Thursday, September 29, 2011

Getting Boys & Girls into Chapter Books

I'm asked by many parents just when they start reading chapter books to their children. If he or she won’t sit still long enough to hear a chapter through, then it’s too early. But, then again, you might just be choosing dull books or books that are just too hard and complex as narratives. You might also need to sharpen up your story reading.

Here are some quick questions that you might think about in assessing whether your child is ready:
  • Can your son or daughter listen for 20 minutes plus of reading aloud from picture books?
  • Do they seem to enjoy the text as much as the pictures?
  • Do they seem to relate to the characters and can they follow more complex picture books?
  • Do they ask you to read favourite books over and over?
  • Are they showing growing understanding of written language and asking questions about it (e.g. “What does calamity mean?” “Why does it say….?).
If you answer yes to most of these questions then they are probably ready. Children who have been read to constantly during the preschool years are typically ready to listen to chapter books from age 5 years and up (some even earlier). I also add that some children will be ready before 5 years. My two daughters and my two oldest grandchildren all started to love chapter books before 5 years of age. The starting time will reflect their maturity, language proficiency and the depth of the literary and narrative experiences that they have had in the early years.

Why read chapter books to younger readers?

In a post I wrote in 2008 on ‘Guiding children’s learning’ (here) I talked a little about Jerome Bruner’s concept of “scaffolding”. He identified scaffolding as a process where an adult helps children to learn in advance of their developmental level. The adult does this by doing what the child cannot do by themselves; allowing students to slowly take over parts of the process as they are able to do so. In many ways, this is the most fundamental reason to read chapter books to your children once they have become avid listeners to stories and beginning readers themselves. They can listen to more complex stories than they can read themselves as emerging readers.

In practical terms, chapter books offer children:
  • More complex narrative forms and plot development
  • Richer and more complex language
  • New areas of knowledge about their world and the human condition
  • Different literary devices
  • They train your children to be able to sustain longer periods of reading
As well as the above, chapter books will enable you to build an even richer shared literary history with your children. Shared books will become part of your shared history within the family, and more broadly, they will help to connect your children to a literary culture that others will share with them.

A couple of warnings

Having said all of the above, there are a couple of warnings that I’d give:
  • Don’t push your children too quickly; all learning requires periods of consolidation before moving on to more difficult terrain.
  • Be aware that while your children might be able to follow the story line, relate to the characters and so on, they may not be emotionally ready for some of the content.
  • Be prepared to offer support - with chapter books you may need to explain new words, discuss new concepts, offer new knowledge etc.
  • Don’t forget, that reading a chapter book still needs to be interesting and enjoyable and that it will be harder to achieve this without pictures so you’ll need to work harder on varying your character voices (see my earlier post on reading to and with your children HERE).
One final warning. Don't assume that once you commence chapter books that picture books no longer have a place. Young children still need to read picture books and hear them read to them. They continue to have an important role in children's literacy development throughout the primary years of schooling.

Some Chapter Books to try

The list below is not meant to be extensive, just illustrative. It has a particular Australian flavour (but not entirely). I preface the following suggestions by saying that individual children will handle these books at different ages. For the very youngest readers it is best to start with books that have some illustrations to maintain interest until they develop more 'stamina' for harder books. The age guide that I have given is meant to be a ‘group age’ guide for teachers sharing such books with larger groups. Parents reading to a single child will perhaps find that their child can deal with books I’ve listed at an earlier stage. Conversely, your child might not be ready for some of these books as suggested. You may also find that they can handle even more difficult books not on the list (but don’t forget the warnings above).

a) Suitable for 5 year-olds

‘Aurora and the little blue car’, by Anne-Cath Vestly, 1969
‘Arlo the dandy lion’, by Morris Lurie, 1971
‘Charlotte’s Web’, by E. B. White, 1952
‘Fantastic Mr Fox’, by Roald Dahl, 1970
‘Morris in the apple tree’, by Vivian French, 1995
‘Pippi Longstocking’, by Astrid Lindgren, 1945
‘Snugglepot and Cuddlepie’, by May Gibbs, 1940
‘The Complete Adventures of Blinky Bill’, by Dorothy Wall, 1939
‘The Littlest Dragon Goes for Goal’, by Margaret Ryan, 1999
‘Winnie-the-Pooh’, by A.A. Milne, 1926

