Getting boys to read

A recent report from the Center on Education Policy shows that boys across the nation lag behind girls when it comes to their reading skills. Over the years, that gap spreads, and many education researchers believe it’s in direct corrolation to the declining numbers of boys enrolling in college.

So why aren’t boys reading? And how do you inspire them to pick up a book?

That was the focus of this morning’s conversation on Midmorning, which I had the pleasure of hosting (Kerri Miller had the day off). Teen lit author John Coy joined me in studio, while Professor John Chec, of the University of Florida, joined us by phone. Chec teaches children’s literature, and has also served as the president of the Children’s Literature Association. Coy has written several books aimed at young boys, including “Eyes on the Goal,” “Crackback” and “Box Out.”

One of the first revelations of the conversation was how the publishing industry helps perpetuate the problem by offering next to nothing for boys to read. The bookshelves for teens are dominate with fiction and fantasy aimed at girls. Girls (and women) are far more likely to spend their money on books, and so they get the bulk of the attention.

Secondly, boys are often embarassed to read aloud or discuss books in mixed company. Much success has been had with segregating reading groups by gender, so that boys can choose more action-oriented novels, and not fear what the girls will think when they speak up.

Also, there aren’t many role models out there for male readers. Being bookish is for nerds, not the cool guys. The best inspiration for a young boy is a father or other male mentor who models reading as a cool thing to do. One caller said his father, whose eyesight was so poor he couldn’t read, sat with him and they listened to audio books together, which then inspired the caller to check out books on his own.

For school teachers, there is the challenge of getting a boy interested in reading without getting in trouble with parents for recommending violent or “edgy” work. Professor Chec says edgy work is often the most compelling work, and no single book is going to destroy a boy’s upbringing, so it’s worth taking the risk. But still, librarians and school teachers may feel compelled to recommend the “safe” book in order to avoid controversy.

Finally both John Coy and Professor Chec agreed that there needs to be a broader definition of what qualifies as “reading.” Families and teachers often place higher value on novels than they do on, say, a magazine about cars. But both are types of reading, and if the magazine inspires a boy to spend more time with the written word, it should be viewed as a valuable resource. As the boy grows up, it’s likely his interests will expand, and the magazine will be replace by a manual, a biography or a novel.