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Engaging Boys with Independent Reading (Sensible Tips from a Reading Specialist)

Looking for practical strategies for engaging boys with independent reading? Find some useful tips that apply to struggling readers in this post.

Overall, boys are often less engaged than girls in independent reading. Researchers disagree about the reason behind the achievement gap, but it does specify that, even as adults, ladies tend to read more than men, on average.

To be clear, the tips that follow do not pertain to all males. And, they can be helpful to females as well. Please keep in mind that the ideas in this post are merely intended to help parents and teachers address the reading gap that exists between boys and girls, particularly among older students.


Stock Your Library 

While I’ve heard many kids say they dislike nonfiction, older boys actually tend to enjoy nonfiction more than girls. Books like Blackhawk Down, Unbroken, A Long Way Gone, We Beat the Streets, and How They Croaked are often popular among older students.

Still, boys enjoy certain fictional genres also. Research shows that comedy (think The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian), action (The Fifth Wave is a frequent choice for my students), horror (Stephen King, Edgar Allan Poe), science fiction (The Maze Runner, pretty much any Ray Bradbury story), fantasy (Harry Potter, The Hobbit), and graphic novels are favorable choices for boys…as are books that are written in a series, like The Hunger Games or Lord of the Rings. Other popular choices include Salt to the Sea, RestartCrossover, Among the Hidden, and a variety of graphic novels.

Of course, there will always be exceptions to these research findings, and no one wants to stereotype boys and place them all in the same cookie-cutter mold, but we would benefit from asking about boys’ interests when trying to engage a reluctant reader. Most boys enjoy reading about their favorite sports, hobbies, and activities.

Check out Guys Read, a web-based literacy program developed specifically in light of the decline in boys’ reading amounts and abilities, for excellent reading recommendations for male students. Happy Hooligans has a useful list, too.

Recognize All Genres

Students need validation that the type of text they enjoy matters…that engaging with those types of texts counts as reading. Too often, in academic settings, we undervalue magazines, newspapers, Internet articles, and fun texts (like comics).  When students are given a choice in reading, these sources that males often enjoy should be included within the realm of opportunities. Many of my male students have chosen books like The Guinness Book of World Records or Oh, Yuck! The Encyclopedia of Everything Nasty (shudder!) when reading for fun my class.

Perhaps your students enjoy joke books! After reading a humorous book, students could keep a journal where they write their own original jokes and collect their favorite witticisms from others.

Allowing choice of reading somewhere in the class is imperative. Even so, it’s important that educators not only use the texts students are interested in during independent reading but also that we incorporate those types of texts into our mainstream curriculum.

As mentioned earlier, comic books and graphic novels are usually a hit among the male subgroup, so a few years, I began using the graphic novel version of The Odyssey instead of the original epic poem, and I noticed more investment in class discussions and more student questions about the reading (from both genders!) than I had experienced before…simply because more students were interested in the text.

I’m not suggesting that we throw all the original classics out the window. Teachers need to use the knowledge they have about their own students, classes, and reading lists to determine where texts that appeal to males can be incorporated.

Apply Reading to Real Life

Sometimes the type of text is not the issue. Then what is? The purpose. Encourage students to explore the “why” behind the text. How do the ideas relate to life? Allow them to dive into mini inquiry projects, which may lead them down a rabbit hole of research on the Internet.

If a boy enjoys the outdoors, read a book about, for instance, how to build a treehouse…and then build one with him. If this is too complex, a fort or something similar might be an option. The Dangerous Book for Boys has some great how-to ideas.

Parents and guardians can take their children on trips (long or short – near to home or far away) to explore a book’s setting. This real-life research activity would be very appealing to most students (if it’s feasible).

If you are reading a text that you know males typically dislike, such as Romeo and Juliet, help make the text relevant. Generally, many of my students groan about this play before we even begin (especially the boys). In order to make this type of classic literature appealing for males, we can show them how pervasive the plot, conflict, and themes are in pop culture. We can tie it into movies and songs they enjoy, and we can even offer them opportunities to research hatred, prejudice, gangs, and teenage rebellion in real life. Talk to teens about dating, friendship, betrayal, disobedience, and suicide. These types of activities can engage male students in texts they would otherwise despise.

Practical tips for engaging boys with independent reading #IndependentReading #MiddleSchoolELA #HighSchoolELA

Find them Male Role Models

This one might be the single most important influence in a boy’s interest in reading. It all boils down to the male role model.

It’s no secret. Reading is often considered “uncool” for boys. Too often, a lack of male role models who read are present, and students begin thinking reading is a “nerdy” or “girly” hobby. What we need are males (fathers, teachers, coaches, administrators) who are willing to read out in the open and even to teenagers. Our adolescents need to see that it IS a male activity and that it IS an activity of value. Boys follow the lead of the men in their lives who they look up to most.

