Keeping Boys From Reading

Keeping Boys From Reading

Summary: our schools are skilled at making sure boys don’t read. 

Not to worry. Our top educators have pretty well got this thing figured out. It’s a two-punch combination, researched-based, that almost always works. Bingo, you don’t find American boys wasting precious time inside the pages of a book.

First of all, you want to make sure they don’t hear much about the alphabet (shhh!), letters, sounds all that right-wing nonsense. They have to learn to read with sight-words, Dolch words, whole words (all the same thing). And you want a whole lot of hoopla, thousands of brightly colored books lying around, and constant chatter about literacy and being a lifelong reader. All this stuff convinces parents that their kids, if they are halfway normal, will quickly learn to read. Ditto the boys. When they can’t memorize hundreds of sight-words, they know there’s something wrong with them and they give up pronto. And they keep their mouths shut. Perfect. The silence of the lambs pretty well describes it. 

Second, you’ve got to catch those boys who figure out phonics for themselves and actually make it through the sight-word minefield. A lot of boys just barely survive; they’re on the cusp. Give them some good comic books or Sports Illustrated for Kids, and they might break through. But you never do that. Here’s the secret formula. You say, this book is perfect for you! And you give them books intended for girls. Soft, sensitive, emotional books. Boys hate this stuff.They’d rather sleep in mud than have to read books like that. So you can snuff out the last little bit of interest in reading. If some of the boys are hard-headed and keep trying to read, you up the ante. Make sure every recommended book is literarily pretentious, big time! New-Yorker-type books with soft pastel covers and delicate type. Oprah-type books with haunting relationship stories that revolve around strong women. Boys cringe in horror from this stuff. Grown men cringe in horror from this stuff; but they can defend themselves. What can twelve-year-old boys do? Other than learn to hate books and reading forever. 

By this simple, two-step program, the major goals of American education are achieved, everybody’s semi-illiterate and everybody’s a wimp. Look at the stats. Our elite educators know what they’re doing.

(The program is working so well that millions of young men are not qualified to go to college or they don’t try to enter college. Women have taken over the joints, now occupying 57% of the places. Bottom line: the women won but now they’re lonely. The males are off sulking, wondering what happened to their society and why attending college doesn’t seem to be a good option anymore?)

“Wait a minute,” you protest. “What if I really do want boys to read? How do I turn this around?” Well, first of all, we have to ask, what kind of kook are you? A parent or something? You’re certainly not in education.

Okay, here’s the answer. (Don’t tell anyone else.) Just do the opposite of what the schools and top educators recommend. This rule is always an infallible guide, throughout the curriculum. Especially so in reading. Ignore all those books about girls and their feelings. Ignore almost everything endorsed by the NEA or the New York Times. Now we’re getting somewhere.

Instead, consider what real men like to read about. Adventures. Science. Machines. Sports and Athletes. War. Business. Mystery. Technology. Animals. Travel. Sci-fi. History. Famous People. Crime and Police Work. Cowboys. Soldiers. To name a few. There, wasn’t that easy? Look at all the choices! And while non-fiction might be a safer bet than fiction, fiction can work as long as it’s about the topics on this list. 

So for young males, you merely get the simpler versions of books that grown-up males enjoy. That’s what Hardy Boys novels were for millions of boys. That’s what the wonderful Landmark Books (children’s histories) were for millions of children, including me. That’s what Ripley’s Believe It Or Not and The Guinness Book of Records continue to be for millions of boys. 

Boys love to know how things happened and how things work. They like to know what people did. Events are interesting. Plans. Decisions. Victories. All you have to do is look at the covers of popular comic books, GI Joe, for example, or Superman. Or the covers of video games. What do you see?? Heroics. Guns. Action. Fights. Violence….The literary level equal to or just beyond such cover art, that is what boys want!  

Here’s what one expert says: “Boys aren’t big fans of novels filled with sensitive, angst-filled, touchy-feely characters and flowery descriptions of scenery; they want stuff to happen, and if there are explosions, hand-to-hand combat, and bloodcurdling screams, that’s even better.” I love this woman for saying this; but let’s ask: why did she need to?? There are people in education relentlessly hostile to masculinity. That’s why. And if they have to undercut reading to undercut masculinity, that’s an acceptable deal in their eyes. 

Here’s a snapshot of the problem. I Googled “books for boys” and one site actually touted a favorite this way: “Jack has trouble paying attention or controlling his moods when his prescription meds wear off and he starts getting worked up and acting wired.” I think I just heard a hundred-thousand boys throw this book across the room. In short, you simply can’t trust what a lot of people shamelessly call “books for boys.” The  easiest road might be to skip straight to a site named booksforboys.com, which actually recommends rough-and-ready books that real boys would like. 

Many boys grow up to become Civil War buffs and World War II buffs. How many girls do that? There’s a message there. And no matter where you are on the political spectrum, if you have any practicality or patriotism left in your soul, you know we need the military spirit.

Meanwhile, when we see The Dairy of Anne Frank forced on eighth graders, you know we’re seeing political correctness allied with literary pretentiousness ensconced on a throne and cracking the whip. This is a very serious, adult book. I don’t think the reasons for prescribing it to 14-year-old boys have anything to do with encouraging them to read.

If you worry your boy is slipping from the land of reading, find lots of magazines and websites dealing with his hobbies or interests. Discuss them….Or you might try this desperate gambit. Whisper to the boy confidentially that you personally feel most books recommended by his school seem to be garbage…stuff for girls….stuff you’d never read yourself. Then suggest: Let’s go to a big book and magazine store, and see what looks good. Take him to a Barnes & Noble, wander around as long as possible, look at lots of covers, wait for him to be interested in something, and buy it. At the very least, you can take home Mechanix Illustrated or sports magazines. 

But keep in mind where this article started. A lot of boys are NOT taught to read properly. So when you see them not reading, you can’t always assume they are AVOIDING books. No, it’s quite possible they don’t know really how to UTILIZE books. Nor do they know how to articulate what the problem actually is!

Here’s a very quick diagnostic you can use. Ask the boy to read any 200-words from a newspaper; say you want to hear his pronunciation of certain words; follow over his shoulder or (better) on a second copy. If he reads exactly what is on the page, even if slowly, you know he can actually read and just needs to be encouraged. But if he leaves out words, adds word, substitutes words, guesses wildly, or reads words backwards, then you know the boy can’t read. (See more details in “33: How To Help A Non-Reader to Read,” or suggestions for phonics programs in “42: Reading Resources,” both on Improve-Education.org.)

Bruce Deitrick Price is the founder of Improve-Education.org, a high-level education and intellectual site. One focus is reading; see “42: Reading Resources.” Another focus is education reform; see “38: Saving Public Schools.” Price is an author, artist and poet. His fifth book is “THE EDUCATION ENIGMA–What Happened to American Education.”