How to entice teenage boys into a love of books, with Barbara Band
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How to entice teenage boys into a love of books
Today I'm talking with my guest about how we can encourage teens, particularly boys, to not only read more, but learn to enjoy it.
About Barbara Band
Barbara Band is an award-winning Chartered librarian with over twenty five years’ experience. Having worked in a variety of schools, she is now a freelance consultant providing training and advice to librarians, teachers and literacy organisations; is involved in creating and refurbishing libraries to meet user needs; and publishes regularly on reading, library and literacy issues. She received the inaugural School Library Association Founder’s award in 2014 for her outstanding contribution to school librarianship, was made an Honorary Member of the CILIP Youth Libraries Group in 2014, and was on the School Librarian of the Year Honour’s List in 2009. She has been on selection panels for the Booktrust Teenage Award, School Libraries Pack and Bookbuzz schemes as well as the Roald Dahl Funny Prize. Barbara has received an Honorary Masters from the OU in recognition of her “outstanding contribution to raising literacy levels and removing barriers to education”.
What we explore on the show
- Why boys don’t read as much as girls
- How you can get boys reading with the right reading materials, as well as other tactics
- How parents, and especially fathers, can set a good example to get their children reading
- Why it's worth considering reading materials other than the traditional fiction books
Websites and resources
Where to find out more about Barbara
Lucy: Welcome to the School Success Formula, Barbara Band.
Barbara:Thank you very much. I'm very pleased to be here.
Lucy: It's fantastic to have you. So Barbara you're here today to talk to us about boys, particularly teenage boys and reading. So just to start us off, can you tell us why teenage boys are so much more resistant to reading than girls?
Barbara: Right. It's very, very difficult question, actually. If you look at the research, I always like to start things with research to base what I say on facts rather than just my opinions drawn out of the air. Um, if you, if you do look at the research, it does show that boys tend to not read as much as girls. In 2016, a Scholastic survey was undertaken. where 52 percent of boys said they liked reading compared to 72 percent of girls. 2015, The National Literacy Trust – they've done a lot of work on this; a survey in 2015 at 35 percent of boys reported they read daily outside the class, whereas almost 50 percent of girls did the same. Boys also agreed that reading was for girls. And this is a big issue that we have with boys and reading, um, there was an all-party parliamentary group, um, commission in 2012. This was in collaboration with The National Literacy Trust again, and three out of four schools in that commission that said they were concerned about their boys' reading levels. Sixty percent of boys fail to reach the expected level of reading at age eleven, and moves on, into secondary school. And, so they start to slip further and further behind as they get older. So, um, the evidence is there. There's a big, there's a big gap between boys and girls. It's not just in reading skills, but also in their motivation to read and their engagement with books.
Lucy: Yeah. So what you've said that the research says that boys think that reading is for girls. Is there anything else behind this do you think?
Barbara: Um, I think today, sadly, one of these issues here, there's, I think there's always been this gap between boys and girls reading. And part of the problem is if you look at the development of boys, they are slightly behind girls. They tend to be, when they're younger behind girls in their developmental stages. Now if we're measuring boys and girls at the same age, using the same measurements and boys are going to measure lower because that's part of their development, but I think what's happening today is that there's a growing gap between the genders, and this is another one of my issues that I sort of pick up. All you have to do is look down the aisles in shops, look at clothes, look at the toys. You get a pink aisle and a blue aisle – you get very little choice these days. Years ago, I've got two grown up adult children now, you know, they're adults and a couple of grandchildren. It wasn't like this when they were younger at all. I had a much wider range of colors and toys for them to play with. Since having grandchildren. I've been appalled at how little choice there is and this gap between the genders – ‘things that boys do', ‘things that girls do' is worse today than it was years ago. And I think this feeds into to their activities, their hobbies and into reading.
Lucy: Yeah. It's really sad and it's strange when you think about the climate we're in as well with things like transgender and stuff that, that is the case really isn't it? But yeah,
Barbara: Exactly. I mean we started seeing this a little bit in publishing with books for boys books for girls, um, and fortunately there was a bit of a backlash on this from, from librarians and authors and parents and publishing companies have stopped doing this, but you still get books published with very girly covers that have amazing stories inside and it's impossible, it's almost impossible to get a boy to pick up a cover that they think looks girly. And by that I mean that's pink and sparkly and maybe has got hearts and butterflies and flowers on. Now I'm slightly pulled here because I do use those covers to attract girls. You do get ggirls who don't like reading who are reluctant to read and they'd rather be sitting and chatting and doing lots of other things. And I, I'm, I'm very manipulative when it comes to getting teenagers to read.
