Keep them turning the pages for pleasure ... Photo: Getty Images
As I lean over to kiss my two-year-old son good night, I have to dodge my way around the six books he has so carefully chosen to take to sleep with him. It is hard for me to imagine a day when books won’t be an integral part of his life, but knowing what I know as an English teacher, the odds are against him. If he sticks with the trend, it is likely that towards the end of primary school he could close his books, walk away and cease reading for pleasure.
Research conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics over recent years has consistently found that girls were more avid readers than boys; the most recent results showing that 80 per cent of girls read for pleasure compared to 69 per cent of boys. Similar research demonstrates that by the time these boys have reached adulthood there is an even greater disparity with only 50% of men considering reading a favourite activity.
It is undeniable that reading offers benefits that we would want our boys and girls to profit from equally. Improved spelling, expanded vocabulary, stimulation of imagination, exposure to other ideas and the ability to process alternate perspectives are just a few ways reading helps prepare young people for the world.
So how do we prevent boys from giving up on reading? How do we ensure that our book loving toddlers continue to gain the benefits from reading as they grow up into boys and eventually men?
As you look on your toddler or preschooler, it may seem like an irrelevant concern, one that you can worry about in five or ten years time. However, the reality is that the cessation of reading by boys is something that surprises most parents. It happens before they even see the warning signs, and once the habit is gone, it is very hard to get back.
There is benefit to be had from being pro-active. Here are some fairly simple suggestions of things to do at home that will help your boy to continue to enjoy the written word as he grows, and may just help him never to walk away from reading in the first place.
It is hugely beneficial if boys can see male adults reading. A study by Killian Mullan, a research associate at the Social Policy Research Centre at UNSW, shows that in two-parent families the boys who read the most have fathers who also like to read a lot.
Without this example of fathers or other male role models reading, it is easy for boys to categorise reading as a predominantly ‘female’ activity. It can be argued that society rarely promotes reading as desirable masculine behaviour, in fact it is much more likely to be linked with a socially awkward stereotype. Boys are more likely to see reading as a part of normal masculine behaviour if the male role models within their real world can actively demonstrate that reading is a typical and positive activity.
Don't be too concerned about what they are reading
As your son grows, don’t worry too much if he seems to be reading texts beneath his ability or intelligence. In truth, it doesn’t matter too much what is read, it is simply great if he is reading regularly. If your boy is interested in something (obviously that contains age-appropriate content) let him go for it. Focus on praising and encouraging the habit, rather than trying to control the content.
Embrace reading on technology
Your boy will be growing up in a fast paced world, where numerous technologies will be competing for his attention. Don’t be afraid to embrace technology in the quest to keep him reading. A book provides the same benefits if it is read on paper, on an e-reader, on an ipad or on a computer. If your boy will feel more engaged and inspired by using technology to purchase and read books, use and encourage it.
Structure time for reading
In today’s society the average boy’s life is incredibly full. Between school, sport, homework, music, socialising and other extra curricula pursuits, there is often a very small amount of ‘empty’ time left. It is understandable that a boy who once loved reading, may simply run out of the time and energy to read. As your son grows and acquires more commitments, try to always provide and prioritise a time in the day in which he is free to read. He may not always choose to read in that time, but if there is space available, he may surprise you.
Involve the family in reading
Shared reading as a family has the potential to be a powerful experience. It may take the shape of an adult reading aloud, or a boy reading to an adult or a bit of both. It can involve siblings, or alternatively be a chance for one-on-one time with a child. For a capable reader it may mean reading a book independently and then coming together to discuss it, kicking a ball at the same time if need be.
Shared reading often provides a chance for the activity of reading to be linked to other positive things; quality time, stimulating discussion and shared experience to name a few.
If you are in the habit of shared reading with your little boy now, try to continue it as he grows into an independent reader. It will be harder for him to attach negative stigma to reading if his experience is associated with receiving attention, warmth and love throughout his childhood.
There is no easy answer when it comes to encouraging boys to read. It is an obvious assertion that it will be a lot easier to keep them reading if they never look like stopping. None of these suggestions provide a magical solution, nor are they radical or complicated. By putting the issue of reading on our parenting radar, and trying to create a ‘pro-reading’ culture for our boys, we will be heading in the right direction.