For Parents (and teachers): Why Won’t Johnny Read?

Boys are not girls and girls are not boys. I have been saying this in the library for many years! Their taste in reading material is usually totally different. Yes, some children will read anything, no matter the subject. And some boys are avid fiction readers (these boys tend to have parents who are avid readers and parents who limit technology time). But every time I hear a student say: I don’t like to read,  I tell them: You just haven’t discovered what you like to read yet! Here is a recent article by John Keilman from the Chicago Tribune:

Why won’t Johnny read?

Declining reading habits in men may stem from disconnect as boys

October 16, 2013|By John Keilman, Chicago Tribune reporter
  • Journalist and author Peg Tyre maintains that boys get the message early that “reading’s kind of girlie.”
Journalist and author Peg Tyre maintains that boys get the message early that “reading’s kind of girlie.” (Gary John Norman, Taxi)

The Associated Press ran a story a while back about declining reading habits, and it interviewed a guy in Dallas who was among the third of American men who had not picked up a book the previous year. He explained that reading made him sleepy, and that he preferred to spend his time hanging out in his backyard swimming pool.

I pride myself on being an understanding guy, but I find that attitude utterly beyond comprehension. It’s like saying, “You know, I’m not really into the whole breathing thing. Filling your lungs, exhaling — it’s such a bore. I’d rather just chill with the Xbox.”

To me, reading is life. It is impossible for me to sit down to breakfast if I don’t have a newspaper or magazine. Riding the train without a book is a torture worthy of the Inquisition.

Obviously, a lot of guys out there besides Swimming Pool Man see things differently. I figured they were just wired in a strange way until I stopped by a talk at Elmhurst College last week in which journalist Peg Tyre, author of the book “The Trouble With Boys,” suggested that reluctant male readers are made, not born.

It begins before they even enter school, she said. Parents, for reasons that aren’t clear, read to boys less often than they read to girls and are less likely to take them to the library. Boys speak fewer words than girls, too, and speaking helps prepare young children to read.

The literacy gap grows quickly once boys get to kindergarten, Tyre said, perhaps exacerbated by the books available in their classrooms and libraries and the stories that make up their assignments.

The things that interest young boys — sports, violence, bodily functions — are generally absent, pushed off the shelves and out of the curriculum by teachers, usually female, who don’t see them as worthy subjects for school, she said.

As a result, Tyre said, boys get the message early that “reading’s kind of girlie” — a message often reinforced at home, where moms, not dads, tend to be the big readers.

The consequence of this disconnect can be severe, as Tyre outlines in her book. When the curriculum gets harder in fourth grade, boys still struggling to decode words can’t absorb the larger meaning of what they’re reading, and fall further behind. By eighth grade, their academics fall off a proverbial cliff, sending them hurtling toward the dropout track.

“What’s happening in our schools?” Tyre said. “What’s happening is that we’re not engaging our boys in the life of the word.”

Gayl Smith, the librarian at Gombert Elementary in Aurora, said that is changing. Publishers who cater to young readers are offering more titles designed to appeal to boys and schools are buying them; her own library, she said, stocks plenty of graphic novels, Lego books and books about sports.

“Many in my profession are female and we tend to drift toward books that interest us, but I think most librarians are pretty savvy about serving both genders,” she said.

Tammy Potts, president of the Illinois Reading Council, said another positive trend is that schools are loading up on nonfiction to match the demands of the new Common Core curriculum, which places a greater emphasis on “informational texts.”

As it happens, many boys like to read practical material such as hunting manuals or engine repair guides — a preference captured in a wonderfully titled book about boys’ literacy struggles, “Reading Don’t Fix No Chevys” — and Potts thinks they will benefit from the changes.

“Introducing that kind of reading to our students is really important,” she said.

ISAT scores show that the gap between the state’s young male and female readers is narrowing, so maybe things are turning around. But if you know a boy who hates books, you might try a ploy Tyre picked up from a school librarian.

The librarian, Tyre said, hands out books as if they’re contraband, saying the contents are so violent and disgraceful that the boys must promise not to tell anyone what they’re reading. The boys, needless to say, can’t wait to tear through them.

“How can you say (reading) is girlie,” Tyre said, “when the librarian is slipping you a book in brown paper?”

Twitter @JohnKeilman

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1 Response to For Parents (and teachers): Why Won’t Johnny Read?

  1. Sharon says:

    That is so interesting. This is something parents should give some serious thought. Thanks for sharing.


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