"Boys do read - sometimes more than girls. They just don't talk about it as much, or pretend they're reading, as some girls do, to keep you happy!" The authentic voice of real-life experience from leading school librarian Eileen Armstrong, with whom I collaborated to produce the government-backed ‘Boys into Books’ initiative back in 2007. Is the issue of boys’ reading still ‘a thing’, 14 years on?
Well, the National Literacy Trust’s report last year1 maintained that ‘lockdown has increased the literacy engagement gap between boys and girls [from 2.3% to 11.5% during the report’s timeframe]’, suggesting also that audiobooks were a way to ‘re-engage boys with stories, as this is the only format where more boys than girls said that they enjoy it more and are doing it more often’. They may well be right (although teachers doing more reading aloud is even more effective, since it’s a personal endorsement), and I’m all for everyone having the experience of stories, because it reminds them of the pleasures to come if they persevere. But does that ‘real-life experience’ above suggest that audiobooks succeed in promoting audiobooks?
In the end, only you can judge the extent of the boys’ reading question, from your own school’s situation, because it’s always been an aspect of reading that is more acute in some schools, and less of an issue in others. Recently it’s been thrown into the shadow by other aspects of reading that have stolen the spotlight (and sometimes the funding!): empathy, kindness and mental health and wellbeing.
And did you spot the mistake, earlier? So many of us assume that ‘it’s all about stories’, but as we’ll see later, boys’ choices of reading material go much wider than that.
My Paragraph Picks (PP) - Early Years: Chris Haughton’s Oh No, George, or Catherine Rayner’s Arlo the Lion who couldn’t sleep.
Some ground rules
These are the assumptions I announce when I train on boys’ reading, so I’ll include them here:
1. Boys’ reading is part of the overall boys’ achievement issue (so general aspects like ‘giving lots of feedback, hands-on tasks and physical activity’ apply – try Carel Press’s ‘The Reading Game’)
2. Boys’ reading is an area that you do want to address in your school (though remember, in many cases, boys are reading well)
3. This article’s focus will be on boys, but reading by girls and boys is equally important
4. Though some initiatives may relate to boys only, the general approach should not be to always treat boys separately. (I’m not a fan of special ‘Boys’ Zone’ collections in school libraries, for instance: they assume boys may only like those books, and that they’re of less interest to girls)
My PP (Key Stage 1): Shoo Rayner’s The Ginger Ninja, or the classic Flat Stanley by Jeff Brown.
“Well, you know what boys are like!”
Tired assumptions about gender mean that both boys and girls can end up living up to the pigeon-holing we subconsciously use – as Anne Fine showed with such sharp humour in Bill’s New Frock. Teachers aren’t helped, of course, by external stereotyping: media (and social media) content, family and friends’ views, and marketing by publishers, toy shops and others. I remember my own son being cheesed off* that the soft toy he wanted to buy was in the ‘Girls Floor’ of our local toyshop, and the very title of a 2019 article on new toys tells you that this sort of things persists: Sparkle Unicorns and Fart Ninjas2.
(*As activist Natasha Devon put it: “We socialise girls and boys differently. Boys are encouraged not to express emotions except anger; girls are encouraged to express every emotion except anger”)
My PP (Key Stage 2): Jenny Pearson’s The Super Miraculous Journey of Freddie Yates.
What reading do you mean?
How do you know that boys aren’t reading? Other than classroom observation, are you making enough of your school library’s computer issue system? It can tell you who’s borrowing what; a top ten of books being read by boys; and who rarely uses the library. Even that won’t tell you for sure: how do you know what boys are reading at home, on the bus, on their phones or computers? Regular surveys of children’s reading tastes (anonymous, quick to complete) would help fill in the gaps. To the question ‘I would read more if…’, one of Jon Biddle’s class wrote ‘if I had no PS4’.
Boys may be reading, but not reading the sort of things teachers or parents want them to read. Surveys about boys’ reading produce conclusions like these:
"Boys are more likely to read for a purpose; if they can see the point in it. They often prefer non-fiction, illustrated books (including comics and graphic novels), and ‘fun facts’. They’re drawn to out-of-school interests, and enjoy fast-paced stories with plenty of action, along with TV and film tie-ins."
