This post summarizes a session at ALA Annual 2013 that was presented by Barbara Binns and James Klise.
Most people agree that reading is an essential 21st century survival skill. Unfortunately, evolution has not kept pace. Unlike the genetically hardwired skills of walking and talking, reading requires that the brain be trained to manipulate squiggly lines on paper to make something that isn’t real feel real.
The good news: People who read fluently find it almost effortless. They soak in good stories that educate, promote empathy and self-knowledge, and allow them to practice confronting moral dilemmas and exercising ethical muscles. For eager readers, a good book is its own reward. The epiphany of a well-written novel can be like the surge of endorphins called the “runner’s high” and produce the catharsis — the moment the reader exhales and says, “That was good. I want another just like that.”
Eager readers look forward to the next thrill on the page — or on the screen, in the case of ebooks. Reluctant readers do not. They usually need a compelling reason to pick up a book, because something has taught them that reading is not “fun.”
The reading gap is real
Over 85% of children under age six are read to by parents, other relatives, preschool teachers, and librarians. Almost all kids love the experience and want more.
“Reluctant reader” and “teen boy” are not synonyms, but demographically, the majority of reluctant readers are boys. During the early school years, the “learning to read” stage, boys begin falling behind in the amount of time spent reading for fun. The less kids read, the more slowly their reading skills improve. Boys who get less practice face an ever-increasing gap in fluency and reading speed. It can all add up to give a boy a feeling that reading is a girl thing, something he will do only if he has to. Many middle school-aged boys admit finding reading much harder than it was in elementary school and less enjoyable; at the same time they are being pushed to read read harder texts. His slower pace of improvement aggrevates his feelings that he “doesn’t read.” Some rebel against the very idea that reading might be “fun” right into adulthood.
This may be due to different rates of developing communication skills or different interests. As the years progress, kids with less practice fall further behind. The result can be two self-fulfilling prophecies: First, that a number of kids learn to view themselves as non-readers — and all too frequently these kids are boys. Second, that publishers believe boys don’t read books and therefore concentrate all their efforts on producing more and more books aimed at female readers.
Fear and embarrassment are the enemies, especially with boys reaching adolescence, the time when their gender identification grows in importance. They desire to appear competent and masculine. If they believe reading is not masculine, they will abandon it for alternative activities. Sometimes it is easier to say, “I don’t read” that to admit reading is difficult.
Strategies for turning reluctant readers into “eager readers”
#1: Expose kids to options; showcase guy-friendly material such as:
- True crime stories, mysteries, suspense, police, and war drama
- Graphic novels
- Magazines like Hot Rod, Popular Mechanics, PC Gamer, and Sports Illustrated
#2: Don’t forget graphic novels (preferred by over 40% of high school boys surveyed), books in verse (yes, real men do read poetry), and audiobooks that can bring back the joy of story and being read to out loud.
#3: Get books a reluctant reader can keep in his or her hands. Kids assigned to read books that they were allowed to own did better on tests about the book, showed greater understanding, retained material longer, and were more likely to stay with a book club. Mr. Klise noted that he has a waiting list for membership in his school bookclub in part because students get to keep the books they read each month.
#4: Promote the idea of personal choice for reading. Over 80% of students surveyed wanted more choices about reading material. Make sure the collection includes books for all patrons, featuring different demographics, cultures, and backgrounds. And remember that so-called “borderline books” can bring back the fun factor when they let young readers think they’re getting away with something.
#5: Reach out to male role models to model reading. Tap faculty, staff, parents, and community members. Many people whould be willing to help if asked.
#6: Encourage fathers to read with their children to show that reading is not just a female activity.
#7: Encourage older teens to read with younger kids. This gives them non-threatening practice time and provides them with the inner reward of helping someone else.
#8: Use technology. Showcase teen-written reviews on the library or school website. Encourage kids to create book trailers or write songs and lyrics based on a book they read.
#9: If a child reads below grade level, give him orher books at that level. People become better readers by doing more reading, not necessarily by doing harder reading. Take swimming as an example: Whether a student practices in the shallow end or the deep end, they are still improving their stroke. But put him in the deep end before he is ready and he may decide to stay away from water for good.
Remember, librarians are also marketers. If a teen says he doesn’t read, find out why. Possible reasons include:
- No time to read / No desire to read
- Reading isn’t cool / Reading is for girls
- Community/cultural pressure
- Other activities are more fun
- Reading is hard
- Closet readers — prefer that their peers not know they read
Use those reasons to prepare displays, sales-pitches, recommendations, and activities to meet the needs of different reluctant readers. The good news is that many adults who self-identify as former reluctant readers can name a special book that turned them around and changed their lives.
Never forget that YALSA’s Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Adult Readers lists are a major resource for finding books that appeal to reluctant readers.
- Barbara Binns is retired but still associated with the Arlington Heights Memorial Library. She is the author of Pull, a 2012 YALSA Quick Pick for Reluctant Young Adult Readers, one of School Library Journal‘s 2011 Best Books for Youth in Detention, and a 2012-13 Eliot Rosewater Indiana High School Book Award Nominee.
- Jim Klise is the library director at CICS Northtown Academy in Chicago, where he also advises a teen book club, literary journal, and gay-straight alliance. He is the author of Love Drugged, a 2011 Stonewall Award Honor book, ALA Rainbow List selection, and a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award.
Lists of the books recommended by the presenters are available on their websites.
— B.A. Binns, currently reading Wolf Mark by Joeseph Bruchac