On boys, books and reading and the lure of the great wide world


 “To acquire the habit of reading is to construct for yourself

a refuge from almost all the miseries of life.”

W Somerset Maugham

I do love quotations, and where better to begin than one from a much-loved author and highly prolific writer. What great matters I have set myself to ponder. At best, I shall be drifting here and there, with half a thought here and half a thought there, but always, like the meandering Mississippi, reaching my final destination.

I have been inspired by a recent work engagement with Harper Collins, a substantial and significant publishing house, to consider afresh the needs of children and particularly boys as they emerge as readers, competent, eager, enthusiastic, or lacking competency, reluctant, disinterested. Harper Collins have embarked on a series of teacher support days and I was asked to provide training on the theme of Struggling Readers and Getting Boys into Reading. As always, there is much to do in preparation, not least appraising myself of the work of Harper Collins and their contribution to the thorny and perpetual issue of supporting boys’ reading skills.

Here is a link to their site and to an overview of the first round of professional development events –  http://www.collinsbigcat.com/professionaldevelopment Collins Big Cat Phonics

I have been made aware of the great advances in publishing and particularly e-books, something I anticipated I would not admire. How foolish these fixed stances can make us feel. I am enamoured of the work of Harper Collins in bringing to life colourful early story books through the conversion to e-books and use of the ipad and other devices. The story of a little train chugging through the countryside stole my heart.

My real learning point has been re-engaging with a subject that has troubled my soul for many years – how best do we support young people to read, not just in those early years of education, but when education has failed to equip that young person with reading skills, often over many years.

The protracted effects of long-term reading difficulties are not as well documented as they should be, but include signifcant trauma, shame, self-loathing, low self-esteem, feelings of worthlessness, of inadequacy and contribute to a host of secondary difficulties, or additional special needs. It is the blight of our advanced civilised nation that we still permit so many young people to leave primary education with barely functional skills in literacy, and without the skills needed to advance or progress in secondary education to any satisfactory degree.

I have included a few of the thoughts and ideas shared at the Harper Collns event in the hope this may shed light on my theme – boys, books and reading and the lure of the great wide world…

But first, another quotation, and some useful statistics –

“The man who does not read good books has no advantage

over the man who can’t read them.”

Mark Twain

For children below the age of 7, the most common special need identified (in England) was speech, language and communication difficulties – 42% of all pupils at School Action Plus (figures from Dept for Education/2009)

For children aged 7  11 years, the most common need was moderate learning difficulties, 34% of all pupils at School Action Plus

For children aged 12 – 17, the most common need was behavioural, emotional and social development difficulties, 36% of all pupils at School Action Plus.

I find it striking that in the early years, speech, language and communication needs dominate the agenda, needs that may be addressed at a relatively local level, but evidence indicates that for the majority of young children, these early needs remain unaddressed and merge into something far more insidious and destructive – moderate learning difficulties and behavioural, emotional and social development difficulties.

The struggling reader, male or female, exhibits behaviours that all can observe at a very early stage of reading development, including the following –

  • easily distracted by external stimuli
  • lacking motivation, concentration and perseverance
  • poor attention span, indifferent to the reading activity, eager to distract others
  • mumbles, speaks quiety or else reads quickly and indistinctly
  • becomes withdrawn, passive, distressed
  • displays anxious behaviours,
  • displays low self esteem, poor expectations of success and low self-confidence
  • talkative and sociable
  • eager to be noticed and exceesively helpful to adults and peers
  • erratic in actions and fltting with half attention from one task to another
  • reluctant to settle and eager to leave the task behind

Within the home and the school setting, there is much that can be done to help foster an early love and appreciation of books and reading, but particularly for boys, who continue to dominate the charts across most areas of special educational need.

An holistic approach to developing good reading skills in all children may consider –

  • the school’s existing reading resources in all areas
  • the school’s commitment to identifying early reading difficulties
  • the reading scheme books, books for pleasure, fictioin and non-fiction books
  • the appropriate accessibility of books for all year groups, and including for children with special needs
  • the gender bias of reading scheme books in use
  • the library and its use as an essential resource base
  • how adults provide good role models as readers
  • what range of reading opportunities are provided in day to day practice in each classroom

It is useful to be aware of the different characteristics of boys and girls as readers. In my research and from my own professional practice, the following observations are made with regard the kind of books that boys like to read, and that may encourage a perseverance with reading, even when that task remains a daily challenge.

Boys typically like to read –

  1. Books as a social, collaborative rather than individual, personal experience
  2. Non-fiction books, fact-finder books, often reading captions rather than longer prose
  3. Books that fuel their imagination and thirst for knowledge
  4. Books with male protagonists, action rather than character-driven
  5. Content that allows them to dip in and out of the book in random order
  6. Heavier, often hard-backed books that look and feel substantial
  7. Boys are less concerned about series and less loyal to specific authors than girls
  8. Boys like books that have a relevance to the life they have now or the life they would like to live
  9. Boys like adventure stories, action-figures, heroes and danger
  10. Boys like books that help them explore, if not conquer, the great wide world
  11. Books that do not require reviews to be written afterwards.

Finally, on my travels into the world of boys, books and readings, I came upon the most wonderfully comprehensive, beautifully written and engaging site by Trevor Cairney, Adjunt Professor of Education at the University of New South Wales, Sydney. There are many posts I admire, but all are excellen. Do browse and take a look at some brilliant resources for teachers, parents and all educators – http://trevorcairney.blogspot.co.uk/2011/05/supporting-boys-as-readers-review-of.html

Trevor has been very kind to give his permission for me to link to his site – some quite gorgeous reading scenes too..


“There are many little ways to enlarge your child’s world. Love of books is the best of all.”

Jacqueline Kennedy

Boys and Literacy Skills

Trevor H Cairney


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