Showing posts with label boys education. Show all posts
Showing posts with label boys education. Show all posts

Friday, July 25, 2014

Getting Boys Excited About Reading: Ideas & Resources

Well-known Australian writer Paul Jennings was asked by a grandmother one day at a signing to write something in it for her grandson "...that will make him want to read the book". He wrote "When you finish this book your grandmother will give you $20!" This isn't my perferred strategy but Paul felt it would work! There are other ways.

We've known for years that girls make a faster start in reading in the early years. In the last 30 years the gap between the literacy achievements of boys and girls has widened in favour of girls. Professor William G. Brozo who is co-author of the book 'Bright beginnings for boys' shared this summary of boys' literacy achievements (primarily American data) at an American Literacy conference in October 2008:
  • By grade 4 an average boy is two years behind an average girl in reading and writing
  • Boys make up 70% of special education classes
  • Boys are four times more likely to have ADHD
  • Boys are 50% more likely to repeat a grade than girls
  • Boys are three times more likely to be placed in a reading disability or learning class
So we know we have a problem, but what do we do about it?

Helping boys to become readers

Before sharing a list of specific hints, here is what I see as four fundamental building blocks to get boys reading:

1. Boys are more likely to be attracted to books and reading when the books and the reading events (whether at school, or reading with mum and dad) offer opportunities to discover, experiment, explore, learn new things, make them 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 (see my previous post on this topic here).

2. Boys need to understand the value of story and storytelling from an early age. This can be acquired through early books, the stories you share with them (anecdotes, memories, tall tales etc), traditional stories and fantasy. Until boys value story, they will struggle to cope with reading.

3. Fathers and mothers need to learn how to listen to and read with their sons. Reading to and with boys is often different. You sometimes have to work harder to make it enjoyable. It mustn't be boring or a chore. See my previous post on this topic (here).

4. Fathers have a key role to play in boys literacy and learning development (see my post on research in this area here).


At a more basic level:
  • 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 your sons 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.
  • Fathers have a special role to play in encouraging boys to see reading as a worthwhile pursuit. Fathers who read will have sons who read. Fathers need to read to and with their sons. A good way to do this with older boys who struggle is to read the first few pages aloud and then ask your son to read on. In this way you'll find that your son can read for longer and cope with harder books.
  • Don't forget the importance of non-fiction. Boys want to learn and non-fiction is often a good way in. Try books about sea creatures, space, sport, transport, technology of any kind (see previous post here). There are varied paths into reading (see previous post here).
  • There is also a place for riddles, joke books, cartoons, poetry and silly rhymes (see my post on this here).
  • Comics and magazines are also a good place to start - get them reading. But don’t forget that it is the quality of the story that will ultimately motivate boys to want to read and so quality literature is important to develop long-term readers (see previous post here).
  • Online reading and research is also a good source of reading challenge for boys.
I hope I haven't given the impression above that only fathers can motivate boys to read. Let's face it, more often than not it is mothers who read more stories to their younger children. But there is an important place for men reading books to and with boys, and research evidence shows that fathers have a key role to play with boys' literacy and learning (see my previous post on this here).

Some sure fire starters for young boys


If you can't get your 3-5 year old boy to listen to a story try one of these ideas to turn this around:

1. Read a book dramatically that lends itself to lots of action, loud noises and maybe a rumble half way through (when the wolf eats Grandma, or the boy gets falls out of the tree). Be dramatic, get their attention!

2. Read a story that they've heard before but mess up the story line as you go along. This is probably how writers invented fractured fairy tales. For example:

The first little pig built his house from straw, but he wasn't stupid, so he used super glue to hold the straw together. The wolf knocked at the door and said, "Little pig, little pig, let me come in." The pig replied, "No, no, no, I've used super glue, get lost." "Then I'll huff and I'll puff and I'll blow you're house down," roared the wolf. "Two chances wolfey, get lost" and so on. It doesn't matter if the story logic breaks down, they will still love it anyway.

