Young Boys and Literacy

A lot has been written about young boys and literacy. Here’s what I have heard:


Boys do not perform as well as girls in reading and writing.

Boys score lower than girls on standardized tests in language arts.

Boys are less likely to go to university than girls.

Boys drop out more than girls.

Boys are more likely to be placed in special education programs.

Boys often can read, but don’t. They make excuses, like, “I’m too busy.” “I’ll read later.” “I don’t like reading.” “I’m too tired.”

As boys get older and move from primary to secondary school, they increasingly identify as non-readers.

Boys take longer to read than girls.

Boys are less interested in leisure reading than girls.


I’ve heard this, too:


Boys read more when the reading relates to a task or when they need information.

Boys read newspapers, manuals, magazines, comics, e-mails, text messages, and chat-room conversations.

Boys don’t reject literacy so much as they reject school literacy.


It’s enough to give a boy an insecurity complex.


I don’t have stats to back these assertions up, but I do admit it tracks with my own observations.


So the question is, what can we do about it? How do we get young boys interested in reading and writing?


Well, I’m no expert, but from my male perspective I do have a few ideas. First, some context:


I remember when I was young. I was a hyper-active kid, and I don’t mean that in a bad way. I simply had boundless energy and I needed to burn it off or I would drive my parents crazy. So I ran, bicycled, swam, played, chased my brothers and screamed with glee as they chased me. We wrestled and yes, sometimes we fought – with our fists. We built castles and forts, then attacked and defended them until they were broken before starting all over. We played cops and robbers, zombie tag, cootie tag, monster vs monster, and spaceman vs aliens. We collected rocks, bugs, sticks and bottle caps. We pretended to be super-heroes, wizards, spies, cops, soldiers, monsters, astronauts and mad scientists. We raced each other from here to there and back again. We climbed everything that could be climbed, crawled into and under everything that could be crawled into and under and ate all kinds of stuff we shouldn’t have. For the record, boll weevils are yummy in soup, houseflies taste bad, dirt has an unpleasant texture and roasted grubs are not too bad at all, if you spice them properly. Fat is flavor. We turned everything into a competition, challenge, or battle. The three words “I dare you” were spoken way too often and we rarely passed up a dare. But no matter what we did, we laughed, kibitzed, poked fun at each other and played pranks on each other at every opportunity.


See the pattern?


Boys tend to be action-oriented, competitive, world builders who love to joke and laugh and play tricks. We make up elaborate worlds held together by zany logic in order to have a stage upon which to act out our action fantasies. And we are goofy.


Sure, there are exceptions and I am generalizing, but when it comes to learning to read and write, I believe that many boys would have an easier time of it if the curriculum appealed to their true nature.


Give a boy a comic book series, graphic novel, science fiction, fantasy, or a fast paced laugh-riot chapter book with a protagonist who does the kind of stuff he fantasizes about doing. Make it fun. Make it exciting. The kid will be more inclined to read and you probably won’t need to tell him twice.


When I was a kid I was fortunate to be an avid reader. Even though I was always on the go, I somehow found time to read – a lot – because the books I read were so interesting, I couldn’t not read them. I learned to read fast so that I could read tons. Mostly I read science-fiction, science-fantasy, science-horror and science-action-adventure. My father was a huge science fiction reader and he chewed through books like I chewed through bubble gum. I never had to worry about finding stuff to read unless my brothers got hold of the book first or my dad gave them to a friend in exchange for another before I could get my hands on it.


By the time I reached grade eight I had read probably a thousand science fiction novels. The side effect of this was a fast reading rate, good vocabulary, a good understanding of science, history and story structure, and a million ideas for stories I wanted to someday write.


My reading influenced my method of learning. I wanted every assignment to be fun and if it wasn’t, I would do my level best to interpret the instructions and twist them into a format that I would find interesting. For example, if my teacher gave me the task of writing a short story on what I did over the summer holidays, I might write about discovering huge, clawed tracks in the forest near my house and following them, only to discover a monster inhabiting a cave, disturbing the creature, running for my life and escaping into the safety of direct sunlight mere moments before getting torn apart and eaten. Who cares if it didn’t happen exactly like that? Who cares if I didn’t actually see the monster? Who cares if I made the whole thing up? It was fun, it was exciting and I WANTED to write about it. I was a good student and read what the teachers said I needed to read and wrote what they said I needed to write. But it was very often boring. If I could make it interesting by adding a science fiction or fantasy twist, why wouldn’t I? If it could turn a boring assignment into fun, it was worth it to me. A little sprinkle of science fiction, fantasy and humor made everything better.


So here’s the first suggestion for encouraging young boys to read and write:

  1. Let them read and write about what they WANT to read and write about. Give them the freedom to make their own choices and tell their own stories their own way. Help them, empower them. Encourage them. Let them write crazy action, science-fiction, fantasy, horror, humor or whatever turns their crank.


As a high energy, action-oriented kid, I found a lot of school English assignments to be quite dry, but every so often I would get lucky, like when my teacher had us read Ray Bradbury’s, “The Illustrated Man”. Or when another teacher had our class compete to see who could read the most books in a year (with book reports and oral presentations with Q and A). That was awesome, particularly since she did not impose any restrictions on what type of novel we could read. I read more than two hundred novels in grade four and more than two hundred in grade five, when I had the same teacher and she ran the same competition again.


That brings me to my second suggestion:

  1. Challenge boys to a reading and/or writing competition or competitions. Gamify the act of reading and writing. Competition motivates boys.



As an author, animation producer and director, I enjoy telling stories to kids, adults and anyone who will listen. Stories dramatize, reinforce and help kids (and adults) make sense of important developmental concepts and life lessons. Harry Potter is a story about a wizard kid but it is also a story about a regular kid growing up, learning to be independent, moral, loyal, brave and responsible. Kids relate to Harry and they fantasize about living in his world because they relate to it and him in so many ways. He is aspirational. The magic just makes the story more fun.


That brings me to my third suggestion:

  1. Read to your kids. Bring authors into your school to read to your kids and converse with them. Suggest story-building workshops where kids create a short story by brainstorming an idea, fleshing it out story-point by story point until they have a beat outline, then writing it as a group, under the guidance of the author and the teacher. Make it fun.


Speaking of brainstorming, I am always brainstorming. Ideas flow constantly and I never turn the creative tap off. I don’t want to. I am always on the lookout for inspiration and I never have to look far (I’ll do a post about where I get my ideas from, soon). My thoughts are constantly going off on wild tangents as new ideas pop into my head. I often vocalize my ideas just to hear them. The very act of vocalizing an idea subjects it to different type of scrutiny than when it is simply a thought. I realize this makes me look like I’m talking to myself but it is an important part of my creative process and besides, I keep my voice down, so I don’t bother anyone. Next I write my ideas down in a notebook or on my iPhone or tablet. If I don’t, I will forget the idea at some point, but I will remember I had the idea then get frustrated because I can’t remember the awesome idea I let get away. Silly, eh? The thing is, you never know when that little seed of an idea can sprout into a fully realized story. Kids love the creative process, too. They should be encouraged to snatch their ideas out of their mind, vocalize them and write them down.


That brings me to my fourth and final suggestion:

  1. Find time every day be creative with your kids or students. Don’t be afraid to brainstorm ideas. Let the ideas flow where they are inclined to flow, no matter how strange or unorthodox. Follow the muse and enjoy the trip. And get them to vocalize their ideas and write them down!