When it comes to reading and writing, the stereotype is that it is often the boys in the classroom who are hardest to engage and enthuse. Countless studies have taken place over the past thirty years all telling us the same thing...boys enjoy reading less than girls and, as a consequence, their outcomes are significantly lower than girls’. As a teacher, it can be a challenge to get any students excited about reading and turning our reluctant boys from non-readers into avid bookworms can seem like an impossible feat.
According to a study by The National Literacy Trust, the gap between the number of girls and boys reading for pleasure has done nothing but increase over lockdown - from just over a 2% difference at the start of 2020 to 11.5%. In addition to this, they noted that nearly twice as many boys as girls said they do not enjoy reading at all (13% of boys and 7% of girls). Michael Morpurgo - famed children’s writer and former children’s laureate - stated, “Too many boys still seem disinterested in reading, and far, far too many children simply never become readers at all.”
On top of this, a 2016 study by Keith Topping, Professor of Educational and Social Research at the University of Dundee, noted that it is essential to find books that genuinely interest boys, in order to keep them focused. The data additionally suggested that boys - regardless of age - tend to: choose books at random, choose books that are too easy for them, take less time to read text and can skip out huge chunks of prose.
So how can we break down this stereotype, with all this research and evidence backing it up?
Over the past eight years I have made it my mission to encourage all children, and especially boys, into reading. Invading their YouTube-riddled minds with imagined adventures, magical creatures and heroic protagonists. Here, I share with you some of the successes…
Making reading ‘cool’
The age-old idea that ‘trying hard makes you look like a nerd’ is creeping into younger years. The year I took on the role of English lead in a Midlands primary school had been very difficult for the school; the reading pass rates in the KS2 SATs had been low and the school was haemorrhaging staff at an alarming rate. I had a class of 36 Year 6’s - 24 boys and 12 girls - and only four of those boys were regular readers. I had my work cut out. I soon realised that for reading to take off, I needed to make it ‘cool’…
Be a reader
As educators, we all know the power of the teacher’s influence over the children in their class. Within primary schools at least, it is often the subject which the teacher is most enthusiastic, passionate and knowledgeable about that will be the subject the children most enjoy and, in turn, will be the subject they make the most progress in. We also know, through experience and research, that if the main adults within the child’s life are readers then - hey presto - their children are more likely to become readers too.
But what about the others? The families where books aren’t ‘a thing’? Most modern households do not have libraries of books easily accessible, and for many families there may be parents working long hours, or adults who did not connect with books as a child. Children who are raised in households where reading isn’t ‘a thing’ are less likely to become those readers-for-pleasure that we all dream of. In this situation the child’s ‘reading influencer’ needs to come from elsewhere. And that ‘elsewhere’ is the classroom.
Of the things I tried in my time as English lead, one thing was clearly the most powerful. If we wanted the boys in the class to pass their reading assessments, make expected progress or read for pleasure then we, the educators, needed to read. And even better, we needed to like it! We found the way forward was to read everything we could and then talk about it like it was the greatest thing that had ever happened. I told the class about every story I could, stories where everyone has an animal ‘daemon’ that is part of their soul, or the Greek hero who hid under a goat and slayed a cyclops, or the real-life story of the young Black footballer and World War One soldier, Walter Tull. I enthralled them with stories they too would be able to read and experience: “Hey! You like the sound of that? Well I have it right here! Give it a go!”
The greatest thing about reading all these children’s books was that they did not take us that long to get through, and we ended up reading some of the best books we, as adults, had ever read. If you decide to take a similar approach in your school, think about representation, are you reading and talking about a diversity of authors, and a diversity of main characters from different cultures, backgrounds and experiences? For example, think about how many books you are reading and talking about that are by Black or Brown authors, or with characters that represent the diversity of families in society. Will the children in your class see themselves in these books, and be able to imagine themselves in them? In short, the first and most successful step I took to encourage those reluctant readers was, quite simply, reading a range of books and talking about them myself. Non-stop!
The year I took over as English lead we moved from the very popular (at the time) Talk for Writing curriculum - which had seen some fairly good outcomes in writing in the early years but had become stale and repetitive in KS2 - to a text based English curriculum. As a school, we worked hard to cherry-pick exciting, high-quality texts. We ensured that the range of texts was plentiful and representative of the children in our community and of the wider community; we made room for comics, non-fiction, poetry, songs, anything that might engage the reader. Furthermore, all the teachers had an input in the texts they taught as I felt it was important to choose books that engaged the adult as well as the children. The teachers had something to share about the book, a little nugget of their own life or childhood. Teachers were able to teach some of their own favourite stories which in turn excited and engaged their classes. Empowering the teachers to take ownership of the texts they covered was incredibly powerful and this elevated further the replenished excitement for the new English curriculum.
Book talk became a daily occurrence in the classroom. Anyone who had read anything could get involved and talk about the books they’d been reading - it was an open forum. We would take about 10-15 minutes out of each day and talk about stories. To try and make the book talk sessions even better I’d invite other adults to ‘accidentally’ drop into class and talk about the books they were reading. Other teachers, TAs, the headteacher and even the sports coaches would sometimes pop in and join in with the conversations just to show that EVERYONE was reading. It is so important for children to have representative role models, so they can see themselves in the adults who are talking with them. Do children get to hear Black and Brown adults talking about what they are reading, what about people from the older generation, and, especially for boys, are they hearing male staff talking about the books they love? Eventually it got to the point where those children who hadn’t read anything wanted to read something because they felt left out of the conversation. Suddenly it was super cool to be reading!
Miss Timms’ special books
So, these books I was recommending? They cost me a fortune! Any books I read and talked about with my class went on a special shelf in my classroom and the class became fiercely protective over them. Anyone who borrowed one of the books had to care for it and read it quickly because there were 25 other children waiting for it. In addition to this, if anyone came into school with a really good recommendation, we would order it for the class and when it arrived we made a big show of opening the packaging and taking it in turns to look at it. We even had children asking their parents for books...as presents...at Christmas and for birthdays!
Another facet of the new reading venture was storytelling. After listening to children retelling stories that turned promising starts into “and then and then and then”, I decided something needed to be done. As a consequence, we, the adults, focussed our own efforts on reading aloud; we all had to practise ‘doing the voices’ to engage and enthral the children even further and to model how stories are written to be shared. We had staff meetings which focussed on storytelling and we trialled (with some success) a range of different accents and tones to help teachers bring their stories to life for the children - one of my class’ favourite characters in Rooftoppers was a shopkeeper who had a total of four lines of dialogue all because they loved the sound of her Yorkshire accent. I also reinvigorated our weekly reading assembly with a storytelling assembly – picture me reading The Twits to 200 children. They loved it - although I'm not sure my dignity ever truly recovered.
This renewed focus on the joy of stories and the fun of reading encouraged many children - boys and girls - to read, and their confidence, fluency, and expression in reading aloud increased.
By the end of the year the books in my classroom were dog-eared and ragged but they had been read by a whole host of eager little eyes and evidence of the enjoyment was seen in borrowed passages in their independent writing and excitable daily book discussions.
During guided reading lessons, the boys were excited to be asked to read aloud, and individuals, who at the beginning of the year were anxious about being chosen, would confidently thrust their hands into the air at any reading opportunity. In my class alone the number of boys who regularly read for pleasure rose from just 4 in September to 19 by the end of the year, our reading SATs results increased 36% that year and the independent writing saw a marked difference. But most importantly the positive impact on all the children and their attitudes towards reading increased immeasurably. Finally, there was the glimmer of hope, the tiny little whisper of a glimmer, that reading could actually be viewed as ‘cool’ by 11-year-old boys.