3. A simpler version of the above is just to change the odd word. Boys (and girls) love listening for the words you change. They will roar 'Hey, you changed it from dog to frog'! To which you reply, 'Did I?' Even a story with some limitations will suddenly become more interesting.

4. Get out some dress-up clothes and get them involved in acting out the story. Try to involve all members of the family and have lots of fun. You can sacrifice the accuracy of the story in favour of having a great time. Creative and dramatic play based on stories can be a great motivator for story.

Some Great Books for Boys 

I've written a number of posts on good books for boys (including here, here & here), so I won't repeat them here, except to list just 21 wonderful books to read to and enjoy with boys. These books will rarely fail if you read them with boys aged 7-12 years and do it with excitement and passion.

'The One and Only Ivan' by Katherine Applegate (2012)
'Dragonkeeper' by Carole Wilkinson (2003) [And other books in the Dragonkeeper series]
'Boy: Tales of Childhood' by Roald Dahl (1984)
'Prince Caspian' by C.S. Lewis (1951)
'A Monster Calls' illustrated by Jim Kay and written by Patrick Ness (2012) 
'The Hobbit' by J.R. Tolkien (1937)
'My Father's Dragon' by Ruth Stiles Gannett
'Crow Country' by Kate Constable, Allen & Unwin
'The Silver Donkey' by Sonya Hartnett (2004)
'Rowan of Rin' by Emily Rodda (1993)
'The Machine Gunners' by Robert Westall (1975)
'Strange Objects' by Gary Crewe (1990)
'The Iron Man' by Ted Hughes (1968, new edition 2010)
'The Pinballs' by Betsy Byars (1977)
'Watership Down' by Richard Adam (1972)
'The Adventures of Tom Sawyer' by Mark Twain (1876) 'A Wrinkle in Time' by Madeleine L'Engle (1962)
'The Wheel on the School' by Meindert DeJong (1972)
'Incident at Hawk's Hill' by Allan W. Eckert (1971)
'Vinnie's War' by David McRobbie (2011)

A final comment on literature

As I've stressed above, while it isn't essential for children to begin reading via books or fiction, there is a critical place for traditional forms like children's literature because of the importance of narrative to people. What I'm saying is that while boys might start reading in many different ways, they shouldn't be allowed to avoid the narrative form. As I commented in the third part of a series of posts on the 'Power of Literature' (here) I believe that while it is possible to learn to read without a rich tradition of books and literature, I would argue that it isn’t possible without a foundation of narrative and story. Why? Expert in narrative Harold Rosen offers the perfect answer to my question:
Narratives in all their diversity and multiplicity make up the fabric of our lives; they are constitutive moments in the formation of our identities and our sense of community affiliation.
We build our relationships with one another, share our humanity through the stories we tell about our own lives and those that we have heard from others. So our aim in using factual forms of reading, and alternative forms like graphic novels and factual texts is of worth in it's own right, but it shouldn't completely replace rich narrative forms like literature.

Some reference books about Boys and reading

Some of the following books offer good general advice about boys and reading

'Bright beginnings for boys: Engaging young boys in active literacy', Debby Zambo and William G. Brozo, International Literacy Association
'Pam Allyn's Best Books for Boys', Pam Allyn which I reviewed here
'The trouble with boys', Peg Tyre
'Best books for boys: A resource for educators', Matthew D. Zbaracki
'Raising bookworms: Getting kids reading for pleasure and empowerment', Emma Hamilton
'The Reading Bug', Paul Jennings

Other Resources


All my posts on boys and education (here)
'Making Reading Exciting for Boys' (here)
'Guys Read Website' - I don't like the design of this site but it has a great set of links to authors who write books that boys might like.
The UK Literacy Trust has a great list of resource links dealing with boys and literacy (here).
The Hamilton Public Library in Canada has a useful site with some good booklists and advice (here)
Max Elliot Anderson's blog 'Books for Boys' has some very useful material and links (here)
You can read all of my posts on boys (here) and boys education (here) using these links.
Family Action Centre at Newcastle University has an Excellent Fatherhood Network and many programs (here)

Friday, July 19, 2013

How to excite boys about school and learning?

