Sunday, October 24, 2010

Boys, Gross Topics & Books

We all know that girls generally begin reading before boys and are more likely to become avid readers.  But does it matter how we try to get them reading? In a recent edition of the Wall Street Journal (24th Sept 2010) Thomas Spence suggests that if we want to teach boys to read, we should avoid "gross-out books and video-game bribes".  We know that the difference between boys and girls in reading ability reflects an earlier start with language than boys and the fact that boys don't read enough. The question is why don't many boys seem to like reading as much as girls and what can we do about it?  Spence lays the blame at the feet of video games and a diet of reading that is based on gross topics. He writes: 
One obvious problem with the SweetFarts philosophy of education is that it is more suited to producing a generation of barbarians and morons than to raising the sort of men who make good husbands, fathers and professionals. If you keep meeting a boy where he is, he doesn't go very far.

Are the comments of Spence fair to the many authors who seek to engage boys with topics that focus on topics like gory death, macabre crimes, weird and unusual life forms etc? The philosophy of writers for boys like Raymond Bean who writes Sweet Farts, R.L. Stines who writes 'Goosebumps', and Terry Deary and others who write 'Horrible Histories' is to shock boys and to appeal to their interest in death, bodily functions, horror, blood and so on. Their overall aim (beyond selling books) is of course to get boys reading.

While the 'Butt' books by Andy Griffiths (and others) with titles like 'Zombie Butts from Uranus', seem to hit a fairly low mark in terms of linguistic complexity and their banality of plot that I'm not keen to see children read, there are other books like 'Horrible Histories' the work of authors like Jennings, Dahl and others that have a place.  Writing about gross or sensational topics can be done well or poorly. In limited quantities they can be helpful. The key is to make sure that this isn't all that boys read; that boys have their literary horizons expanded.

But Spence wants to take this much further, suggesting that we need to limit access to video games and provide what he would see as classic literature
"The secret to raising boys who read, I submit, is pretty simple—keep electronic media, especially video games and recreational Internet, under control (that is to say, almost completely absent). Then fill your shelves with good books....a boy raised on great literature is more likely to grow up to think, to speak, and to write like a civilized man. Whom would you prefer to have shaped the boyhood imagination of your daughter's husband—Raymond Bean or Robert Louis Stevenson".
While the choice between Stevenson and Bean is easy in literary terms, there are many boys who would need many years of reading before they could tackle the likes of 'Treasure Island'. While I struggle to see much value in some of the worst of the 'gross-out' genre (e.g. 'Sweet Farts'), for some boys teachers need to try just about anything to get them reading. Some of the issues in this debate are not dissimilar to those that raged when I was a child concerning comics (see my previous post 'Comics, are they still relevant?')

Spence implies that somehow the problem with boys and reading is due to schools, but the fact is that most boys who have reading problems at school arrive poorly prepared for reading.   

How can we prepare boys better for reading?

There isn't space in a blog post for a complete answer to this important question, but here are 6 things key pieces of advice that might help.

1. Fathers and mothers need to work hard at listening to and reading with their sons. Reading to and with adults should be enjoyable for any child, not boring or a chore. See my previous post on this topic (here).

2. If your boys find it hard to concentrate on books, tell them stories. You don't have to be a great storyteller, start by telling them about your childhood memories, your interests, real life stories etc.

3. In particular, fathers or another adult male role model should have a key role in any boys' early literacy and learning development (see my post on research in this area here).

4. Boys need a lot of help choosing books that they will not only like, but which they will be able to read. Take the time to help boys choose books, if they pick up a book with an exciting cover and find that they can't read it, this will be a disincentive. Read to them at first and then, as they get older and can read, slowly hand over reading responsibility to them. But do still keep looking for books that they might like and read with your boys, even when they are in late primary school.

5. The writers who are into 'gross' or unusual topics know that boys are more likely to be pick up books and read them when the books and the reading events offer opportunities to discover, experiment, explore, learn new things, laugh, consider the curious or unusual, help them to play, see how things work, share trivia, tricks and facts with other boys, explore the unknown, and generally do interesting things.

6. Work hard at helping boys to discover the many authors who try to write engaging material for boys that isn't simply appealing to base instincts and interests (see some of my previous posts on boys and reading below). There is good literary material out there that isn't too difficult but is still engaging. I'll write another post on this soon.

Summing Up

There is little doubt that if your son has spent most of his spare time in the first 10 years of life watching TV, playing video games and spending lots of time on the Internet, then he might well find books dull. If this is the case then you'll have some work to do. I agree with Spence that the answer isn't simply to provide a diet of gross-out material of the poorest kind, but you might well make use of some of this material to excite some positive interest in books. Once you get them started with fiction the key is to move them on and to encourage them to try new authors, genres, themes and topics. Don't forget as well, that there are other pathways to literacy beyond fiction.  For example, for many boys, non-fiction will be a great help in moving them from reluctant readers to independence in reading.

Previous Posts & Suggestions of Books for Boys

Thomas Spence, 'How to Raise Boys Who Read - Hint: Not with gross-out books and video-game bribes', Wall Street Journal, 24th Sept, 2010 (here)

Post on 'Boys and Reading Success: Get them Reading' (here)

'Getting Boys into Reading Through Fiction' (here)

'Getting Boys into Reading Through Non-Fiction' (here)


Anonymous said...

I have to comment here....
I teach a class of year 3 boys who are at that emergent reader stage.
They *love* Paul Jennings, Morris Gleitzman, Andy Griffiths, Tim Winton etc and will actively choose books to along those lines. ....and quite frankly, there is nothing at all wrong with any of those authors ... all very articulate writers who spin a good story. In fact, I find it is the 'gross' kind of books which are the "aha" books for many boys .. the books that move them from learning-to-read to reading-to-learn.
When *I* was learning to read, Trixie Belden books were all the rage and I remember our school librarian refusing to stock them because they weren't "literary" enough. BOO to that - Trixie made girls WANT to read back then (I successfully moved on from Trixie, but she still beats some of the mind-numbing stuff I had to read as part of my PhD!).
Personally, I'd remove every Enid Blyton book from the shelf and save children from being inflicted with sexual stereotypes from a young age ... but some people seem to like THOSE books just fine and I suppose they are reading and that's OK ;)

Trevor Cairney said...

Thanks for your comment Corymbia. I agree that books on gross topics can be a great way to get boys reading. But eventually, I think we need to move them on. Nice to hear from you.

Best Wishes,

P.S. I read your latest post which is honest and wonderful - thanks for sharing this. It's a great reminder that 'real' life can be more gross than any book could ever be and we need other to get us through it. You sound like you have some good friends, I hope things get better over time to help you get through your pain.