b) Suitable for 6 year-olds

‘The BFG’, by Roald Dahl, 1982
‘Billy Fishbone King of the kid’, by Dianne Bates, 1997 (Bushranger series)
‘Bud Buster’, by Sofie Laguna, 2003 (Aussie Nibbles series)
‘Dragon ride’, by Helen Cresswell, 1987 (Colour Young Puffin series)
‘Elephant in the kitchen’, Winsome Smith, 1980
‘Grandma Cadbury’s Trucking Tales’, Di Bates, 1987
‘James and the Giant Peach’, by Roald Dahl, 1961
‘Hazel the Guinea Pig’, by A. N. Wilson, 1989
‘Mr. Popper's Penguins’, by Richard & Florence Atwater, 1939
'My Naughty Little Sister', by Dorothy Edwards, 1950
‘Rabbit Hill’, by Robert Lawson, 1944.
‘Superfudge’, by Judy Blume, 1984
‘Tashi and the Genie’, by Anna Fienberg, 1997, (series)
‘The Shrinking of Treehorn’, by Florence Parry Heide, 1971
‘The 27th Annual African Hippopotamus Race’, by Morris Lurie, 1969
‘The Wind in the Willows’, by Kenneth Grahame, 1908

c) Suitable for 7 year-olds

‘Boss of the Pool’, by Robin Klein, 1986
‘Bottersnikes and Gumbles’, by S. A. Wakefield, 1969
‘Boxer’, by Ian Charlton, 1999
‘Boy’, by Roald Dahl, 1984
‘Callie’s castle’, by Ruth Park, 1974
‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’, Roald Dahl, 1964
‘Charlie up a gum tree’, by E. A. Schurmann, 1985
'Darius Bell and the Glitter Pool', by Odo Hirsch, 2009
‘Dear writer’, by Libby Gleeson, 2001
‘Dog tales’, by Emily Rodda, 2001
‘Foggy’, by Allan Baillie, 2001
‘Frog thunder’, by Jill Morris, 2001
‘Hating Alison Ashley’, by Robin Klein, 1984
‘James and the giant peach’, by Roald Dahl, 1961
‘Jodie’s Journey’, by Colin Thiele, 1997
‘Just So Stories’, by Rudyard Kipling, 1902
‘Let the Balloon Go’, by Ivan Southall, 1968
‘Little House on the Prairie’, Laura Ingalls Wilder, 1935
‘Little Old Mrs Pepperpot’, by Alf Prøysen, 1959
‘Matilda’, by Roald Dahl, 1989
'Matty Forever', by Elizabeth Fensham, 2009 
‘Mike’, by Brian Caswell, 1993
‘Misery Guts’, by Morris Gleitzman, 1991
‘Onion Tears’, by Diana Kidd, 1989
‘Over the top’, by Ivan Southall, 1972
‘Penny Pollard’s Diary’, by Robin Klein, 1983
‘Selby’s Secret’, by Duncan Ball, 1985
‘Storm Boy’, by Colin Thiele, 1976
‘The adventures of Stuart Little’, by Daphne Skinner, 2000
‘The amazing adventures of Chilly Billy’, by Peter Mayle, 1980
‘The borrowers’, by Mary Norton, 1958
‘The Eighteenth Emergency’, by Betsy Byars, 1973
‘The Iron Man’, by Ted Hughes, 1968
‘The enemies’, by Robin Klein, 1985
‘The lion, the witch and the wardrobe’, by C.S. Lewis, 1950
'The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg', by Rodman Philbrick
‘The penguin friend’, by Lucy Sussex, 1997 (Collins Yellow Storybook series)
‘The Twits’, by Roald Dahl, 1980
‘The turbulent term of Tyke Tiler’, by Gene Kemp, 1977
'The Wish Pony', by Catherine Bateson, 2008
‘Wiggy and Boa’, by Anna Fienberg, 1988
‘Wendy’s whale’, by Colin Thiele, 1999

Book series

I’ve written about book series in another post (here) and offer a detailed lost for many ages. There are a number of book series that children aged 5-7 years will enjoy, here are just some:

