually admitted to me that his father had told him that “Real men don’t read.” I nearly expired on the spot, astounded that a parent would unwittingly jeopardise their child’s learning in such a blatant manner. Of course, as I have alluded to already, these kinds of attitudes extend beyond the home, with many of our boys having negative messages about reading reinforced by their peers and the media also.
Whilst it is very difficult for teachers to have any real influence over what happens at home, part of our role is to educate parents as to the impact that their attitudes and personal reading practices has on their children. This is especially critical in the formative years, when parents (fathers especially) should be reading to their children. Furthermore, as children grow, families should actively share an interest in reading. This might include visiting book shops or libraries together, discussing what has been read and enjoyed and reading a good deal of what children themselves read.
Certainly within the school community teachers may lead students in activities that promote reading as an enjoyable activity. Too often, however, this responsibility is left to teachers from the English or Humanities department. In fact, greater benefits may be achieved in schools where all teachers and staff communicate positive messages about reading. Personally I love nothing more than when the PE or Maths teacher gets excited about books. Imagine what might happen if you extended that to the Tech Studies Teacher or even the Grounds-person……then you can really start to counter cultural norms.
Tanya Grech Welden
What do you do to challenge negative cultural attitudes about reading at your school? What have you done to encourage boys to read? We’d love to hear from you.