Barbara: I make no bones about it. I'll use anything I can. And if it happens to be using a pink sparkly cover, then I will use it. Um, but I do know that there are books out there with those sorts of covers that don't have ‘fluffy' stories inside the very, um, you know, stories that will engage with the readers engaged with those girls. And once I've used those books to hook them, then I can move them onto something that's more challenging to them. Um, and you do, you can do the same with boys, but I do think it's a shame that, that we do have this sort of slight divide in the types of covers that are put onto books.
Lucy: Yeah. It's a marketing tactic, isn't it, from the publishing companies and yeah, it's difficult to know whether it's backfired or not or whether it's good, its place and it's useful. Anyway. You've talked about how you can use pink and sparkly things to get some reluctant girls reading. What can we do to get boys reading?
Barbara: Right. Okay. There isn't one answer to this, so I'm going to say that if there was, if I knew the answer, I would bottle it and I would make millions and then I've become a philanthropist and fund libraries throughout the country, you can't get boys reading to get them to create readers is almost the same whether you're looking at boys or girls. But certainly with boys, first of all you need a lot of choice. You need a diverse collection of resources for them to choose from, which means different voices. They need to be able to see themselves in stories, um, and they need to see their lives reflected in these stories. But at the same time, I think they also need that escapism. This is why fantasy and science fiction is popular because it's a means for them to escape. Um, some of them want to read about their lives, but personally I, I don't want to read about my life, you know, I'd rather read something more exciting and they also need time to browse and choose something to read. Too often they're given five minutes, five minutes, um, “go to the library, you need to choose a book to read. You've got five minutes.” Now I could choose a book to read in five minutes because I know what type of books I like and what I'm like as a reader, but we're talking here about um, students who don't really know what they're like as readers at all. Um, so what they will do is, because they've got to choose a book and they're going to probably be made to read it, they will either grab the nearest book, which, and not even look at the blurb, so they have no idea if they're going to like it, or they will pick up something familiar. They'll pick up something they've read before because they know they, they, they enjoyed it and it's not going to be difficult for them to read it again and they'll quite happily sit and reread it.
So you need to give them time to browse. What I will say, here is that there's a bit of a conundrum because if you have that huge range of books, then too much choice can sometimes put them off. This even happens with more able readers, the people who like to read, that they're faced with lots of choice. I don't know what to read, help, help. This is where your librarian comes in, of course, because they can give guidance. They know the stock, they know the students, they can say, right, okay, and you if you like this and try that. Um, and they can put books, the right books into the hands of readers. What I will say here as well as in schools, they… Regular library lessons can really help with this. I, I've seen this in schools I've worked with, um, particularly in years seven and eight.
They've had a regular library lesson part of their timetable and they come into the library and even those that are reluctant to read by the time, I've managed two years to work on them. I've turned most of them into readers at the end of two years. But it takes time. And um, unfortunately a lot of schools see this as a wasted time, you know, why are they spending in the lesson wandering the library just browsing books. They should be learning something. The other thing I want you to point out here is point out here is if you have regular library lessons, you have a lot of boys who are reluctant readers, they can read but they won't read in front of their friends because it's not seen as being cool. So if you have a library lesson and you say, right, you're going to choose a book and you've got time to do it, but then I want you to sit down and spend some time reading it. That's what they've got to do in that lesson. So you're almost giving them permission to read so those will sit down and actually engage with the book because they won't be mocked by their friends for reading because that's what they've got to do in that lesson, if that makes sense.
Lucy: Yeah, definitely. So just thinking about what parents can do because they're probably the biggest group of people that are listening to this. So in place of a library lesson, you can take your children to a library at the weekend or maybe a bookshop or like I did with my kids the other week. I took them to a second-hand bookshop and we just. we spent about an hour choosing things to take home with us. Would you say that that would be a good thing for family to do if you've got reluctant readers?