Alf Prøysen’s ‘Mrs Pepperpot’ series
Anna Branford's 'Violet Mackerel' series
Arnold Lobel’s ‘Frog and Toad’ books
Astrid Lindgren’s ‘Pippi Longstocking’ books
Dick King-Smith's 'Sophie' series
Donald Sobol's 'Encyclopedia Brown' series
Dorthy Edwards' 'My Naughty Little Sister' series 
Emily Rodda's 'Rowan of Rin' and 'Deltora Quest' series 
Enid Blyton's 'Faraway Tree' series
Hugh Lofting's 'Dr Dolittle' series
Jeff Brown's 'Flat Stanley' series
Laura Ingalls Wilder's 'Ingalls family' series
Mairi Hedderwick's 'Katie Morag' series 
Michael Bond’s ‘Paddington Bear’ series
R.A. Spratt's 'Nanny Piggins' series
Sarah Pennypacker's 'Clementine/ series 
'The Chronicles of Narnia' by C.S. Lewis

Some related links

The importance of literature (here)
How to listen to your child reading (here)
Helping children to choose books (here)
The benefits of repeated reading of literature (here)

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Improving on 'The Iron Man'?

"The Iron Man came to the top of the cliff.
How far had he walked? Nobody knows. Where had he come from? Nobody knows. How was he made? Nobody knows.
Taller than a house, the Iron Man stood at the top of the cliff, on the very brink, in the darkness.

So begins one of the great modern fairy stories; or is it science fiction? No matter, 'The Iron Man: A Story in Five Nights' is a wonderful work of fiction for readers aged 6-10 years and has thrilled readers since it was published by Faber in 1968. It is a modern classic which in its 1st edition used the wonderfully simply line drawings of George Adamson. Illustrations stripped bare, as 'miserly' as the text, giving just enough to inflame the curiosity and imagination of readers. Illustrations as intriguing as the words and complementing the masterful text. 

Surely, such a work cannot be improved on? Surely, it would be foolish even to try? Warner Brothers tried with an animated film titled 'The Iron Giant' (1999) and it was (in my view) an abomination, in light of the quality of the book. But.... it seems there was a way to improve on the classic work. Laura Carlin is the secret weapon, surprising this reader, with the same killer blows as the Iron Man dealt to the Space-bat-angel-dragon. In her own way, Carlin improves on Adamson's contribution as illustrator in the original edition.

Here is an illustrated junior novel turned into a graphic novel with wonderful success. I have seen the odd review (odd in number, and odd in nature), that have spoken of the 'simplicity of the drawings', 'the child-like figures', the 'imprecise details' etc. Theses comments show neither understanding nor appreciation of the genius of the text. Hughes offers a text with simplicity of vocabulary and sentence structure that helps to create the mood, the intrigue and 'space' for young minds to imagine. This is precise descriptive language that allows the reader to see with equal preciseness, the path of the characters, the events and even the plot. Carlin wonderfully partners Ted Hughes in this new edition from Walker Books (even though he's been dead since 1998).

I applaud Walker Books for its work in recent years producing new editions of classic works. Many publishers attempt to do the same thing. Old books can be reprinted and good profit made for low cost. But Walker has been trying to offer something new and significant in each of its attempts.  I have reviewed the Classic Series that Robert Ingpen has illustrated (here) which in their own way add value for new readers to well-known works. The purpose of course, in new editions, is to introduce such works to a new generation. This new edition of 'The Iron Man' will do just that. Can you improve on 'The Iron Man'? I think Walker have succeeded in this new format. The production and the illustrations are superb.

Laura Carlin's illustrations are in rich watercolours that offer a somewhat impressionistic interpretation of Ted Hughes's text, mostly in full-colour, with occasional two-colour stylised images across part and whole pages for dramatic effect. A simple example is an image of the two red eyes of the Iron Man shining in the deep black pit where he is trapped. The images are well integrated with the text, sometimes appearing as almost marginal sketches and, at other times, detailed double-page spreads. The publishers also make good use of other devices such as varied text fonts and styles, paper sculpture holes to slowly reveal the space-bat-angel-dragon, and they use multiple page fold-outs in places, including a dramatic 6 page spread that folds out to the reveal story's conclusion. The sensitivity with which Carlin interprets the text and the clever book design, offers a wonderful example of a graphic novel that improves the reader's experience of the original work. It is brilliant stuff!

