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Why boys won’t read…
Sunday, April 22nd, 2012

Chris Lloyd is the author of the What on Earth Wallbook which charts billions of years of history unfolded into a giant wallchart made up of more than 1,000 pictures and captions. His email newsletters are must-reads, challenging conceptions of teaching and learning. I found his latest newsletter on boys being reluctant readers fascinating and hope you’ll be interested too.

BOYS are so-called €˜reluctant readers€™. Ask most primary school teachers and they will confirm that, generally speaking, we have a problem when it comes to persuading the less fair sex to get stuck into a good book.

Why should this be?

Are boys generally programmed to resist reading? In part I suspect so. Millions of years of gene flow have honed hunting instincts into the male line €“ the theory being that over the last 3 million years or so (since our apish ancestor adapted to walk on two feet) the most successful hunters will have fathered more children. So the instinct to get outdoors and play, fight or climb trees is expressed best through the male line. And charging around outside in a pack (playing football, for example) is far less conducive to sitting down with a good book. Conversely, the feminine €˜nesting€™ instinct to feather the home would seem far more aligned to sitting down in one place and reading a good book. €¦So girls are instinctively better wired for learning to read.

Generalisations, especially when it comes to gender, are dangerous goods these days. But zooming out to try to work out the connections between things necessitates a degree of generalisation for the sake of trying to paint big picture. It is no greater a crime, surely, than specialising so much that there is no big picture to be seen at all.

But the gender issue €“ particularly with regards to boys reluctance to read – seems to go a great deal further than evolutionary instinct, so I have recently begun to realize.

Last weekend I was fortunate enough to be asked to speak at The Federation of Children€™s Books Groups Conference, at Bradfield College near Reading. It is an august organisation with a conference now in its twentieth year. The auditorium was packed with teachers, book lovers and educationalists (many from Norfolk for some reason, well, why not?)

The topic of literacy in young people is absolutely the bulls eye of discussion amongst such a group.

€˜How wonderfully refreshing to have a non-fiction author speaking€™ said one happy delegate after I had given my 60 minutes romp through the history of the world, with a giant Wallbook as a backdrop.

Why, I wondered, should €˜non fiction€™ be such a big deal? Surely stories about the real world are so much more amazing than any number of fantasies you can dream up in your mind €“ as I try to demonstrate in my talks. If you love truly amazing stories then non-fiction€™s the place for you€¦.

At least that€™s how it seems, if you€™re a boy.

Facts, how things work, encyclopaedias, maps, books about nature, superheros from the past €“ this is the stuff that sets off fireworks in the minds of most boys. The tallest man, the bloodiest war, the biggest skyscraper€¦.. these are incredible stories.

But I suspect (in fact I am sure) for girls, generally speaking, it is different. Fiction rules €“ fantastic non-real worlds are constructed for whatever reason €“ Escape? Romance? I don€™t know. €¦.

Then, as I looked around the room, a penny dropped. Almost everyone there was female. The same is true whenever I visit a primary school – almost all the teachers are female.

So what type of books would these teachers generally encourage their pupils to pick up when they are being encouraged to read? The most natural choice would be to feed them whatever it is the teacher thinks is most appealing to a young mind €“ which, because they are female, will generally speaking be fiction no non-fiction! Hence the novelty of having a non-fiction author visit a school, or indeed give a talk at a conference on children books.

Now I am wondering if the problem with boys being reluctant readers isn€™t so much nature but nurture. Perhaps it€™s because they are being fed a diet of books chosen by females that are really inappropriate to the male psyche. If so, then hurrah! We really ought to be able to do something about it.

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3 Responses to “Why boys won’t read…”
  1. My little 2 year old boy LOVES books! He has the whole Thomas and Friends collection and could sit there for hours saying “Daddy, read this one!”. Ok so strictly speaking he’s not quite reading but we’re amazed at how he truly enjoys books, whether stting and flicking through them or persisting on a 3rd story before bed. I just hope it continues as he gets older!

  2. angels&urchinsblog says:

    Lucky you! Though must say that I find the Thomas ensemble fairly hard going, much as my boys seem to love it. We all giggle at Aliens Love Underpants, which probably says more about my iq levels than my children’s!

  3. Yan Seiner says:

    LOL! I just had this discussion. Most books read in school fall squarely into “chic lit”. Boys want pulp fiction, the sort of stuff that would never make it into a school library. My son was a “reluctant reader”; getting him to read anything was a chore. Until one day I suggested that he start reading the Orion series by Ben Bova. He ripped through 4 or 5 books, hardly pausing, and actually understood and retained most of what he read. Interestingly, he glossed over the violence and sex, and instead retained the imagery, plot twists, and charatacter personalities.

    So yes, you want boys to read, give them books for boys by boys: Ender’s Game by Card, Orion by Bova, Bolo series by Laumer. If you give them Chaucer or Shakespeare, really explain what they mean. Both Chaucer and Shakespeare are great lit as well as trash lit.

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