Barbara: Oh, parents can have a huge role to play in this. As you say, you can take them to the library, assuming you have a public library because of course they're under threat now, but the problem is I think once, if you've got teenagers who are reluctant readers, they're probably not going to want to go to the library, are they? You usually find the teenagers in the library are the ones who like reading. This is where public libraries are fantastic, fpr putting on other activities in the library that pull the teenagers in and I did the same in my school library. I hosted all sorts of things in the school library, but really it was nothing to do with books and reading and I made sure I had lots of displays around. Um, and then they, then I've noticed that these students that are students that had come in to see what else was going on would start looking at the displays and one or two would borrow books even if just one borrowed a book I felt it was a success, but going back to parents, um, the reading, being a role model and showing your children that you read is very, very important because the thing is children and young people copy adults, they do it all the time, don't they? They want to be adult a grown up. So they look at what adults are doing and they copy their behaviour. If they see adults not reading, they will take not reading as being an adult behaviour. Um, so reading at home and being seen to read is very important. The problem is even if adults do read and it's very likely they'll read it a time when teenagers aren't around because let's face it, who goes home from work and sits down and reads? You go home, you're making dinner, you're dealing with children's activities. I can show, do their homework, catching up with household stuff. Um, I have to confess there's been a few times when I've had to do last minute changes to dinner because I've sat down with my book and got totally engrossed in it and thought, “Oops, no time to cook the chicken now, it's omelettes for tea tonight!” Most parents don't do that because parents get home and they're just pulled into life. It's busy and if they do read it, it's often late at night before they go to bed. And the children, the teenagers don't see them doing this. So they need to be seen reading. They need to be talking about what they're reading. Um, even just saying, oh, I read a really interesting article in a magazine and the other day and telling them what it was about. They need to, to reinforce this idea that people do read; adults do read.
Lucy: Yeah, so yeah, I read all the time. My audience probably won't be surprised to hear me say that, but you know, I'm always carrying a book around the house. So when I come downstairs and you know, I read last thing at night and then when I come downstairs in the morning I bring my book with me.
Barbara: Oh No, I'm the same. Exactly the same. Yeah.
Lucy: Yeah. And I'll read, you know, while I'm, while I'm eating my breakfast, I've actually, I used to check social media while I was eating my breakfast, but now I'm reading while I eat my breakfast and I'll often just sit down and read and then after school if we haven't got activities after school, I go and sit in my bedroom and read, and the children would come and find me and I'm reading and all that kind of thing. And then my children are still of an age at eight and six where we read with them at night. So you know, we're, we're reading with them and where they're getting to the stage now as well, where they're reading things that we really enjoyed reading as children. So we're sharing things, so we're sharing our love of reading from when we were children with them. So yeah, there are ways of doing it, aren't there? But I can see how it doesn't.
Barbara: No, and also, with dads in particular looking at getting boys reading always rarely see dads reading. Um, and that if you think about reading to children when they're younger, it's usually mum that does it, not dads, um, and mum talking about, you know, have you done your homework because mums are there, aren't they? Usually, if somebody has to be there at the end of the day, and of course I'm generalising now, but um, because we do have some dads sort of take over the house role, but dads rarely read to boys and boys, therefore, don't see fathers reading. So they don't see reading as a masculine thing to do. This is the thing; we need to try and change that. We need to try and get them to see men reading and have lots of male role models in their lives.
Lucy: Okay. So just to summarise where we've got to so far, we've kind of talked about giving them the space and time to choose things that they genuinely will be interested to read and whether that's in the school library or in a public library or in a bookshop or whatever, and having reading normalised within the home and within their social group so that they can see the other boys are reading. So their peers but also their families and particularly their dads and maybe their brothers as well. Yeah. Okay. So what types of books and reading material appeal to boys?
Barbara: If you look at all the research, it tends to show that they don't go towards the fiction – they pick up non-fiction books. Now I um, I've come across lots of boys… They come and say I talk to them about reading and they say, “I don't read,” and yet when I, when I sort of talk to them further I discover, they actually do read. In fact, we all read all the time, even adults who say they don't read, they're actually reading all the time; they're reading texts and reading online stuff. So, um, you know, walking past a bus with an advert on the side, you read the advert, to find out what it says, um, but I also think with boys, that when they say they don't read, this is because they've been given, um, the message they've been given is that reading, um, ‘proper' readers only read ‘proper' books. And by that they think it's fiction books, story books. So yes, if they're not reading fiction books if they're not connecting with stories, and basically that's usually because they haven't found the right story yet, then they don't count any, any of the other reading they do as proper reading and therefore they don't consider themselves a reader. And if they don't consider themselves a reader, that will affect their motivation and their attitude and everything else towards books. So we need to start validating boys' reading choices. We need to validate the fact that if I want to pick up a manual, a car manual and read it, it's just as important as picking up a fiction book and reading it. Yeah.
