Boys and Books: Read for fun, read lots

Over the past couple of years, I’ve done a lot of reading on boys and books: what they like to read, why they read (or don’t read), how they learn to read, and ways in which they often differ from girls in all those areas.  I can highly recommend one of those books, in particular, to parents, educators, and others who want to help the boys they work with thrive as readers:

Connecting Boys with Books 2: Closing the Reading Gap, by Michael Sullivan (American Library Association, 2009; 119 pp).

Sullivan’s work is concise, well-researched, and clear.  He brings to the subject over 20 years of experience as a teacher, librarian, coach, and storyteller.   You’ll benefit most from reading the book, but from time to time I’d like to highlight some key ideas he presents.

In chapter 4, Sullivan targets what he calls “The Tyranny of Reading Levels”.  If a child is in the 2nd grade, or, more particularly, has been tested as reading at that level, we think he should read books at or slightly above that level.  That seems logical — it’s like exercise.  If I don’t periodically add 5 lbs to the weights I’m lifting, or try to run just a little further or faster, I’ll never get better.  And of course we want our kids to become better readers.

Research, however, suggests otherwise.  To quote Sullivan: “… the acquisition of language skills such as vocabulary, structure, and grammar has little or nothing to do with the complexity of one’s reading and everything to do with volume.  The key to becoming a better reader lies not in your level of reading but in how much you read” (p 40).

So if reading LOTS is more important than reading at a certain level, it follows that kids will read more if they LIKE what they read — regardless of level.  Plus they discover that reading is fun, rather than a chore.

What does that mean?  Speaking practically, if your child is excited about reading something and you’re tempted to say:

  • “Oh, that’s too easy — you need something harder!”
  • “Captain Underpants again?  Here, read this Newbery winner instead — it’s got a great message.”
  • “I know you love shark books, but you need to read a novel.”
      or even
  • “Oh, that’s too hard for you.”

DON’T!

Especially while reading is still a skill in process of development, allowing children freedom whenever possible to choose what to read is the best way to encourage them to read lots.  We can make suggestions, based on what we know they like — that’s part of what this blog is all about.  But we have to try as best we can to keep our suggestions from communicating “Your choices are bad.  Mine are good for you.”

And what if they’re excited about reading something you think is too hard for them?  Well, children do not read to their reading level.  Children read to their interest level.  Often their interest will help them wade through whatever difficulties they might have.

Last year, a Jr High boy I read with was very excited when he saw a big volume of Spiderman comics in his school’s library.  Now at that point his reading level was barely 2nd grade.  I knew this comic book would be a lot harder than what we’d been covering, plus it had tiny hand-drawn print.  But he was eager, so we tackled it.  And over our next several sessions, he read enthusiastically.  He still stumbled over words, but didn’t get discouraged.  We stopped from time to time so he could tell me some arcane bit of Spiderman-lore I was unaware of, or we could discuss some part of the story.  And it was fun.  I hope he learned a bit better how to read; I know he learned a bit more of WHY to read.

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