Plot summary

The Iron Man describes the unexpected arrival in England of a mysterious giant "metal man" who wreaks havoc on the countryside by attacking the neighbouring farms and eating all their machinery. A young boy called Hogarth befriends him and he and the extraordinary being end up defending and saving the earth when it is attacked by a fearsome "space-bat-angel-dragon" from outer space.

The book was written at a high point of the Cold War and it would seem that the intent of the author was to place a spotlight on the futility of war, violence, and the arms race.  Many see the space-bat-angel-dragon as an idealized version of the Soviet Union offering a threat because of the hostility of nations toward one another. It offers a message of hope and peace. A solution to the problems of the world devised by a child who showed compassion and empathy, and was prepared to talk to the 'enemy'.

About the Author

Ted Hughes was born in Yorkshire in 1930. His first book, 'The Hawk in the Rain', was published by Faber in 1957, and was followed by many volumes of poetry and prose for both children and adults, including 'How The Whale Became', 'Under the North Star', 'Tales from Ovid' and 'Birthday Letters'. He was Poet Laureate from 1984 and was appointed to the Order of Merit in 1998, the year in which he died. There has been much written about him and his ill-fated marriage to American Poet Sylvia Plath who died by suicide aged 30 in 1963. But he should be remembered first as a great poet and writer for adults and children.

About the illustrator

Laura Carlin is a graduate of the Royal College of Art and the winner of several awards including the Shelia Robinson Drawing Prize, the Quentin Blake Award and the 2004 National Magazine Award. Laura's work as a ceramic artist and illustrator has featured in publications such as Vogue, the Guardian, and the Independent. Books she has illustrated include 'The Silver Donkey' by Sonya Hartnett and Michael Morpurgo's 'The Kites are Flying!'.

Book details

Title: 'The Iron Man' Ted Hughes, illustrated by Laura Carlin
ISBN: 9781406324679
Imprint: Walker Books
Release Date: November 1, 2010
Dimensions: 200 x 270mm, 96pp
Australian RRP: $34.95

Related posts

Author Focus: Robert Ingpen (HERE)
Aussie Book Reviews: Graphic Novels (HERE)

Books for children by Ted Hughes

'The Earth Owl and Other Moon People' (1960)
'Meet my Folks!' (1961)
'How the Whale Became' (1963)
'Nessie the Mannerless Monster' (1964)
'The Iron Man' (1968) Illustrated by George Adamson
'Coming of the Kings and Other Plays' (1970)
'Season Songs' (1976) Illustrated by Leonard Baskin
'Moon-Whales and Other Moon Poems' (1976) Illustrated by Leonard
'Moon-Bells and Other Poems' (1978) Illustrated by Felicity Roma
'Under the North Star' Illustrated by Leonard Baskin (1981)
'Ffangs the Vampire Bat and the Kiss of Truth' (1986) Illustrated by Chris
'The Cat and the Cuckoo' (1987) Illustrated by R. J. Lloyd
'Tales of the Early World' (1988) Illustrated by Andrew Davidson
'The Iron Woman' Illustrated Douglas Carrell (1993)
'The Mermaid's Purse' (1993) Illustrated by R.J. Lloyd
'Collected Animal Poems: Vols. 1–4' (1995)

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Using Technology to Develop Vocabulary & Reading

In a recent edition of the International Reading Association journal 'The Reading Teacher', Bridget Dalton and Dana Grisham discuss the merits of electronic strategies that can be used to increase children's vocabularies. They call these strategies 'eVoc' strategies (i.e. electronic vocabulary strategies)

How important is vocabulary?

The short answer is, very! We know that in spite of the rise of the visual medium that words are still the primary basis of language, communication and learning. Literacy research studies have consistently shown the significant relationship between knowledge of vocabulary and reading and writing ability. Pearson, Hiebert & Kamil (2007) showed that there is a very high positive correlation (0.6 to 0.8) between vocabulary and reading comprehension. This confirms consistent findings that span more than 30 years (see for example Anderson, R. C., & Freebody, P., 1985).

