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How might we create positive associations with reading? Image: Getty / Ryan MacEachern/Penguin

When it comes to boys and reading, the same story crops up in the media again and again: both that boys are doing less well than girls in reading tests and that boys are spending less time reading at home.

But behind the headlines, the issue of boys’ literacy is a little more complicated.

I’m not sure that the reading gap means that boys are necessarily being left behind in the classroom – my observation as a teacher is that boys often dominate classroom discussions just as they dominate physical space in school playgrounds.   

That said, I do think that boys’ attitudes to reading may be influenced by pervasive ideas about masculinity that publishers, teachers and students can end up enforcing to some extent.  As a young boy I loved reading. At some point in secondary school, I began to be less open about my reading. Football and music became the things to talk about publicly. Both were both social activities, as opposed to the solitary pursuit of reading. But not only that – they afforded me some social status with my peers. There was an arsenal of put-downs for students who tried too hard at school and who read a lot, and it was usually boys who were using these put-downs. How might we create positive associations with reading?

There have, of course, been publishing initiatives that target boys with what they consider “boys’ topics”, but I’m rather skeptical of them. These stories often employ stereotypes and a rather narrow set of ideas of what boys are like. The problem with a lot of all-action stories for boys is that if the reader takes their message seriously they will close their book and go outside. If children’s books implicitly assume that real boys are always active, then perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised if boys choose more active pastimes.

Of course boys adventures stories have been around for decades – and indeed have often sold very well. So maybe I’m being overly alarmist and very literal here. But the past few decades have seen the growth of video games, often first-person action stories with high production values. These games can be played alone or –importantly – with friends. They can also be played with strangers who through playing the game become friends. As a result, they offer sociability and both create and satisfy the hunger for action that traditional boys stories offered in the past. Driven by commercial imperatives, video games often build on long-standing stereotypes of what boys like and should be like. I don’t think its good strategically or ethically for children’s publishing to do the same thing.

Instead, I think that we should be encouraging boys to read what they enjoy while helping them to expand their reading diet. In the process, we might also expand the ways it is socially acceptable to be a boy. Publishing has an important role to play here: the recent spate of publications “for girls” was widely seen as a positive move in children’s publishing. I’m not so sure it was. I’m not questioning the subject matter; a greater focus on historical and fictional women was long overdue. But the decision to brand such books as being “for girls” seemed to reinforce the notion that books about girls and women are exclusively for girls and women. Boys should be reading stories about girls – but they’re not very likely to when the cover of the book explicitly declares that the stories are “for girls”.

As well as the books themselves, we need to think about the importance of how we talk about books if we are to make reading social and dynamic. I’ve often said to teachers that if we really wanted to wean children off video games, we would insist that after each game they played they answered a list of questions that assessed their recall and comprehension of what they had just experienced. If we did this consistently we just might suck out all the fun of the experience itself so they would come to see gaming as a precursor to interrogation.

Yet comprehension tests are exactly how many of us were taught to read – and to teach reading. Children’s poet Michael Rosen suggests asking children whether the story reminds them of any other stories they know. I’ve found this usually opens up interesting conversations that can often lead to further conversations about patterns and structure and tropes and stereotypes. Over time, we can build up a web of stories that we know in class and can refer to in order to help make sense of new stories we encounter. We expand our classroom literary culture.

We also have conversations about characters’ actions – “why did Omar say that? Do you think he made a good choice there? What do you think he’s going to do?” Many of the children I’ve taught will gladly talk about Eastenders in this way. We engage in the world of a story by suspending disbelief and acting as if the characters are real, not by responding to verbal tests designed to assess our “level” as a reader. Questions about authorial choice that encourage children to think about the story as constructed can follow after these types of conversations.

On meeting a new group of students, I tend to ask, “what are you reading right now?” It’s a way of finding out something about the child, having a conversation about the book, and often learning about a new author. It’s also setting an expectation that having a book “on the go” is just something everyday. When children answer “nothing” I try to follow up by asking them about their interests. What sort of stories do they enjoy? And I try to broaden the notion of stories; comics, cartoons, TV shows, films, YouTube series, whatever. I don’t want them to only access stories through books; but I definitely want books to be in the mix. Not merely because reading regularly helps develop literacy skills but because there are experiences of story that only books can provide.

Darren Chetty is the co-author of How to Disagree: Negotiate Difference in a Divided World (Quarto)

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