So, so what I would say is find out what they are reading because they are all reading of some sort or another it even if it's a football magazine. Now, I can remember. I, I had a couple of boys and they were reluctant readers; I used to have real battles with them picking up sort of, um, you know, trying to pick up books and in the lesson, but I would let my classes is read magazines. I had a wide range of magazines in the library and I'd let them pick up a magazine and read, and these two boys, they were talking and I was like, “what are they talking about?” So I sort of went behind them to listen in. They were discussing an advert in this football magazine, and they were using really complex language; they were evaluating the information on the page. They were analysing the images. I just thought, wow, if they applied these skills to an English assignment, they'd probably get a grade A. But they weren't applying those skills because they were not interested in what they were reading in English. They were interested in football and they could really link in to this football magazine. Um, and again, I ran a Warhammer Club. I have to say all the students that came were boys and I, to go alongside this, I subscribed to White Dwarf magazine, I don't know if you've ever looked at this magazine is incredibly complicated, but the, it's definitely not what you would call an easy read. And yet these boys in Warhammer Club and most of whom were reluctant leaders, um, the or special educational needs students, they devoured this magazine and they would discuss all the rules and everything and it was totally beyond me. It was like they were talking in another language, but they understood it all. So this was them connecting with something that interested them. So this is why we really do need to validate what boys are reading and not dismiss it.
Lucy: Definitely. So yeah, I know my dad, he, he, he's very old, he's in his nineties, but he reads the newspaper every day and he will read nonfiction books about his interests. He's a country man. He was a farmer. He reads about hedges and wildlife and Victorian farming and all this kind of thing. But I've never ever, ever seen him pick up a fiction book. But that doesn't mean that he's not a reader and you know, I, I can see what you're talking about kind of filtering down to boys of younger generations. And so I think that's a really important point to make, isn't it? Because I think, goodness knows why we validate made up stories as more important than, you know, things that are true – science, you know, actual real life? I don't know why we make that cultural kind of value… put that cultural value on stories more, but we do for some reason, don't we?
Barbara: We do. I suppose to librarians, the Holy Grail is to get everyone reading fiction, because you lose yourself in stories, although you also lose yourself in nonfiction; fiction is very important because it increases your language skills, your vocabulary, it has an impact on attainment across the curriculum, reduces stress, builds empathy, it's all those things that link in to, to sort of reading about other people. And it can work, but a lot of those are true of reading nonfiction.
Lucy: Yeah. If you were reading an autobiography of a football player, you know, that would work on building empathy and all that.
Barbara: Exactly. And vocabulary, reading nonfiction still increases your vocabulary and reading perpetuates.. It's the reading for pleasure that reduces the stress and everything. Now, people read for pleasure, they read information for pleasure. I could pore over maps for hours, I love maps – any sort of maps and I'm drawn to them. Underground maps, old maps… anything, and I'm there. I'll just pore over these maps for hours and hours. And I just lose myself and that is a pleasurable activity for me. Um, I mean it's certainly not fiction, it's not fantasy stuff, although I do quite like maps in fantasy books, It's really really strange how we've divided this, and we do need to try and, particularly in schools, some schools, um, and I, I say this hesitantly, cause I'm not labelling all teachers like this, but I have come across teachers that will insist on the boys only reading stories and they sit there and I can see they're not reading, they're staring at the book and they sit there for half an hour, staring at the book. What a waste! They could be reading something.. there are some fantastic information books published these days. Um, so it's a bit of a waste really to ignore them.
Lucy: Yeah. So the big tip is to hook into their interest and not to place a greater value on one type of literature versus another type of, but you know, on top of, you know, all this other stuff that we talked about, there's also huge competition from video games and social media and other interests. How do you compete with those?
Barbara: Well, you can't actually, I'm going to say straight out that you can't compete with them, but it shouldn't be a competition, it shouldn't be reading or playing video games; Reading or doing sport, it should be reading AND doing the other things, because I read, but I also do other things as well. This is where parents can help. The way video games are designed is that they're addictive. They pull you in and you want to score points, you want to get higher and higher levels and this is where parents can help because they can restrict time online and you might get groans and arguments, and it's difficult when you've got a 15, 16 year old, but if you start when they're younger and then they grow up with that idea that they're only going to be allowed to spend a certain amount of time playing games and that sort of helps. But um, as I say, it should not be a competition between books, reading and video games.
Barbara: Boys will often respond to a competitive element, so you need to sort of make reading more a more enticing activity for them. Um, and this is sometimes where reading programs in schools work, because they do have that competitive element, they're trying to get up to the next level, they're trying to get the award for them and get a star against their name on the chart. Whether this, whether they turn then into people that choose to read is another matter. Um, but it definitely, they definitely encourage reading levels, though, they definitely help to improve their reading skills and if your reading skills improve then reading becomes easier so you're more likely to read because it's an easier activity to do.