While we know children learn much of their vocabulary through experience of spoken and written language, it also grows as a result of good instruction. There is wide support within the research literature for a varied approach to vocabulary instruction, including:
  • Language experience 
  • Encouragement of wide reading 
  • Explicit teaching of words
  • The promotion of active interest in words as a natural part of learning
Some key eVoc strategies

Dalton & Grisham in their excellent article suggest 10 strategies that relate primarily to the third and fourth approaches. I will share just 5 strategies, which I have modified for use in primary classrooms based on the examples provided.

1. Tools for displaying relationships between vocabulary and text meaning

The use of graphic organizers and visual displays has proven helpful in expanding vocabulary as well as comprehension, because they help to show the relationship between words and concepts. An example of this strategy is the creative use of 'Word Clouds'. Using the free application 'Wordle' you are able to create word arrays that display the frequency of words in any text. This can then be used to enhance discussion of the text as students speculate what the word cloud might tell you about key themes, dominant ideas, the relationship between ideas, the central purpose of the text, the meaning of the text and so on.

The Word Cloud above is one that I prepared by taking a Wikipedia description of 'Rock Lobster' and inserting it into Wordle. The display shows the dominance of key words and concepts and their relationship to one another. This display makes it pretty clear that we are not discussing crustaceans but rather the first hit song performed by the rock band the B-52s in 1978. A display like the above based on a relevant passage can be used for intensive discussion of the text, developing and reinforcing vocabulary while increasing text comprehension.

2. Using TrackStar to create a shared research 'field trip' for your class

TrackStar is a free online application similar in many ways to WebQuest. It allows the teacher to identify a topic and collect a series of relevant websites or online sources that can then be shared with the class for individual, group or class use. It also allows teachers to choose previously developed online lessons that are referred to as 'tracks'.  The example below is for a topic on Ancient Civilizations and features 4 key sites for children aged 5-9 years. The tracks can be used in varied ways. An ideal format is to use a track in association with a Smart Board for group or class work. Students can be guided through the research process (a 'field trip') and can be asked to record observations, key words or phrases, new learning and so on. The process builds vocabulary as students engage in writing, reading, discussion and shared learning,

3. Using Online Reference Tools

A variety of online reference tools can also help vocabulary and reading development. Dalton and Grisham suggest the use of several tools. One of them is the Visual Thesaurus. The Visual Thesaurus is an interactive dictionary and thesaurus that enables the teacher or child to create word maps elaborate meanings and show relationships to other words. The tool allows you to enter a single word, which is then represented as a visual display web of related vocabulary. The tool can be used to stimulate discussion in relation to a topic as part of the research process in English, social studies, science, history and so on. It can also be used as a tool for writing and reading individually or in groups.

Another example is the 'Back in School' web page of the site that offers a means to find words and then represent them in varied ways as well as offering some varied strategies to reinforce their meaning. This can include hearing the word spoken, reading word definitions and meanings, creating lists of words, sharing words using social media like Facebook and Twitter, playing games and so on.

Above: 'Back in School' site from

4. Using Language Translation Devices

There are a variety of language translation devices available for computer and tablet use. One of my favourite tools is the free iTranslate for iPad. But if you don't have access to an iPad there are many other online tools that allow you to input English language text and automatically translate it to a variety of other languages. These also allow the child to type in foreign words for instant translation to English. Google Translate is an obvious and easy choice that once again allows you to input language for instant translation.  Yahoo's Babelfish also offers similar functions.

What I like about the translation tools is that as children experiment and explore how text is translated into other languages, they learn how many words are borrowed from other languages, they learn more about derivations, and it offers a way to discuss the subtle changes in meaning as words move from one language into another. This word play is helpful for vocabulary learning. These tools also offer the benefit of stimulating a desire to learn other languages, which we know can have benefit for learning a first language.

5. Using Presentation Tools Like Powerpoint

Another helpful strategy is to capitalize on multimodality to reinforce learning of vocabulary, reading comprehension, writing and learning. Dalton and Proctor (2007) have shown that there are benefits to vocabulary learning if children experience the vocabulary in varied ways. For example, understanding a word by writing it, reading and developing a definition, listening to it, viewing graphic displays, creating captions for pictures, completing word maps etc. Dalton and Grisham suggest using PowerPoint to apply some of these options to the learning of vocabulary. The example opposite is a very simple template than can be used by individual students or can be built up as part of group activities. This example requires just the word, a meaning which students write (or even look up in a dictionary), and images to illustrate the word meaning. There are more complex versions that can be used including the addition of a pronunciation option. They could also have a section for synonyms, opposites, word categories and perhaps even hyperlinks to sites that elaborate on the vocabulary that has been discussed.