In a recent article in 'The Atlantic' Jessica Lahey called on schools to 'stop penalizing boys for not being able to sit still at school'. The article was motivated by her observations of boys as a secondary teacher and her reading of the findings of research on boys published by the International Boys’ Schools Coalition’s 'Teaching Boys: A global study of effective practices'. Her teaching of secondary school boys suggested that while some struggled at school, others thrived. What is the ingredient that leads to inconsistency? Is it simply within the boys, or are there factors external to the boys that are at work?

As a young boy I experienced first hand what it means to move from being a talented and successful boy in the primary school years, to being a struggling students who was often in trouble as a teenager. At secondary school I slipped from A classes to B classes and then found myself struggling with a number of subjects. However, my achievements varied across subject. While in some classes I was rebellious and disengaged, in others I was motivated and successful. This is not an uncommon experience for boys. Some teachers, subjects and even lessons work for boys, while others don't. Why? Is the answer in the curriculum? The content? The child? Or something else?

The research work by Dr Michael Reichert and Dr Richard Hawley set out to find answers to questions such as these, and concluded that the problem wasn't just within the boys. They interviewed teachers and students and observed effective lessons in eighteen participating schools from North America, UK, South Africa and Australasia. They found that the most effective lessons for boys included a number of common elements:
  • They required students to be active learners (physical activities were a key)
  • The teacher embedded desired learning outcomes in the form of a game or fun activities
  • The lessons required individuals or groups of students to build, design, or create something that was judged competitively by classmates
  • They required students to present the outcome of their work to other students
  • They asked students to assume a role, declare and defend a position, or speak persuasively about something
  • The lessons held student attention by surprising them with some kind of novelty element
  • Lessons addressed something deep and personal in the boys’ lives; they engaged at a deeper personal level.
Getting a sense of scale!

Reichart and Hawley concluded that the learning problem wasn't due to the limitations of the boys, but rather the failure of lessons to actively engage them. What they found when they observed effective lessons in the eighteen participating schools from North America, UK, South Africa and Australasia, was that relatively simple changes in classroom pedagogy made a difference for boys.

The common features in successful lessons for boys were active learning, movement, teamwork, competition, consequential performance, risk taking, and surprise.  They concluded that successful lessons required teachers to engage and energize boys. They also found that boys were deeply relational and that the establishment of a positive relationship between teachers and boys is critical.

This last point is important. Over many years I have often asked students to name a great teacher and then to say why. The reasons given vary, and are typically idiosyncratic. But within each of the responses, invariably the student indicates that the teacher 'took an interest in them', 'understood them', 'saw some potential in them', 'got them interested in learning' and generally excited and engaged them. The general thrust of this work and its findings is that rather than simply blaming boys for their under performance, we need to seek different approaches in our classrooms to help to engage them as learners.

The excitement of chemistry

In my own life I can think of three teachers who made a difference to my life - Mr Campbell (Grade 4), Mr Blaze (Grade 7) and Mr Hoddle (Grade 11). My memories of them are rich but the methods they used to engage me were very simple (and in one case unconventional). All had a deep commitment to their teaching and empathy for their students. They wanted me to learn and saw potential within me that other teachers weren't able to see. Mr Campbell when confronted with a new aquarium in his classroom turned to me one day and said, "I'd like you to find out all that you can about tropic fish". He gave me a book and sent me off to find out about them and how to care for them. Several weeks later he asked me to present a mini-lesson to the class on tropical fish.  I was now the school expert on tropical fish!

My grade 6 maths teacher Mr Blaze (he was also my home room teacher, and cricket coach) overheard a student ridiculing me one day in class because I was overweight. He turned to the boy and said "I'll tell you what Meli, I bet TC will beat you in the cross-country race this week". He proceeded to set a wager, with the winner to receive $10 from his pocket. Now I had no intention prior to this of going in that race. But I did, and ended up $10 richer.

