IT is a fact that boys don’t read as much as girls, though in school our success at getting kids to read for pleasure fails for both sexes, particularly as students move from elementary to middle school and then high school. For the boys the drop off occurs early – sometimes as early as elementary school, but with a near universal occurrence by the end of middle school. We should not sugarcoat the truth: by high school 95% of our boy students do not read for pleasure, which means that they really don’t read at all unless it’s required for class, a test, or a grade. Our success with girls is better, and many leave high school maintaining the healthy reading attitudes they built in middle school and earlier, but it’s still a damagingly low number. Too many kids simply don’t read on their own and they suffer academically because of it.
Here in Colombia we have an interesting wrinkle to the usual kids and reading dilemma. Getting kids to read has no easy solution wherever you teach. Our school in Colombia is entirely bilingual; kids have both an English and a Spanish literature course. We struggle, as most bilingual schools do, with getting students to speak in English rather than Spanish. Our task is to create truly bilingual students, but since their native social language is Spanish they are far more at ease interacting in Spanish than English. Here’s the interesting part: they much much prefer to read in English. The reasons for this are related to the reasons we have a hard time getting kids to read in any school: academic reading versus pleasurable reading. In elementary and middle school, the emphasis in English is interest and choice, in keeping with Columbia University’s Reader’s Initiative (which most International American schools have adopted). Colombian schooling, on the other hand, is far more traditional, and the texts the students read are selected for their academic and cultural purpose. Students read The Hunger Games in English, The Iliad in Spanish. Moreover, our selection of English texts is varied, modern, individualized, and entertaining. Our Spanish language library is 1/10th the size of our English library, which also contains a regularly updated selection of ebooks that students can check out. Students prefer reading English books because the English books are entertaining and because they are free to choose.
Now, this is the single most significant reason that kids don’t read many books on their own everywhere, but that’s actually been changing pretty dramatically over the last two decades. A nationwide emphasis in school districts across the country on choice and reading for pleasure has had far reaching consequence, not the least of which has been a veritable explosion of teen themed novels, which now compete with cookbooks for the top grossing books in the market. (And it’s a cash producing market – don’t let anyone argue otherwise.) Despite the hysteria over reading, American young adults ARE reading, many of them reading a lot.
But that’s elementary and middle school. By high school, literature makes the transition from choice and entertainment to academia. High school students do not get to choose the novels they read, much less what they are to do with that reading. Reading, in high school, is an academic affair motivated by testing, a vague definition of college preparation, something to do with workplace skill, and an increasingly ill-defined sense of cultural significance. We lose a lot of the girls; we lose almost all of the boys.
However, there is a kind of pervasive assumption in the education world, not to mention society at large, that boys would be lost regardless. You hear it regularly, a resigned defeat that rests on the assumption that boys and reading are simply incompatible. Parents and teachers want the boys to read, but nobody can seem to get them to, not without force. Boys, we accept as a general rule, don’t read, and there are plenty of statistics that seem to hint at why. Boys are slower to develop reading skills than girls, and as a result require more individual teaching in the classroom. Boys show less interest in reading, and perform much worse on exams than girls. They seem to process textual information slower than girls and more frequently report reading as both difficult and boring. But that is not exactly the crux of the matter.
The other day we had one of those all school meetings where we broke into various small groups to work specific tasks. We’d met in the library – when we broke, our group went to the Elementary school section, where we sat on those little chairs around tiny tables like giants. For our school’s accreditation we are defining our student graduate profile, what we expect each graduate to be able to do in regards to English and reading. One of those goals is a student who reads on their own and with a sense of purpose and engagement. This led inevitably to a discussion over how we were to do this. I was looking around the room, at those thousands of books in low shelves for little hands. Thousands of picture books, stories, fables. Books about dinosaurs and castles and cars. Books about geology and famous people and sports stars. True adventure and true life books. Books about talking animals and talking cars, fairy tales and comic books. These are books every student reads, boys and girls. The boys, as any elementary school teacher can tell you, are often slower to pick up books, and the ones they do grab are often a lower level than the girl’s, but this doesn’t mean they don’t read or can’t.
What struck me, as we sat in that room on those tiny chairs talking about boys and reading, was how many nonfiction books we offered, and how entertaining they all were. We’d reached the conclusion, as teachers and society often do when talking about boys and reading, that boys prefer nonfiction. Whether this is true because boys are naturally drawn to non-fiction or because society makes them so is a bit moot. The truth is that they are. Yet we reach that conclusion with a kind of resigned defeat. Sure, they prefer non-fiction, but they’d prefer not to to read altogether.
But here’s the thing: we stop offering non-fiction very very early in a kid’s reading life. By sixth grade the only real choices for most students are fiction books, and so the idea that boys don’t read becomes self-fulfilling. In fact, it becomes more than self fulfilling – it becomes forced, because the only non-fiction books that boys encounter after 6th grade are academic ones. Textbooks. History. Math. Science. All the books that earlier were written for entertainment, and driven by choice, suddenly become academic, class driven, and universal. This is pretty much true until you leave college. In fact, the only books that remain choice driven, and motivated by interest, are fictional.
Boys don’t read because there’s nothing TO read, and when they must read, it’s an academic reading of the one kind of text they actually prefer: non-fiction.