Men can take reading materials with them and read while they are waiting (for a tire to be changed, at a doctor’s office, for their wife to finish shopping, for students to finish a test, on a road trip, before practice begins, etcetera). Boys will observe their fathers or adult role models reading during this downtime, and in their own time, they will most likely pick up the habit.

When students have questions, men can look up the answer to that question with students, demonstrating how to use real-life problem-solving skills by reading to find the answers they seek. Teaching boys how to read texts like manuals and maps is extremely important, as is helping them understand how to navigate the web safely.

Employ New Literacies

New literacies involve technology and whether or not students are capable of navigating them. For example, how many of your students can decipher a source’s credibility? That’s a new literacy skill. Social media and all of the means of technology at our teens’ fingertips…those are forms of new literacy that change what it means to read and write text. So?

Well, it appears (based on research) that many boys appreciate assignments that allow them to engage with new literacies. This is a positive thing; while many students enjoy technology, not many of mine are well-versed in traversing it, deciphering truth from fallacy, or utilizing it intelligently. As teachers and parents, we can provide our students the option of reading from a computer, reading news articles from the Web, reading blogs, and more. The possibility for assignments to accompany new literacies are endless. Capitalize on them, and you might just notice a difference in boys’ engagement with reading.

For example, they could do a research project about issues in the book that are present in real life, poll friends, family, and school personnel, and present their findings to their peers in the form of a debate, speech, or news clip. They might also enjoy using social media to survey others and to publish their work.

Make Reading Interactive

For many years, I’ve subscribed to Scholastic Scope magazines. They are awesome resources for high-interest nonfiction texts for middle school readers, but one of my favorite features is in almost every issue, they have a script that can be used for Reader’s Theater, and it’s usually for a classic piece of literature.

I’ve seen excerpts of classic poems (like The Odyssey), traditional plays, and famous short stories included. With my ninth graders, I couldn’t replace “The Cask of Amontillado,” for example, with a middle school play; it just wasn’t complex enough! But…I could read the short story with the class and then have the students act out the play excerpt for kinesthetic involvement. The boys have always LOVED this type of activity. One time they pretended to be sheep and moved around on all fours, baaa-ing and having a grand old time. I’m pretty sure we’ll all remember that positive experience with reading for a long time.

We can also make reading interactive by pairing reading with activities. Reading Lord of the Flies? Host a “Survivor” simulation! I’ve also had class projects where everyone works together to rewrite the ending of the play. My male students L.O.V.E. this…the movement, the creativity, the ability to add more realistic, relevant elements.

Our whole school has recently moved to a Million Pages of Books Challenge, thanks to our incredible librarian who has orchestrated the whole thing. Kids record the number of pages of books they read, and teachers determine how to motivate and reward their classes on an individual basis. This challenge has been so successful for everyone involved that we barely have any books left on the library shelves! When boys have these team-like elements to motivate them, they are more likely to engage in the texts that accompany the activities.

Workshop It

Three of the most important elements of reading workshop are extremely important to all teens, and especially to reluctant readers.

For one, make sure to incorporate choice. Give students the option to select texts that they will enjoy. Make them discussion leaders, and help them build confidence.

But secondly, make sure to conference with them about what they are reading. Give them a reading goal based on their needs, and help them measure their progress. Reluctant readers become motivated when they can see their growth.

Finally, make sure to read aloud to students. Whether you are modeling with a think aloud, doing book talks, or incorporating First Chapter Fridays, make sure your students hear fluent reading with intonation.


Make it Engaging

Need a few additional ideas for how teachers can entice boys with literature through engaging activities and assignments?

  1. Create a fantasy sports league with fictional characters. Have students nominate players for a fictional “dream team” based on what they are reading in class. They should support their choices with textual evidence, of course!
  2. Host a book banquet, and have students create a “menu” of books for their peers.
  3. Link characters in books to popular video games, television shows, and movie characters that interest boys.
  4. Have students read horror or mystery books packaged in spooky bags and then write reviews of the scariest reads.
  5. Include students in selecting books for the library, classroom, and home collection. Hold a “box opening” party when the books arrive!
  6. Host a crime scene investigation if there is a death or murder in the book or story.
  7. Take students to the library frequently, and let them just sit down in a chair and immerse themselves in the rows of amazing books available to them.
  8. After reading adventure books like Camp X, boys could research their own communities to see if there are any surprises in the story of their own town.
  9. Ask your school administrators or coaching team to begin an athlete’s book club.

And those are some of my favorite ways to engage boys in independent reading. If you are looking for additional ways to reach students who claim they don’t like to read, find ten tips here. There are excellent to share with parents, but they hold true for the classroom as well. 

What are your favorite ways to engage students with reading? Tell us about it in the comments below!