Mr Hoddle simply showed me that geography could be exciting by sharing his love of the subject and something of his life with a small group of senior students. He made it interesting by setting tasks that made us explore, solve problems and work collaboratively with others. And all the while he was interested in our lives and us.

The power of experience
None of these teachers used startling methods, and Mr Blaze used one that was positively dodgy, but all showed an ability to understand me and to try to reach and engage me. They also sought to understand me relationally, treating me with respect, believing in me and somehow, helping me to believe in myself. That's the art of good teaching for boys (and girls as well).

Boys and girls are different and as such at times require us to seek different approaches and forms of engagement. It is easy to dismiss boys who act out in classrooms as simply a pain in the neck for the teacher, but the acting out usually has some source and foundation. Just what is it, and how do we respond? The work of Michael Reichert and Richard Hawley offer us some clues and ways forward.

Jessica Lahey concludes her excellent article with these wise words:

"Educators should strive to teach all children, both girls and boys by acknowledging, rather than dismissing, their particular and distinctive educational needs."

My Previous Posts on Boys

I have written a number of posts on education for boys HERE


Saturday, November 15, 2008

Boys education: Balancing the differences

The Kings School (in Sydney) hosted an interesting conference in October, The National Boys’ Education Conference with the theme of “Balancing the Differences”.

The conference covered a variety of different topics and included talks from a number of key speakers. Many of the major addresses are available from school website. These include talks by:

Dr Adam Cox who dealt with the relationship between communication skills and social control in boys' emotional growth (MP3 here).

Mr Michael Furdyk who talked about the impact of technology on the changing world of boys (MP3 here).

Dr Tim Hawkes who talked about what we should be teaching boys in schools but probably are not (MP3 here).

Dr Andrew Martin who discussed the significant role of motivation in learning (MP3 here).

Some of the talks covered topics that challenged participants to consider the complexity of gender differences, as well as the relationship between the cognitive and social characteristics and skills of boys. For example, Dr Adam Cox (family psychologist from the USA) cited research that reveals a strong relationship between cognitive ability and emotional well-being. He suggested that the evidence shows that girls find it easier to understand and develop empathy and more complex social skills compared to boys. He suggested in his talk that parents and teachers need strategies to help boys develop empathy. He commented:

"We continually worry about boys' grades or whether they can get into a good university but what's really at stake is the moral and social development of boys: we're raising and teaching boys to live and work in a changed world where they'll no longer work the land, they'll work the phones."

He pointed out that boys are slower to realise that developing social skills isn’t just about becoming more popular, but rather, such skills are in his words “a bridge to the world at large, a world larger than yourself."

He suggested that research indicates that boys who can regulate their behaviour and become empathetic and considerate, were also more effective learners. He also argued that the best way for boys to learn empathy was through involvement in serving others, such as doing volunteer work with welfare organisations or other community-based groups.

I will review the work of some of the key speakers at the conference in more detail in a future post.

Related links

For all posts that deal with boys education on this blog click here.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Comics, are they still relevant?

Many people over the age of 50 grew up reading comics in their spare time. Comics had their genesis in the satirical works of artists like Rudolph Töpffer, Wilhelm Bush, Christophe, or the Brazilian Angelo Agostini in the 19th century. In 1827, Töpffer created a comic strip and later seven graphic novels. In 1837 Töpffer created "The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck" which is considered to be the earliest known comic book.

But it wasn’t until 1895 that Richard Outcault created "Yellow Kid" that is generally cited as the first comic strip. This was the first work to use the balloon to carry the spoken words of the characters. You can read a fuller account of the history of the comic here.

As a child I grew up reading comics regularly. The newspapers had regular comic strips that were eagerly read each day and most children had access to comics that were part of their recreational reading. Comics like Superman, Tarzan, Richey Rich, The Phantom, and Disney classics like Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse were common. They were generally seen as ‘low art’ and were frowned upon by teachers and librarians. When television came in the 1950s in Australia and earlier in the USA and the UK the comic book declined in popularity.