Once again this is an ideal group activity for use with Smart Boards. Electronic whiteboards allow you to access the Internet, use existing software and tools to manipulate text, image and sound. It is an exciting way to allow children to use multimodal strategies to acquire deeper understanding of vocabulary and reading comprehension. The video below is a good introduction to some of the ways we can use Smart Boards, including ideas for developing vocabulary and conceptual knowledge.

Summing up

While children develop vocabulary naturally as part of their language experiences there is a place for instruction. My suggestion is that such instruction should adhere to a few basic principals:
Vary the ways in which vocabulary is introduced and discussed
Try always to deal with vocabulary within authentic texts that are being used to learn content not just words
Stress meaning and use, not testing and learning isolated words
Utilize individual, group and class learning contexts but don't over-use class-based instruction
Make good use multimodal methods as much as possible

Related Posts

See my previous post on 'Advance Organizers' HERE 
'The Language Experience Approach' (LEA) HERE
'Rethinking Language & Learning' HERE
'English, the Inventive Language' HERE

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Indigenous Literacy Day

Today is Indigenous Literacy Day!

In recognition of the importance of this day I have provided links below to some of my previous posts dealing with Indigenous literacy and education issues.

'Better education outcomes for Indigenous students' HERE

'Indigenous tales of the Dreamtime' HERE

'Indigenous students making literacy progress' HERE

'The Lucky Country: How are the kids faring?' HERE 

'Australia Day: A time for storytelling and action' HERE 

'Catching a glimpse of our nation through children's literature' HERE

'Requiem for a Beast: A review' HERE

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Making Reading Exciting for Boys

I've written a number of posts on boys and book for this blog. In an earlier post, 'The Challenge of Boys and Reading' I suggested that one of the great priorities when sharing books with boys is to make it interesting, enjoyable and satisfying. Encounters with books should stimulate every boy's imagination, enjoyment, curiosity, knowledge, sense of fun, creativity, sense of adventure, enjoyment of language and offer opportunities to learn new things.  For too many boys, encounters with books speak of boredom, inadequacy and separation from fun. This feeds a sense of failure, frustration and lack of interest in reading. Our job as parents and teachers is to break this cycle.

The fundamentals

1. Boys are more likely to be attracted to books and reading when they 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.

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 your sons. Reading to and with you should be enjoyable, not 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).

5. Pretty much every act of reading is relational. For boys, if the book is connected with people with whom they share strong relationships, then they will read. If parents, significant community leaders and teachers that boys love and respect value reading then they will too.

6. Whoever reads to them and with them should keep the following in mind:

Choices - Help them to make good choices, including stuff they can read and that they'll find interesting.
Enjoyment - Make it seem important, interesting and fun, not just a task.
Forms - Introduce them to as many different forms of reading as possible.
Model - Make sure you enjoy it too! If you're bored, they'll be bored. If you're having fun, they will too.
Early intervention - Start early and do it often. Don't wait till your boy is seven before you start reading to and with him. It's not impossible by then but it's tougher. 
Giving boys support and getting help

For many boys the narrative form is the best way into literacy, but some boys are reluctant to read storybooks. Having said this, all humans love stories, even if only in non-book forms like anecdotes, yarns, ballads, songs, jokes, video games etc. Our aim as parents or teachers is to develop boys who can read every imaginable genre when it is appropriate to their needs. We want them to read in a sustained way written text presented in traditional print forms (e.g. books, magazines, letters), electronic forms, or in fact everyday text found anywhere within the child's world. So we should seek to explore any form of reading available and then gently push them to explore other forms of reading, as well as to read in more sustained ways and for all imaginable purposes.

Varied pathways into reading

I've written before about the need for varied 'Pathways to Literacy', but below I've tried to offer a range of ideas for boys aged from beginning readers to young teenagers. All are meant to offer an alternative pathway for pushing forward reluctant readers. They are roughly in order of increasing difficulty and age appropriateness, but some examples are relevant across all ages.

