We tend to think boys naturally gravitate towards non-fiction, but perhaps that’s because the fiction they encounter at the start of their reading journey is so off-putting, suggests Sarah Threlkeld- Brown...
My son hated reading. There, I’ve confessed! As an avid educationalist with a passion for children’s literature, where did I go wrong? In the early years he had a regular diet of bedtime stories, ranging from Tough Trucks by Tony Mitton and Ant Parker to Dig Dig Digging by Margaret Mayo. My son was (and still is) a serious petrol head. Before he started school he could already identify and sound out a raft of phonemes and was having a good crack at decoding. I thought I was onto a winner. So, when he began primary education and brought home his first ‘reading book’, I was almost dizzy with excitement – my son was going to buck the boy trend. Then I hit a problem – not with my son – but with the reading materials being sent home. My excitement soon turned into utter frustration.
The first books that came home from school were wordless – excellent, in theory, for generating lots of talk, discussion and prediction between a son and his admiring mother. After that, books with words arrived. Again the illustrations were intended to support high-quality talk. However, this level discussion can only happen if the books in question have anything in them worth talking about. And here in lay the problem. The books being sent home were not the books my son wanted to read. They did not appeal to his inner speed-demon or his passion for all things mechanical and gadget-driven. They did not push his adrenaline buttons in the same way as reading books about trains, planes and automobiles, or watching programmes such as Top Gear or The Incredibles. He would not read his school books; he could not see the point. I was at my wits’ end.
Not wanting to seem an inept parent, I tried persevering with the books being sent home, but unsuccessfully. When I discussed this problem with his teacher, she was adamant my son would have to read all the books on the ‘pink’ shelf before he could move onto the ‘red’ shelf. Therefore he was stuck on ‘pink’ – although I knew he was able to understand concepts and plots beyond those offered by the pink books.
I am not alone in identifying this problem: it’s outlined in the Boys’ Reading Commission report published in 2012 by the National Literacy Trust, which notes the gender gap is present at age five and grows wider as children grow older. Importantly, the report also contains the following conclusion: “There was also significant evidence to suggest that many boys do not choose to read simply because they cannot find reading materials that interest them.”
Stuck on the bottom rung
Children’s author Jonathan Emmett compares literature to a ladder: the first rung being board books for babies; the second picture books; and, after that, chapter fiction, teen fiction and finally adult fiction at the top. Of course, at the ages of four and five, picture books are children’s main source of reading material; and the gender gap is evident even at this early stage in their education. As educators, we need to ensure we provide books that appeal to all tastes, so all children will want to grab every rung of the reading ladder and climb higher. Jonathan Emmett believes that, for many boys, the picture book rung of the ladder is missing.
It is often said that boys enjoy reading non-fiction more than fiction, but is this true? Might it just be the fiction books to which they are exposed do not push their reading buttons?
My son wanted excitement, adrenalin and humour from his school reading books – boy- typical themes that Jonathan Emmett believes are abundant in age-appropriate films, TV and video games. Consequently, many boys abandon books at an early age in favour of these other media. These missing ingredients in picture books include:
Through research about the selections made by young girls and boys when given a choice of people or objects, psychologists (Lutchmaya & Baron-Cohen, Cambridge, 2002) found that males are generally more interested in objects, whereas females are more interested in people. So in a train- themed picture book, many boys may be more interested in the technical details of the train than the personality of the character driving it. With a son who was (and still is) mechanical and gadget- driven, choosing picture books that have a level of ‘technical awareness’ was crucial. Books such as Callum’s Incredible Construction Kit, Aliens: An Owner’s Guide and Tom’s Clockwork Dragon (all by Jonathan Emmett) have both technical illustrations and language embedded within them – although they have very different storylines and themes. For example, when reading Aliens: An Owner’s Guide, boys will spend hours pondering how the ‘communication station’ has been built and what parts have been used in its assembly.
* Rude humour
The humour to which I am referring is ‘rude’ rather than ‘crude’. There is a difference. I have shared Bottoms Up! by Jeanne Willis many, many times with children and it never fails to entertain and beg multiple re-readings. It is both skilfully written and illustrated, but has an element of schoolboy humour. One of my favourite books, The Grunt and the Grouch, by Tracey Corderoy, is the tale of two trolls who find and lose friendship. It is beautifully written and takes children through a full range of emotions. However, both trolls stretch our social boundaries: they eat juicy wet earth worms, pick their noses and do not flush the toilet! A teacher once told me that she could not use this book in her school as the parents would not approve. My argument was, and still is, that the learning children can glean from studying the characters, their dilemmas and insecurities, and the underlying messages of the story far outweighs a smattering of snot. Also, children are intrigued at the social faux pas of the trolls.
* Cut out the cute!
This is more about taking an ingredient out than putting one in. There are publishers who believe making characters and illustrations in picture books cuter makes them more appealing. However, Jonathan Emmett believes it can have the exact opposite effect for many boys. He argues that cuteness acts as ‘boy repellent’ and its application can turn a picture book that might appeal equally to both sexes into one that will be favoured by girls. There’s nothing wrong with ‘cute’, but it need not be a default ingredient.
So, whether you are choosing a book to read to your son tonight as you tuck him into bed, or you need books to inspire the boys in your class, please be aware of the ingredients boys want – because they do want to read fiction.
As we climb further up the rungs of the reading ladder to chapter fiction and teen fiction, these missing ingredients are often found. However, if we don’t get the choice of picture book reading right, many boys will not venture this high.
What about my now 13-year-old son? Does he still hate reading? No, he doesn’t. He enjoys reading, whether it’s Dirt Bike, Moto X or The Alex Rider series by Anthony Horowitz. He reads for pleasure and for information; however, this has little to do with the early reading materials he was given by his school. I had the wherewithal to encourage and develop his reading outside school, but many parents of the boys we teach will not. As teachers, we have a duty to give boys what they really want to read in order to foster positive attitudes to reading and to develop life-long readers, because the benefits and repercussions of this are life changing.
About the author
Sarah Threlkeld-Brown is the lead education consultant for reading at Andrell Education. She is the co-creator of Big Reading and The Reading Criterion Scale. She admits being addicted to children’s books.