Boys and reading…ahhhhh…where to begin? Well, I guess my story begins about eight years ago in New York. I was living with my parents while finishing my Masters, and was working in a 2nd grade classroom at the local elementary school. I was young, a bit clueless when it came to working with children, and so eager to start my new career as a teacher. Thank goodness I had the most amazing mentor teacher in the world. She treated me as her equal (which I clearly was NOT since I could barely manage her class when she went to the bathroom), and taught me how to be a compassionate, creative, engaging and most important, effective teacher.
At the beginning of my job search I got a call from a private all boy’s school up in Boston. Figuring it would be good interview practice I took the interview and headed up to the Boston area for the day.
When I arrived at the school I remember clearly being overwhelmed by the amount of activity everywhere. Kindergarten boys traveling through the hallway in little gym class jerseys, 2nd graders building The Great Wall of China in the hallway, boys coming in and out of the office to talk to the LS Head about some “poor choices”…all this while I was waiting to meet with the woman who would eventually interview me.
The head of the lower school toured me around the school, talked about boys learning and told me how this school was different. Boys needed to be active, engaged with their bodies, and visually stimulated. They needed teachers with an understanding for the male brain, and most of all, energy. I had no understanding of the male brain at this point, but I did have energy, and it was this energy that got me the job.
So, flash forward five months, and here I was, in my new third grade classroom at an all-boys school. I wanted to be that nice teacher that everyone loved, the smiley cute third grade teacher that every child remembered. But it became clear very quickly that my first class was not an easy group of boys, and they challenged my patience and energy level every day. My smiles dwindled and I said yes to things just because I couldn’t fight the battle ahead. I questioned teaching. I missed my little girls who sat and listened to read aloud time while staring adoringly up at me. I instead had 16 wiggle worms who poked and prodded each other through each read aloud. Was I cut out for this?
At about the four month mark of working in my new school I broke down. I couldn’t go back after holiday break with the same mentality, and I did a complete 180 degree turnaround. I told myself I was not going to smile until May, and that the boys needed more structure, more activity and more accountability towards their choices. That was the true beginning of my growth as a teacher. Over the next five years at that school I learned a LOT about boys, and I truly believe that I get boys.
I learned that boys are incredibly sensitive, and are not scared to let their feelings be expressed, as much as our society tells us this is happening. This may have been because these boys were in a school that embraced respect and compassion, and their friendships mean the world to them. I believe any environment can stress these things.
I learned that boys need to engage their bodies in order to learn. They can not sit for long, and if they do their brains will focus on the things that will frustrate you the most: the piece of gum on the bottom of the desk, their pencil tip that is about to fall off, or the papers sticking out from their desk that may need a little more dog earring.
I learned that boys love competition, and we should embrace this. Why fight it when boys are drawn to it. Through competition they will work harder for something. When you eliminate any sense of competition in a boys game they will find a way to work it back in. The recess football game used to drive me nuts every day. The amount of fighting and arguing about touchdowns, turnovers and blitzes made me weak in the knees since I knew NOTHING about football. So, I learned about football, and I helped the boys compete in a friendly, less aggressive way. The world unfortunately is wrought with competition, and we should teach all our kids how to handle competition at an early age.
I learned that boys need to touch EVERYTHING. Especially when you warn them not to touch something, the touching is instantly necessary. The science teacher in the classroom next to me, Science Bob, was one of the most incredible teachers I have had the pleasure of working with, and it was not only because of his funny, brilliant teaching style, but it was because he encouraged the boys to explore with their hands, hence their minds.
Lastly, I learned that boys do like to read, but it takes patience and a lot of attention to finding the right material. Boys will fight the action of reading because it is often still and quiet. Because of this stillness and need to focus on reading, reading is not always easy for them because practice time is not always efficient and effective.
Here are the strategies I use to encourage boys to read:
- Use small increments of time when getting them to read on their own. Start for as small as a minute, and build up. You can’t expect a boy to sit still because his body is often saying he needs to move.
- Use timers for reading and breaks. Timers work well for boys because they are so concrete and literal. Ten minutes feels like an eternity if they don’t know when it will end. They like to know what is ahead for them, whether it be work or a break.
- Have a competition against themselves for how long they can read. Again, don’t push developmental abilities, but if you have them chart their reading time (sticker chart on fridge) to show them their improvements they will want to push on and show you they can be better.
- Find the right material. From an early age, books about trucks, animals, action stories and adventure will be what they look for. (Richard Scarry’s cars, trucks and things that go book is awesome for the toddler boy interested in moving vehicles.) Boys also love magazines: Sports Illustrated for Kids, National Geographic Kids, Ranger Rick, Highlights, etc…
- Provide them with quiet time each day, complete with a stack of books, in lieu of a dropped nap time. There comes a point where the naps drop off. While boys are incredibly active during awake time, practicing how to chill out for 20 minutes will help them learn to monitor their energy.
- Let them peruse books instead of insisting they start one and finish it. Giving them choice about what they read is very important. Let them have some of the control.
- Talk to them about their books and ask about the details. They will give you animated and action packed play-by-plays that you can get excited about as well.
- Let them move or sit in a crazy position while they read, if that is what they want to do. Again, their bodies sometimes need to move or stretch or bend in order to process. Also, boys love book nooks – the more quirky, the better.
A Great Resource for Boys and Reading:
This website is awesome. It has great lists of books (you can even filter by level ).
My Favorite Book Authors (and some favorite titles):
John Sciezka (Time Warp Trio Series is one of my favorite series for boys)
Jerry Spinelli (his new book Hokey Pokey is supposed to be phenomenal)
Louis Sachar (HOLES, Wayside School Stories are my faves)