Introduce them to magazines - boys will love to flick through the pages of magazines on topics that interest them. Something like National Geographic is ideal (or a children's version of this type of magazine like 'Kids Almanac'). If they are expendable (e.g. old National Geographics), let them cut out interesting pictures and get them to make a book by sticking them in and then labelling them. Later you can write words for them that they dictate or you can encourage them from a very early age to try to 'write' (see my previous post on 'When do children start writing' here) words that go with the pictures.

Explore websites together - from about 3 years most boys will love to explore computers with you. Choose some simple websites (I list a few on the sidebar of this blog site), National Geographic Kids is worth a look. The Australian Museum has a great site called 'Wild Kids' where lots of facts and pictures can be found about animals - great fun to explore (and it's reading!). Show them how you open the site. Then explore the pages of the site pointing to and reading words. Don't make this a reading lesson, the text is peripheral to the exploration, images etc. But you are 'warming them up' to print. There are some greats sites to explore on sharks, reptiles etc.

Explore factual books together - boys love to learn new things. Borrow factual books from the library about space, dinosaurs, cars, trains, reptiles, sea creatures, insects, how things work etc. Boys will flick pages and look at pictures for ages. Sit with them and selectively draw attention to words. Perhaps use the book as a springboard to other activities (e.g. craft, drawing) and encourage the use of writing to label or supplement drawings. A brilliant example of this type of book is 'The Way Things Work' by David Macaulay (the author's website is also worth a visit here). This book explains with words, diagrams and pictures how things work, for example, electricity, pulleys, microscopes, smoke detectors etc. This can be flicked through or read. It isn't a simple book but is ideal for an older boy who isn't keen on stories but may respond to a more difficult factual book that will encourage him to read for more sustained periods. And this is one of our aims, to give them reading 'stamina'.

A sub-category of this approach is the use of 'key fact' books. Many boys will love books that offer a mix of drawings and pictures with facts about things that fascinate them. Some of these books use extended text, but others use short 'sharp' statement with good accompanying graphics or images. Popular topic areas with boys include:
  • Egyptology
  • Jet planes
  • Weather
  • Animals of all kinds
  • History
  • Sport
  • Science
  • Engineering
Here are a couple of examples:

A recently published book is 'Into the Unknown' by Stewart Ross with illustrations by the incredible Stephen Biesty. This wonderful hard cover book from Walker Books tells the story of 14 famous journeys throughout history, including 'Pytheas the Greek Sails to the Arctic Circle in 340BC', 'Admiral Zheng He Crosses the Indian Ocean in 1405-07', 'Neil Armstrong & Buzz Aldrin Land on the Moon in 1969', 'Marco Polo Rides the Silk Road to China in 1271-74' and many more.

Each story has multiple drawings, maps and a giant fold out cross-section. Boys will read and look through this book for hours. You will also enjoy reading this exciting book to boys. There are many other 'cross-section' books by Stephen Biesty and others (here), including 'Egypt in Cross Section', 'Castles' and 'Rome'.

There is a sub-group in this category that present interesting short facts that boys love dipping into, showing to friends and revisiting again and again

1001 Unbelievable Facts, by Helen Otway (there is a whole series of '1001 Fact..' books, 'Backpack Books' published by DK)
100 Things You Should Know About Ancient Rome, by Fiona MacDonald
Dinosaurs (Pocket Series), produced as part of a series of non-fiction books by DK Publishing

There are also scientific books produced by major organizations like museums. A wonderful example is My Panda Book, by Stuart P. Levine. This is one of a series of books published in partnership with the Smithsonian.

A wonderful example of a fact book that my wife bought for me (and which I've shared with my grandson) is 'One Small Step'. This was produced to commemorate the first moon landing on July 20th 1969. The book is a replica of a scrapbook put together by a 12 year old boy whose grandad was working in the Houston Control Room on the day when man first made it to the moon. It’s a collection of Moon-landing memorabilia (e.g. space menus, certificates, transcript of the first steps exchange etc), photographs and so on. It also has more recent space science information, including the future of space travel.

Joke books - There are numerous joke books that boys will use for hours with family and friends. For some reluctant readers joke books are the place that they will drift to in order to avoid sustained reading. The aim isn't to allow this to happen, but these books if managed well can be a way to get boys reading more difficult material. There are lots of books of this type; the following are just a couple of examples.

