Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

Getting Boys Reading - Alan Gibbons

I am absolutely delighted to welcome author and library campaigner Alan Gibbons to Literature for Lads today. Alan is one of the UK's most respected writers of teenage literature and is also well known for his high profile Campaign for the Book He is a passionate supporter of libraries and a regular visiting speaker at schools, colleges and literary events.

In 2011 his novel 'An Act of Love' was long listed for the 2012 CILIP Carnegie Medal. Alan's newly published novel 'Raining Fire' is a powerful, fast paced real life thriller about gun crime in a inner city gangland and you can read the Literature for Lads review here. However today on the blog we have given Alan the opportunity to offer some advice on how to get boys reading...

Targeting the three in four

According to National Literacy Trust research only one in four boys read out of class every day. So how do we turn the three in four into regular, eager readers? I don’t think there is anything complex or mysterious about this question. Boys read when they feel there is something in it for them. When there isn’t, they don’t.

Can’t read, won’t read? Rubbish! There are huge differences between the number of boys who read in a school with a strong reading culture and a school with a weak one. It is not inevitable and it has nothing to do with biology.

Let’s start with the overall school environment. Does reading seep from the walls? Is there a purposeful, targeted and sustained effort to get the students in general and boys in particular reading? A limp poster of Rio Ferdinand reading is a token if it isn’t integrated into a range of visible and exciting ways into reading. So let’s see photographs of respected members of the school and broader community reading. Let’s have the firefighter, the soldier, the footballer, rugby player and boxer, the doctor and paramedic, yes, and especially the dad. Let’s have dads and lads sessions.

Many boys love screens so let’s see TV screens with rolling displays of book covers on football and boxing, horror and graphic novels, adventure and sci-fi. Let’s have films, interviews and podcasts. Let’s see reviews of the latest computer games, football magazines and fanzines, Marvel comics and Manga. Why not have a Chinese Whispers text or tweet community where you send recommendations by smart phone? And where do you get these recommendations? You know what, a school with a thriving, well-run school library has all of these and more.

Why not establish reading buddies? These can be older boys, guys who are respected in the community, members of staff, anybody so long as they have an interest in life and they don’t have the personality of a blancmange!

Boys tend to like series, collectibles, so have a scheme called something like Serial Thriller where groups of lads meet up to discuss the series they are working through. There can be sessions where they design book covers, bookmarks, movie posters and board games based on the book. Generate a team ethic, a sense of tribe and belonging.

If the lads are disengaged to start with engage them by holding browsing sessions with a respected adult, a role model if you will, in which they choose a book at their interest level and reading level. If you are not given any book to read, that’s bad. If you are given the wrong one, it’s worse. When I was fourteen, I had to read Emma by Jane Austen. To be honest, the rustle of crinoline didn’t do much for me at the time. Luckily, our teacher introduced us to Animal Farm and 1984. They are bleak and dark, but getting teenagers depressed is like shooting fish in a barrel. Most go through the nihilistic phase.

Get authors and poets in. Combine performance and discussion. I have lost track of the number of times when I am introduced to a group of allegedly disengaged boys who don’t read. They turn out to be receptive and keen and start to own up to the stuff they do read. If the school let’s an atmosphere of philistinism rule then any attempt to encourage reading will wither in the blast of cynicism. Our job is to get the prevailing wind blowing in the opposite direction.

Interest-level is part of the battle. Find out what each individual boy likes and present him with suitable material. Don’t make assumptions. Not all boys like football. I know, it’s crazy, but it’s true. Then make sure you are not foisting a book on a boy that will demoralise him because it is too difficult at that moment in time. There are great ‘quick-reads’ to set the boys off on their reading journey,
Barrington Stoke and the Harper Collins ‘Read On' scheme for which I am a consultant to name just two.

The quick read should be the first step, the launch pad of increasingly challenging reading.

Finally, everything we do has to be supported by the whole school community from senior management level through to the ancillary staff. Everyone should be seen as a reader. If they aren’t how are the boys supposed to get the message? Most of all, it has to be fun. Constant hectoring and exhortation has little effect. The systematic encouragement of reading for pleasure through well-planned and resourced activities that are varied and driven by enjoyment does.

The campaign to get boys reading should start immediately. We have nothing to lose but the callouses on our knuckles.

Do you have any other ideas for getting boys reading?  Do we worry too much about boys not reading and should we shift our focus to teenagers in general, boys and girls, not reading? We would love to hear you thoughts so do please comment on Alan's great guest post.


  1. Agree with Alan. As teachers who have left the profession we can confirm that some boys do switch off from reading after picture books. It is not that they are reluctant but more that they haven't yet developed the level of fluency needed to engage with the standard A5 novel. The correct choice of book is essential. We are now writing the books that we wished we'd had in the classroom - the ones that boys CAN and WANT to read.

  2. Some fantastic ideas here which I am sure a lot of school librarians already do but what happens in schools that do not have school libraries so that students don't have access to a wide range of books and professional advice & guidance. Also, many of these strategies rely on the support of teachers and other staff so it really is a collaboration, a joint effort to create that reading ethos throughout the school. One thing i would add is that you need to make reading sociable; teenagers like to do things with friends.

  3. Much as I agree with everything Alan has said in his piece, like most boy’s literacy campaigners, he’s focussing on the sort of books that appeal to older primary and secondary school readers, by which age the reading habit has already been broken for many boys.

    Prevention is better than cure and, in my view, far more focus needs to put on providing appealing reading material for boys at preschool and infant age.

    In my experience, as both an author and a parent, the problem starts with picture books. While there are plenty of children’s novels that appeal uncompromisingly to boys’ tastes the same can’t be said of picture books. The overwhelming majority of picture books are purchased by adult women, so even boy-targeted picture books, with themes such as pirates, aliens, monsters and dinosuars are produced to reflect the preferences of the mum or grandmother that will actually be purchasing them. I think this early gender bias is one of the reasons that so many boys reject books in favour of other media, such as TV films and video games, which reflect their tastes more fully.

    You can find an essay I’ve written about this issue at my own boys' literacy blog