There were also other early formats such as the larger comic album that was more common in continental Europe, especially Belgium and France, with the most famous being the Tintin series first published in 1929 and still read up till today. Another format is the graphic novel that can either be a serialised novel with illustrations or simplified version of a novel with pictures (either illistrations or in comic form).

Today comics are still the passion of many Baby Boomer collectors and they still have a place in the recreational reading habits of small numbers of people in most cultures, with the possible exception of Japan, where the manga or comic is huge and is popular with adults and children alike (see a brief review here).

The comic has always had two places in art and literature. The main purpose of the genre that most would call comics, has been to amuse and entertain, but there has always been a more serious side to the comic or cartoon, with significant satirical, political and ideological purposes. Even writers of children’s books have experimented regularly with the comic format. Notable in recent times have been works like Raymond Briggs "When the Wind Blows" (1986) that tells of the impact of an atomic blast on an elderly British couple who approach the impending disaster as if they were simply trying to survive the Blitz of WWII.

It seems that in recent times the comic has been making a comeback. A recent newspaper report by Sue Corbett suggests that the ‘graphic novel’ as one variation of the comic, is growing in popularity again and appearing in new forms.

"The themes and genres can range from science to biography, and from memoirs to yes, superheroes.....Every subject is available in the format."

There are now graphic-novel editions of the works of Shakespeare, and many classics such as The Red Badge of Courage, Beowulf, Greek myths, The Adventures of Robin Hood, even The Canterbury Tales.

In an American 5th grade classroom that Corbett describes, there have been good results from pulling graphic novels into the classroom. In the words of the teacher:


"They don't even realize they're reading a book. They just whiz through them......It hooks my really strong readers and my struggling readers.....They're just wild about them."

Graphic novels are not new. The Boys Own and Girls Own annuals that were around as early as the 1870s incorporated extracts of novels with graphic support, and later versions (1930s to 1960s) incorporated even more of this genre and even cartoons. Illustrated Bibles and classic illustrated stories have also been around for many years. The first book I can remember reading as a child was an illustrated version of Jules Verne's "Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea" that I read when I was about 7 years old. This was published in 1954.

John Shableski of Diamond Book Distributors says sales of graphic novels have climbed from $43 million in 2001 to $330 million in 2006. Much of this is fuelled by schools and libraries simply trying to get children reading at a time when reading for pleasure is being threatened by computers, gaming, cable TV etc. Teachers have found that they are able to hold children's attention longer with graphic material.

Is this a good thing? Yes, I think it is. If we put to one side what can happen to great novels when they are simplified or serialized badly, there is merit in this approach to reading. And while I would not want children to grow up on a restricted diet of comic books or graphic novels of lower literary merit, there is a place for this material if it gets children reading earlier and for longer. Boys in particular respond well to graphic novels and comics so I would encourage parents and teachers to consider them as one way to get children reading more. Of course once you do have children reading for pleasure the aim should be to encourage them to branch out to read other genres and more varied and demanding material.

You can read the Sue Corbett article in full here.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Boys and reading success: Get them reading


Paul Jennings is a well-known Australian (well he came here from England at age 6) children's author who has written many books for boys. In a recent article that appeared in the Melbourne Age, he shared his thoughts on why he writes the books he does and the challenges in helping boys to become readers. Some of his key points were:


  • Parents are important to children's reading success because much of the groundwork occurs before children start formal schooling.
  • Half an hour a day with a "skilled helper" is what a child needs to help them with reading.
  • Men are examples for boys, and fathers who read are likely to have sons who read.
  • It doesn't matter what a father reads as long as he reads for pleasure and demonstrates that this is a choice men make.
  • Boys have some interests that are different from girls and we need to recognise this fact.
  • Starting with books about sport or humour is a good place to start.
  • But ultimately, the quality of the story is the most important thing, not the topic although books need to recognise the diverse range of interests of boys.
  • While boy's might seem to have limited reading interests at first, no matter where boys start reading, ultimately quality will be what keeps them reading.


