At the second school, the introductions were barely over before the headmistress was leading us to the dyslexia unit. At the third, I was told: ”Don’t worry, Mr Furedi, we know boys often struggle with reading and we have a wonderful system of support in place.’’
Until these visits, the idea that my son would not become a good reader had never entered my mind. But, by the time we completed our tours, I was beginning to doubt he would ever be able to read a street sign.
During the weeks that followed I discovered that many educators take for granted that boys and reading problems come as a package. Yet nothing in my study of the history of reading shows that boys need be at any disadvantage when it comes to books.
“The fact that we now presume that boys are alienated from books may have become a self-fulfilling prophecy with children playing the part expected of them.”
In the 19th and early 20th centuries Victorian moralists complained that boys were far too absorbed in reading cheap sensationalist fiction, while their teachers and parents worried that they were being led astray by it.
One hundred years or so on, and critics complained that boys were abandoning the classics in favour of gory adventure stories popular in the Twenties. The capacity of boys to read was never in question.
In 1940, when George Orwell denounced the powerful cultural influence of “Boys’ Weeklies”, his concern was not that boys had difficulty reading but the ease with which they absorbed what he took to be objectionable ideals.
Breakthrough: learning to read is the beginning of his autonomous lifeChildren will often play the part expected of them
What is true is that since the 18th century the reading habits of the sexes of all ages have often diverged. Women have always been more drawn to novels than men. Male reading was more often associated with non-fiction. And while girls read stories written for boys, the latter were not keen on books with female themes.
It was during the Twenties and Thirties that some teachers started to complain that boys were often too active to sit down with a book, although the claim that it is “impossible to get boys to read” is of a more recent vintage. Today the assertion that boys simply don’t read has acquired the status of an incontrovertible truth.
The fact that we now presume that boys are alienated from books may have become a self-fulfilling prophecy with children playing the part expected of them. In too many schools teachers inadvertently reinforce the idea that they expect less from their boy readers than from girls.
If we want to cultivate a love of reading among boys we need to raise our expectations of them. This requires a drastic rethink by those educators who have internalised the doctrine of a male reading deficit.
“A father sitting on the sofa absorbed in a book can have a profound influence on how his sons think about reading.”
Anxious parents who have been told that “boys don’t read” have also assimilated this message. Many tell me: “It does not matter what they read as long as they read something.” The mantra of “get them to read something” also pervades schools.
Well-meaning educators try to help boys by giving them texts allegedly “relevant” to their lives in the hope that if they can readily identify with the subject matter they will be encouraged to read. Often the reverse seems true and “relevant” learning resources turn off young readers.
The truth is many boys are unlikely to find pleasure reading about familiar experiences. To stimulate curiosity, boys need stories to carry them into different worlds. Take the Harry Potter publishing phenomenon. J K Rowling’s books grabbed the attention of young boys precisely because they pulled them into a world nothing like the life they knew. It appealed to their sense of idealism and their evolving sense of right and wrong.
Not that boys always need tales of high adventure: what they need is to experience reading itself as an adventure, as a medium for exploration. Stories conveyed through rich language and challenging plots are likely to encourage boys to carry on reading despite occasionally stumbling on words or sentences.
Fathers spark ‘imaginative discussion’ when reading to their kidsOnce boys understand that reading is a grown-up activity half the battle is won. Photo: Alamy Stock Photo
To get boys over the first hurdles to their reading adventure it is important to normalise it. Parents are constantly advised to read to their children. No doubt storytelling plays an important part in the education of young children.
But what is arguably more important is to make it normal to read at home. It is when boys see adults engaged in reading books that they begin to perceive this activity as what grown-ups do to have fun.
A father sitting on the sofa absorbed in a book can have a profound influence on how his sons think about reading. From a young boy’s outlook, reading is no longer what adults do with children but also what they choose to do on their own. Once boys understand that reading is a grown-up activity half the battle is won.
We must also dispel the myth that boys don’t read. Boys entranced by their digital gadgets are constantly reading, but they do so in ways that are motivated by pragmatic concerns. The problem is not that boys don’t read but that many don’t read for enjoyment. According to recent figures 13 per cent of boys – roughly twice as many as girls – do not read for pleasure.
To reiterate: whether or not young boys will discover the pleasure of reading depends on the example we set them. In 1921, the inspirational Newbolt Report on the teaching of English in England recognised a crucial point: that the transmission of a teacher’s love of reading is the precondition for educating children to love reading.
Thankfully, it is not necessary to be a qualified teacher to communicate the love of reading. Fathers telling stories, mothers reciting poems and other adults talking to children about the books they love, can have the desired outcome. In such a cultural climate, boys will read.
Books to get boys reading
• Fairy Tales Every Child Should Know by Hamilton Wright Mabie
• The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter
• The Snowman by Raymond Briggs
Age four to six:
• Revolting Rhymes and The Big Friendly Giant by Roald Dahl
• Fox in Socks by Dr Seuss
Age seven to 11:
• The Bad Beginning by Lemony Snicket
• Famous Five and Secret Seven series by Enid Blyton
• Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer
• Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J K Rowling
• Listen to the Moon by Michael Morpurgo
• Amazon Adventure by Willard Price
• The Owl Service by Alan Garner
• His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman
• The Lord of the Rings by J R R Tolkien
• The Lord of the Flies by William Golding
• The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
Frank Furedi is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of Kent. His book, Power of Reading: From Socrates To Twitter (Bloomsbury) is available from books.telegraph.co.uk.