Don’t assume this is the case in your school: ask boys (and girls) and find the local situation. Bear in mind that boys’ collecting instinct may attract them to series fiction, so don’t discourage them for working their way through less-than-prizewinning series, because it builds confidence. Non-fiction breeds confidence too, because boys’ fascination with a topic can pull them to, and through, a book on it.
And if reading stamina’s the issue, ‘start short’ with riddles, poetry and short stories, working up through short novels from publishers like Barrington Stoke.
My PP (poetry): Joseph Coelho’s Werewolf Club Rules, or Joshua Seigal’s new Yapping Away.
Not reading, but reading-related
There are plenty of indirect activities that will keep boys aware of, and surrounded by, books. Boys often respond well to becoming pupil librarians; they’re using IT, discovering new titles, and building their self-esteem (the School Library Association has a pupil librarian toolkit, and supports the ‘Pupil Library Assistant of the Year’ award). They can also create video or audio trailers for books. They might enjoy quizzes and competitions (general ones, but with a book round), and some boys are all too eager to read aloud poems, jokes, and riddles… which are only a hop from funny stories, puzzles books, and so on.
My PP (to read to a KS2 class): M G Leonard and Sam Sedgman’s The Highland Falcon Thief (and sequels).
Roles and Moles
Reading role models are more valid than ever with boys; they may associate reading with largely female teachers, and if they’ve a less-bookish father too, they’ll draw their own conclusions. Make the most of male teachers; make sure that female teachers ‘wave and rave’ equally about genres like sport and science fiction; invite male authors and storytellers; and even more importantly, invite Dads, Grandads, local sportsmen and others, to show there’s a community of readers out there. But see ‘Talking Point’ below…
And the moles? Photograph boys (particularly peer leaders) and add a quote about reading, or have them hold a favourite book. Posters – or screen shots – like these around school can start to nudge hesitant boys from within their own group – and maybe eventually reach even the die-hards!
My PP (Short ‘super readable’ stories): Marcus Sedgwick’s Dark Peak (for Key Stage 2/3).
OK, that’s got me thinking – so where else can I look?
This article has included some of my guiding principles and favourite ideas, but there are many more in the freely-downloadable Get Everyone Reading3, which I wrote for the School Library Association (which includes a list of books, websites and social media sources). Ask colleagues in other schools too, ask your local library, and if you’re lucky enough to have a school library service, start there first.
Talking Point: Mere Men and Feisty Females
This brief post has concentrated on boys, and its necessary one-sidedness makes me slightly uncomfortable. Writers feel the same way, most of them arguing that their books are ‘not for boys, or for girls, but for readers’. The goal for any teacher or school librarian, it seems to me, should be to spotlight those books which appeal to both genders (I have several in my ‘school visit box’), so as to get boys and girls talking about books together – an ideal result. It may be that male visitors to school choose children’s books with boy-appeal, and sometimes they’re invited for just that reason, but otherwise ‘awareness is all’.
A year or two ago there was some controversy about the gender balance of award juries, but although dual representation is desirable, I’d hope all should be operating on a professional level where the whole audience is borne in mind.
Finally, there’s regular debate about how both boys and girls are portrayed in children’s fiction. It wasn’t hard to make my picture book suggestions above, because there have always been more leading male characters in this format, and it’s good that is now being righted. Animal characters can be gender-free, if the personal pronoun is sidestepped (“Bear was worried. So Bear walked back to the cave…”), though sometimes the adult reader can choose, or – if children aren’t following text – alter the gender of story characters. As a storyteller, there are several stories I use where I can alter the gender at will (one advantage of telling from memory!), but avoiding negative folk tale stereotypes requires careful choices (Molly Whuppie, Chi and the Seven-Headed Dragon). More on this in another post!
Alec Williams is a speaker, trainer and storyteller
More information on Alec can be found at: www.alecwilliams.co.uk