Educational Consultant, Calgary Catholic School District
Canadian Association of Immersion Teachers
How can we motivate boys and get them to enjoy reading? Teachers play a fundamental role in reading motivation. Students with strong reading skills do better in all school subjects. Therefore, we have to rekindle the joy of reading in boys, as many national and international studies agree that there is a problem with regard to their academic success. Teachers can make reading interesting and fun by applying research‑based teaching practices.
Preschool children see reading as a real pleasure. Through books, they discover colours, forms, sounds and words, develop language, and have all sorts of adventures.
All children are eager to learn to read when they start school. They are proud because they will finally be able to read like adults. Early reading experiences influence the later development of reading skills. Hence the critical importance of the role of teachers in this area. So why do some boys fall behind or even give up on reading entirely?
Boys and girls are roughly at the same level in the first years of school. However, for many boys, interest in reading diminishes over the years, and as a result, they often fall behind in school. It is because, too often, teachers suggest reading material that does not meet their interests or that is not at their level.
Neurological research provides additional insight. It has shown that, in 6‑ , 7‑ and 8‑year old boys, the brain function involved in reading is not as developed as it is in girls, a difference that can create difficulties. Another reason has to do with how the brain processes information. According to Lajoie (2004), the left hemisphere (verbal) decodes letters and words more easily; manages language skills, such as speaking, reading and thinking; and develops more quickly in girls. The right hemisphere (non‑verbal), which is better at capturing images, objects and music, controls musical and visuospatial abilities, such as picture recognition, problem solving and task execution, and develops more quickly in boys.
In addition, boys generally view reading as "girl stuff." Although supportive and cooperative attitudes and the expression of emotions foster the learning of reading and writing, they are predominantly associated with feminine behaviour. Therefore, many boys avoid this type of behaviour out of a fear of being labelled, rejected or ridiculed. Moreover, reading is often a quiet activity, whereas most boys like action.
There are also far fewer male reading models—we still see more women than men in preschools and in the first years of school. Mothers generally spend more time reading to children than do fathers. Moreover, librarians are mostly women.
Another important factor was raised by researchers Smith and Wilhelm (2002). They noted that boys not only learn to read more slowly than girls but also read less. Girls have a better understanding than boys of narrative and informative texts. Boys place less importance on reading than do girls and are less interested in reading for entertainment, preferring instead to read something of practical value. However, the question that must be asked is the following: Do they like what they are being given to read in class? It is possible to create a stimulating environment that will attract boys to reading.
First, it is vital that we provide boys with a wide range of reading choices by offering them a variety of books in the classroom and library. We have to diversify the kinds of books available to boys. A variety of genres will ensure that everyone is able to find something of interest. Boys are more interested in comic books, magazines, humorous texts, science or science fiction texts, adventure novels and newspaper sports columns. To help students discover new books, articles or texts, teachers need to read out loud to them every day.
Mastering reading strategies is another key factor. Reading strategies may be acquired implicitly, through the performance of specific tasks, or explicitly, through teaching. According to Lemery (2007), reading skills must be taught in an interrelated way in order to help students become active readers who learn knowledge and develop skills; recognize emotions, experience and prior knowledge; acquire attitudes; use strategies, means, places and times; look for meaning; and participate in teaching practices.
Furthermore, asking questions before, during and after reading can contribute significantly to reading success for boys. Lemery recommends that teachers teach reading strategies by asking questions on specific aspects of a reading—for example, on the author's purpose—and by making connections with students' own experiences; by making predictions; and by asking questions on the characters, places and actions. Teachers can also ask students to identify the main ideas; to retell a story in their own words; to use clues in the text such as illustrations or subtitles; to clarify, by rereading or doing research; to visualize; to synthesize; to draw a conclusion, etc.
Lastly, the classroom must be a learning environment where boys feel free to move about and to choose a place to read (reading corner, desk, table, floor, aisle, etc.). Boys should also be encouraged to read aloud in order to practise expression and communication, and to provide an opportunity to share with their peers and develop genuine interest. Students can read stories to younger ones, an exercise that will bolster confidence in boys who are having a harder time and help them make progress.
Moreover, computers can be used to help develop reading skills. With a computer, boys can read at their own pace, go back and review, and immediately find the meaning of a word. In this way, they feel more validated and self‑reliant. This logical approach can help because it meets their need for action and gives them immediate feedback. Since boys are often drawn to new technology, we should let them use all kinds of electronic reading platforms, such as tablets or interactive boards. Technology will help boys build their learning with greater autonomy, give them a sense of pride, and, ultimately, encourage them to read more.
Additionally, we can let students read spontaneously at different times of the day. It is also important that we provide them with independent reading time so that they can read a book of their choice (while ensuring that the level of the text corresponds to their learning level), thus giving teachers the opportunity to work with one or more students on a specific strategy.
With a view to making reading even more attractive to boys, we should try to show them more male reading models. Whenever possible, teachers can invite a father, an athlete or a well‑known man from the community to read to students.
A motivation problem with elementary school boys leads to serious problems later, including an alarming decrease in motivation, mediocre academic results and school dropout. To counter this disturbing trend, teachers should play an active role in guiding and managing meaning construction in reading, in facilitating strategy development, in fostering meaningful interactions between students, and in developing an evaluation process that will have a formative function in the acquisition of reading skills (Lemery).
[Translation] To a boy, a good book is one he wants to read. Many young boys have discovered the pleasure of reading with the well‑known Guinness Book of Records. And why not? The key is to build on this first spark of interest by offering boys a rich and varied mix of materials that will allow them to develop even further. (Dominique Demers, 2002)
The essential thing, it seems, is to ensure that each boy encounters what interests him in school and to encourage him to flourish. If the educational context is attractive to boys, they will improve their academic achievement, build their self‑esteem and gain the confidence to explore the opportunities available to them.
Canadian Language and Literacy Research Network. (2009). An Evidence‑based Toolkit for the Effective Reading and Writing Teacher. Ontario, Canada.
Demers, D. (2002). Dix secrets pour aimer lire.
Lajoie, G. (2004). L'école au masculin. Réduire l'écart de réussite entre garçons et filles. Sainte‑Foy, Canada: Septembre Éditeur.
Lemery, J.‑G. (2007). La lecture et les garçons. Montréal, Canada: Chenelière Éducation.
Ontario Ministry of Education Ontario (2005). Me Read? No, Way! Ontario, Canada.
Smith, M. W., and Wilhelm, J. D. (2002). Reading Don't Fix No Chevys: Literacy in the Lives of Young Men. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.