The ideas in Paul Jennings AGE article are based on his book for parents 'The Reading Bug'.
To his ideas I would add the following points:
  • 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 your sons 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.
  • It is helpful to read with your sons (certainly right through primary school) - a good way to do this is to read the first few pages aloud and then ask your son to read on. In this way you'll find that your son can read for longer and cope with harder books.
  • Don't forget the importance of non-fiction - boys want to learn and non-fiction is often a good way in - books about sea creatures, space, sport, transport, technology of any kind.
  • There is also a place for riddles, joke books, poetry and silly rhymes.
  • Comics and magazines are also a good place to start - get them reading.
  • Online reading and research is also a good source of reading challenge for boys.
Boys, because they are boys (and are different) will enjoy books more when they help them to discover, experiment, explore, learn new things, make them 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 stuff!

Motivating boys to read can be done by people other than fathers but what Jennings is saying, and what research from many disciplines supports, is that fathers have a special role to play in supporting their sons, motivating them and providing good models for them. Fathers have a significant impact on their children’s learning and behaviour. As my previous post on the subject of fathers indicated, the quality of the relationship between boys and their fathers matters.

For the full text of the AGE article 'Boy Story' click here. For more information about Paul and his books click here. For information on 'The Reading Bug' (his book for parents) click here.

If you want a great list of books for 11-14 year old boys suggested by the School Library Association in the UK click here. You can download the entire publication for free with its list of 160 books with quick summaries organised by category (e.g. discover, play, spy, experiment, laugh etc). Every parent with a teenage boy should have a look at this resource. I plan to do another post later on motivating younger boys.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Single sex schools: Why are they becoming popular?


Single sex schools and classes are not new, but in recent times there has been a trend towards more of them in the USA.  In an interesting piece in the New York Times Elizabeth Weil describes the recent growth in this phenomenon and offers some background on the schools and their purposes.  One of the most interesting observations is that boys and girls in these classes seem to enjoy them and benefit from them, and that such classes take on a character of their own that in many ways reflect the differences that some researchers have suggested exist between boys and girls.

The schools in question have been influenced by the work of two writers.  The first is Leonard Sax and his book, "Why Gender Matters: What Parents and Teachers Need to Know About the Emerging Science of Sex Differences." New York: Doubleday, 2005.  The second is Michael Gurian's book “Boys and Girls Learn Differently!” Jossey-Bass ( 2002).

In a review of Sax's book Stephanie Trudeaux suggests that Dr. Leonard Sax, challenges the assertion that characteristics associated with each gender have been socially constructed. Using a scientific approach, along with research from the past two decades, Sax argues that gender differences are biologically programmed. Sax asserts "that for the past three decades, the influence of social and cognitive factors on gender traits has been systematically over estimated while innate factors have been neglected” (p. 253). The author further suggests that ignoring these hardwired gender differences, and opting for a gender-neutral child-rearing philosophy, “has done substantial harm over the past thirty years” (p. 7). As an example, he calls to attention the increased number of boys being given behavior-modifying drugs, and the increased number of girls being given antidepressants.

Sax stresses that although it is important to chip away at gender stereotypes, we should also recognize variances in how girls and boys develop. By understanding the unique qualities of each gender, we can better accommodate the different needs of boys and girls, with regard to the way they are raised, disciplined and educated. Sax suggests that single-sex education may help accommodate these gender differences. However, he does not believe that single-sex education is the only solution. He states that, “For at least some children in some circumstances, single sex activities offer unique opportunities and may even serve to ‘inoculate’ girls and boys against some of the societal ailments that now threaten children and teenagers” (p. 9). He writes, “Coed schools tend to reinforce gender stereotypes, where as single-sex schools can break down gender stereotypes” (p. 243).

This book is worth the consideration of parents and teachers.