Barbara: You could use IT to draw them into reading. There's lots of apps out there that will link to books and reading that you can use. So if you've got somebody who won't pick up a physical book, think about doing something online. Also book reviews, YouTube videos. There's some amazing book reviews out there, um, uh, done as YouTube videos that you can show them. And I've done this in library lessons, shown them videos. The only thing I will say if you're doing this, is that you can only use the videos once because they borrowed the books and then you haven't got them unless you buy multiple copies of the same book, but everything in life's a competition, so competing for our time. So it's a matter of balancing it out, really.
Lucy: Yeah. But I think the idea of using competition or I just wonder how families could use that within the home, you know, if you've got…I know one of my listeners, she's got three sons, you know, over the summer holidays you could have some kind of competition between them to see who could read the most books and there's a prize?
Barbara: Maybe, maybe not read the most because they're different ages, but sort of challenge to read six books over six weeks.
Lucy: Yeah, yeah. My children have done that. The libraries run that over the summer
Barbara: Summer reading challenge, yes. Unfortunately, there isn't an older… it would be good if there was an older reading challenge.
Lucy: I did start one, actually a few years ago!
Barbara: Many teenagers might say it a bit nerdy, but offer them rewards. Bribe them! I mean I often bribe my reading groups with cake and biscuits. Food works well with boys!
Lucy: Cake always works with me! I think we've covered nearly everything I wanted to ask you, but is there anything else that you thought would be really important to share with our listeners today?
Barbara: Don't give up. It's easy sometimes to give up. Reading is so important. Link with their interests, find out what they're interested in. I'm brought to mind of a boy in one of my classes who, who was very anti-reading and I said, “well, what are you going to do about getting a job? You'll need to read.” “I'm going to join my Dad's building company, (He was a builder) and so why should I need to read?” And I said, hang on a minute, well, materials do have different properties? You have to make sure you're ordering the right sort of material. And I said, also, what about when you get your invoices in? How are you going to check that they've sent the right thing if you can't read anything on the invoices? I actually got hold of a, um, like a catalogue from a builder's merchant to get him to read next lesson and said to him, well I've got something for you to read and stuck this in front of him, and he spent the whole lesson pored over this. And I'm not saying he went on to read War and Peace, but I could see something sort of change. He sort of suddenly, he hadn't realized actually even builders that what work with their hands will still need to be able to read to do the job properly. Um, and I think that's important for teenagers to think about where they're coming from, what their interests are and link reading in with their interests. That's the way to hook them, and it doesn't matter what those interests are. Football, ice hockey, martial arts, anything, you can find reading material on any subject whatsoever. So link in with it is what I would say.
Lucy: Brilliant. Well that's been absolutely fantastic Barbara. So where can people find out more about you?
Barbara: I do have a website. It's www.barbaraband.com, very easy to find if you just google ‘Barbara Band librarian' there's lots of links – there will be links to my twitter feed. I also write a blog as well on all sorts of library and literacy related matters. So I'm online. Unfortunately I'm not hidden away so I'm out there forever as I say. Um, so yeah, so this has been really fantastic. So it's great to have this opportunity to talk to people about getting boys reading. I'm very passionate about this, I'm very passionate about libraries and books and if this helps to get one boy reading, then it's been a success. So thank you very much.
Lucy: Yeah. Well there were a couple of things that you as well you've given me a list of books and that would be a good introduction for boys to read and I'll put that in a pdf so that people can download it and print it in the show notes today. Um, so you'll be able to come to the website and download that on the show notes. And um, the other thing is that you also said that you'd be open to doing one to one sessions with families to try and do kind of consultations to try and kind of set a direction to get boys reading. Didn't you?
Barbara: Yes, I'm quite happy to do that. And also there's a list of books obviously a huge number of books published and I've only given you a few. So if they don't work for your son, there's masses out there you can try. One thing I realized I didn't mention was graphic novels and they have a lot of appeal for boys and they're often a way to get them hooked into reading. And I say to parents, um, that anybody listening, don't dismiss graphic novels you need two sorts of reading skills, you need your basic reading literacy skills, also visual literacy to read graphic novels and they can be quite complicated and there's a lot of classic books being turned into graphic novels now, so, um, it's definitely a way you can pull them in. Certainly I'm happy to help anybody and they can get in touch with me via my website – there's my email on there so they can ask advice and if they want me to help them.
Lucy: That's fantastic. Well, thank you so much for sharing your time and expertise with us today.
Barbara: Thank you very much for inviting me.
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