Most of my career as a special education teacher has been spent teaching classes predominantly made up of boys. In fact, this year, 14 out of 17 students in my self-contained class are male. Although they are very different individuals, one tie binds them together: all came to my door with a severe disdain for reading. Over time, I came to find out that it wasn’t that boys dislike the notion of reading, but that they are discouraged and embarrassed by their low reading ability.
Read on to find out how I learned to help my middle school boys find the joy in reading.
I learned the most important lesson about getting boys to read with my very first class. That class was the stuff urban legends are made of. Horror stories abounded about student performance both in and out of the classroom. One teacher warned me that I would “never get those boys to read,” a challenge I wasn’t about to shy away from. After the first week's get-to-know-you games, we did the all-important “reading interest inventory,” which revealed that an overwhelming majority of the students loved action/adventure and outdoors stories. I decided to begin with one of my old favorites, Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli, and was dumbfounded by their reaction. As I read aloud, I noticed that every eye was on me: they were hanging on my every word. This surely wasn’t the first time that my students were read aloud to; however, I got the distinct impression that they'd never had someone who truly enjoyed their company read stories to them that were meaningful to them. Just like that, hands began to shoot up when I asked for volunteers to read.
This simple notion has fueled my teaching ever since: am I choosing books boys want to read? Consider this: the 2010 Kids and Family Reading Report by Scholastic showed that “only 39% of boys say reading books for fun is extremely or very important versus 62% of girls." If this is true, how do we as educators show students that reading is a joy and not a burden? In her book Best Books for Boys Pam Allyn states that there are four essential ingredients to a lifelong love of reading: Ritual, Environment, Access, and Dialogue (or READ).
Create comforting and familiar routines that cultivate a love of books and language. Whether you're reading an excerpt of a comical text or a serious true-life story, show students the enjoyment that all genres bring.
Since students find comfort in different surroundings, it is important to vary the atmosphere in your room. I like to consider each student’s personality when I set up my reading areas. Ask yourself, “Does this space seem inviting to students of all reading levels?” “Is it unique, and does it allow for personalization and ownership?” “Would I feel comfortable taking risks here?” It may be as simple as adding a few decorative pillows or posters featuring areas of student interest. Or you may even ask your students to help you design your reading area. Be creative!
This means providing the types of reading materials that boys want to get their hands on. Think outside the box. Stuff your bins full of texts that will hook readers and get them learning without their realizing it. Provide sports magazines, polls and standings, box scores, etc., along with traditional media such as magazines, newspapers, and novels. Make reading enjoyable and personally meaningful for them.
Pay attention to their reactions to the text as you read, and engage in honest conversation. Do they identify with the characters? Are they angry about their actions or the outcome of the story? Are there aspects of the character’s personality that resonate with them? Their responses will give you a lot of insight into their minds as well as their hearts. I also place envelopes with comment tickets on the back of each book so that students feel as though their opinions matter.
How do you appeal to your reluctant readers? I would love to hear from you!