Knock Knock Who's There: My First Knock Knock Book by Tad Hills is a great introduction to humour in books with answers under flaps.
The Everything Kids' Joke Book
, by Michael Dahl offers Jokes for upper Primary children (aged 7-12 years) plus a second section on how to write jokes.
The Family Joke Book, by Brad Taylor

Books that encourage boys to make and do things - there are many examples of books of this type. They show boys how to make simple things, conduct science experiments and so on. Places like the National Geographic stores can be a good place to look for books of this type. A well-known recent example is The Dangerous Book for Boys. This book offers a range of ideas for making and doing things. For example, how to make the greatest paper plane in the world, building a tree house, all about dinosaurs, making a G0-cart, how to go fishing, juggling, all about Australian snakes, skimming stones and so on. This isn't a simple book (about grade 4-5 standard) but the content will help boys to 'stretch' themselves. It is also a great book for boys to read and 'do' with an adult.

Graphic novels and comics - While this category often uses narrative, there are many good examples that are non-fiction. Whereas the comic is essentially a sequence of pictures with conversation and texts, the Graphic Novel is a more complex text.  Graphic novels use a combination of text and varied art. More recent examples also draw on music, sound, related web-based resources and so on.  They can include biographies, narratives, memoirs and journals, classic story retellings etc. For example, 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' and even 'The Canterbury Tales'. Nicki Greenberg's 427 page 'Hamlet' offers us one of the most ambitious efforts I have seen as she presents (in fact she 'stages') Shakespeare's play as a graphic novel. Mind you, not many boys will find this accessible.

Most boys will prefer simpler examples of this form. For example, Raymond Briggs has used the format to powerful effect with works like '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.

Some people lump comics and graphic novels together but they are different forms. Whereas the graphic novel uses more extended text mixed with varied illustrations and images, the comic makes use of sequenced pictures and speech balloons. There is still a place for comic books (see my previous post on this here). There are also an emerging range of electronic comics that boys will enjoy including many classic comic series like 'Archie' but I doubt that this is the future of reading for many boys. Putting traditional comics online simply to read won't appeal in the same way that graphic novels will or gaming.

eBooks - I've written quite a bit in recent times about the limitations and opportunities of eBooks to help get boys into reading. While many of the earliest examples of electronic books are either simply novels for readers or picture books with more gadgets than words, boys like gadgets and some are more likely to look at an eBook than a traditional paper version.  Like any book, parents and teachers still need to give boys support in choosing and engaging with the text not just the gadgets.

There are a number of good examples that many boys will enjoy reading that I've reviewed previously (here, here & here). My recent favourite is 'The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr Morris Lessmore' by William Joyce (Moonbot Studios). It is a story about people who devote their lives to books and how books in turn enrich our lives. It is a poignant, humorous allegory about the power of story. It uses a variety of illustrative and animation techniques to create a moving story.  It is presented in a style that offers echoes of the great silent films of the past. It has so many features, but on the whole they don't necessarily distract from the story. The reader can repair books, descend deep into a great storm, learn the piano, become 'lost in a book', and fly through a magical world of words. There is a surprise on each page of this app which boys love.

Gaming - While parents who want their boys to read usually see video and computer games as the enemy of reading, some of the most popular games for boys and effectively games in which they create their own world and narratives. Many have asked whether gaming might have crossover impacts on reading in more conventional ways. You can read a report on this topic that explores the possibilities of gaming for reading here. I'm not yet convinced that encouraging gaming will lead to boys who read books as well, but for some boys it might just act as a bridge. I intend to blog on this at some future time when I think I have more to say on the topic.

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 12 wonderful books to read to and with boys. These books will rarely fail if you read them with boys aged 7-12 years and do it with excitement and passion.

'Boy: Tales of Childhood' by Roald Dahl (1984)
'Prince Caspian' by C.S. Lewis (1951)
'The Hobbit' by J.R. Tolkien (1937)
'Rowan of Rin' by Emily Rodda (1993)
'The Machine Gunners' by Robert Westall (1975)
'Strange Objects' by Gary Crewe (1990)
'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)

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.

Related posts

All my posts on boys and education (here)
Pam Allyn's excellent book 'Pam Allyn's Best Books for Boys' which I reviewed here.