It is well documented* that there is a “reading gender gap” between boys and girls and that it is growing. Schools are attempting to address reading issues by using synthetic phonics to teach the mechanics of reading from Reception onwards. And quite often children are introduced to letter sounds and shapes even earlier. So why are some children, in particular boys, falling behind in their reading and what resources are out there to help them get back on track?
Children’s author Michael Morpurgo, who provided evidence to the All-Party Parliamentary Literacy Group Commission on this issue, says,
“The problem is cultural and deep-seated, therefore unlikely to be resolved quickly. The effort to turn things round has to be multi-faceted and has to be sustained over decades.”
So, in an attempt to chip away at this huge problem, all I can do here is to point parents, carers, teachers to books, resources and ideas that I have come across and which might help those children who are struggling with their reading.
Barrington Stoke – specialist publishers of inclusive ‘high/low’ reading books
Barrington Stoke specialise in books designed for less experienced, struggling or reluctant readers. (Their books are also produced with dyslexic readers in mind – using off-white paper, a special dyslexia-friendly font and, very thoughtfully, a removable ‘dyslexia-friendly’ sticker to help parents and booksellers). But, most importantly for struggling readers, the books are very carefully edited to be ‘high/low’ – meaning that the interest age (IA) is appropriate to the actual age of the reader but the reading age (RA) is lower. The IA/RA legend, again very thoughtfully, is discreetly placed above the barcode on the back of the book.
No child, who is a struggling reader, wants to be carrying around in their school bag books which are obviously for younger children. So Barrington Stoke have also given a lot of thought to the ‘look and feel’ of their books, using graphics, images and typography that reflect the interests of teenagers and older children. Here’s just a small selection of Barrington Stoke’s considerable backlist and current books.
Starship Rescue by Theresa Breslin (Reading Age 7+, Interest Age 9+) A fun sci-fi adventure from a Carnegie Medalist, in a low reading-age edition. Set in a divided world of Outsiders, trapped in lives of slavery at the Merkonium mines, and the Keepers, desperate to cling on to their priviledged position within the Fortress, Marc attempts to seek rescue from Starship and Planet Earth. It is a dangerous mission, very dangerous and can only be attempted once every twenty years. Will the Outsiders succeed this time?
one-nil by Tony Bradman (Reading Age 8, Interest Age 8-12) Luke and his friend Jamie are football mad so when they hear that the England squad no less are training at their local ground, they are desperate to go and watch. So desperate that they have to hatch a plan to get a day off school. Will their football dream come true or will they score an own-goal?
Desirable by Frank Cottrell Boyce (Reading Age 8+, Interest Age Teen) George is a loser. Even his grandad doesn’t want to hang out with him! Then he starts using the weird old aftershave that he got for his birthday. Suddenly all the girls are in love with him…including the teachers! George wanted to be popular. Now he’s looking for somewhere to hide…
This book is VERY funny. It goes to show that sometimes what you wish for can actually turn into your worst nightmare..as George finds out. Written by the Carnegie medalist, Frank Cottrell Boyce and author of Millions and The Unforgotten Coat.
Respect by Michaela Morgan (Reading Age 7, Interest Age Teen) Read the inspiring story of Walter Tull, who overcame a tough childhood in a children’s home to become the first black Premier League football player and the first black officer in the British Army. Also available alongside this book is a set of downloadable, photocopiable resources covering a range of literacy tasks and which are particularly suitable for students who struggle with the written word.
Crow Girl by Kate Cann (Reading Age 8+, Interest Age Teen) Bullied at school, Lily takes refuge in the woods, where she meets the crows. With their help, she exacts revenge on her tormentors in a spectacular way. “A powerful read exploring issues of self-esteem and identity,” The Guardian Bookshop.
Football Academy series by Tom Palmer, published by Puffin
Football Academy series by Tom Palmer, published by Puffin This is the perfect set of books for boys in the eight to twelve age range (or older) who are so mad on football that they struggle to sit down long enough to read a book! Not only that, but this book series has been written by someone who knows, knows about the challenges of getting boys to read books. You see as well as being a huge football fan, Tom Palmer has an international reputation in reader development. He is a coordinator of the Reading Partners consortium, works with The Reading Agency, Booktrust and the National Literacy Trust, and has been the official writer for the Premier League Reading Stars scheme for five years. Tom describes the books as “clear and simple”. He also produced some good advice for using the World Cup to encourage children to read which translates very well for the forthcoming Olympics. Click here to read the first chapter of Football Academy Boys United for free.
Sometimes it might take a move away from fiction altogether to hook struggling or reluctant readers back into reading. This is mainly apparent for boys but it can also work for girls too. Indeed, my youngest daughter, aged 7, has been slowly working her way through a children’s book all about the human body for the last few months. This is HER book of choice each bedtime and now our evenings are interrupted by all sorts of questions about the human anatomy! It is not necessarily my choice of reading material for her but that is the key point here – she has chosen the book for her reading for pleasure time.
As it happens, Barrington Stoke also publish a range of non-fiction books which, again, are edited to be ‘high/low’ – most have a reading age of 8+ and an interest age of 10-14.
Comics and graphic novels are also excellent resources for encouraging boys to read more. Long chapters and pages and pages of text can be quite daunting for many children and the use of comic style illustrations, speech bubbles and the breaking up of large chunks of text in books like The Diary of a Wimpy Kid can work very well.
Using a Kindle or eReader
There is nothing like the anonymity that a Kindle provides. Recent research points to boys improving their attitude towards reading after a two-month period using a Kindle. Interestingly, however, when girls used a Kindle over a similar timeframe, the reverse happened. It appears that girls still prefer to read the printed word.
Positive male role models
The National Literacy Trust produced a magazine entitled “Getting the Blokes on Board”, with the objective of ”involving fathers and male carers in reading with their children”. Previous studies* have shown that some fathers tended “to give the child’s mother the main responsibility for reading with children, usually because they viewed her as the main teacher and caregiver”.
As schools, primary ones in particular, tend to have a female bias in terms of teaching staff, I think it is very important for boys to have access to positive male role models. The “Getting Blokes on Board” magazine has lots of ideas for engaging male carers and bringing their experience, ideas and persectives into the classroom.
Another idea is to invite male authors into schools for reading/book events. I have been lucky enough to witness some amazing author events at schools and in the local community; one by Steve Cole (of Astrosaurs fame) is particularly memorable. His talk was very lively, very funny, incredibly engaging and the children were buzzing.
* The Boys’ Reading Commission findings published today (Monday 2 July)