Saturday, August 04, 2007

Turning Boys into Readers

Read, Boys, Read: Books That Turn Boys into Readers
by Dr. Pamela J. Farris and Dr. Pamela A. Nelson

Many teachers find boys losing interest in fictional stories with happily-ever-after endings. Keep your boys reading by providing what they like: fact-filled books and swashbuckling adventures.

In first grade, Kurtis drifted away from the library bookshelves of picture books with happily-ever-after endings and chapter books about kids his age. He was drawn like a magnet to informational books about science and social studies where he could pore over photos and accompanying captions and learn “neat stuff.” Kurtis longed to know how and why things work, who did what in history and science, and what causes creatures to be the way they are. Today he is headed off to college and, while he reads novels in his free time, he still devotes a great amount of time to gleaning facts and concepts from informational books. When it comes to science and social studies, he’s a walking encyclopedia.

Boys gravitate to informational books because they want to know “just the facts.” Give them books about dinosaurs, insects, or knights, and they will become fountains of knowledge in a relatively short time. “Considering gender as one aspect of reading instruction is critical inasmuch as boys read far less than girls at all age levels” (Farris, Fuhler, and Walther, 2004, p. 491). As adults, it is estimated that 94 percent of all that we read is nonfiction, informational text. William Brozo believes that many boys are turned off by fiction books. He notes that when boys are given informational books to read during independent reading time they “shift their postures from complacency and disengagement to involvement and curiosity” (2002, p. 17). Brozo points out that, when they do read fiction, boys prefer reading text that is politically incorrect—books with lots of action and adventure plots, which may be why Harry Potter and the Red Wall series are so popular with boys.

Research indicates that when reading preferences and interests are matched with books, the depth of students’ thinking processes is enhanced and learning is internalized (Guthrie, Alao, and Rinehart, 1997). Studies also suggest that girls find it easier to lose themselves in fiction than do boys. By middle school, 85 percent of girls read for pleasure compared to only 65 percent of boys (Moffit and Wartella, 1992).

Boys' Preferences

Adventure books and coming-of-age novels about boys lure young male readers to open a book and turn the pages. Yet, swashbuckling tales are not politically correct in the classroom. Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet (1987) and its sequels depict Brian’s plight when the pilot of a small plane suffers a fatal heart attack and Brian must take over the controls. The plane crashes in a small lake in the Canadian wilderness, and Brian must learn through trial and error how to survive alone. Boys avidly read this classic book and conjure up their own resourceful ideas just as Brian does.

Whether each boy must go through a rite of passage vicariously in his reading has yet to be proven; yet it is clear that plots involving adventure and danger are much preferred over milquetoast novels or the usual selections in basal readers. But few authors are writing books meeting the adventure and danger criteria as compared with female-protagonist novels. Finding action- and drama-laden trade books and sharing them through book talks, then having a couple of copies available for classroom use, results in boys reading—and reading a lot.

Introducing Informational Books

Exposure to informational books must be guided. Students need a roadmap of what to expect. Just as we tend to point out the story structure of fiction, so too should we inform our students about the structural elements of expository, informational text. Illustrations may be actual photos, drawings, or computerized renditions. Cutaways may give a close-up view of something being studied, such as the actual size of a shark’s tooth. Captions accompanying illustrations often provide information in addition to the main text. Bold text is usually new vocabulary or terminology. Informational books follow certain organizational patterns as outlined below (Farris, Fuhler, and Walther, 2004):

• Description—The author points out specific characteristics, details, or features and provides examples for the reader. The student should look for such cue words or phrases as a number of, features are, several, types of, as an example, small (medium or large) sized, characteristics are, for instance. An example of a book for grades 4-6 is Seymour Simon’s They Swim the Seas: The Mystery of Animal Migration (1998).

• Sequence—Events are placed in an appropriate order. The student should note such key words or phrases as first, second, third, then, to begin with, later, not long after, next, at last, at the same time. For an example, see Gail Gibbons’ Chicks and Chickens (2003).

• Comparison and Contrast—The author explains how two or more things may be alike or different such as different species of the same creature in Gail Gibbons’ Spiders (1994) and Owls (2005).

Students also should realize that informational or expository books have a specific job to do. According to Carol Piazza (2002), when reading such books the students can expect the text to:

• Inform, report, or explain
• Be precise and accurate in its explanations
• Give examples to clarify concepts
• Define unfamiliar concepts and vocabulary
• Clearly differentiate between facts and opinions
• Emphasize important points
• Provide technically sound information
• Pose clear and relevant questions
• Explain and support legitimate differences in information that arise

“One simple but effective tactic to broaden the exposure to expository text and to build a schema, or cognitive foundation, for understanding it is by introducing informational books as part of the classroom read-aloud routine on a regular basis” (Farris, Fuhler, and Walther, 2004, p. 545). By reading aloud different authors from different topics you can provide different voices and topics for the children to sample on their own (Graves, 1983).

Selecting Informational Books

Limited library funding, a common situation, may lead to keeping older, outdated informational books on the shelves. If a section of a nonfiction book is inaccurate but the rest of the book is accurate, merely attach a “reader beware” sticky note on the outdated portion of the book indicating that newly discovered evidence points to other information (recent findings on dinosaurs, for instance).

Some librarians practice the “if it isn’t an inch thick, it doesn’t have enough information” measure. But many recently published picture books offer a wealth of information, often taking on just a sliver of a broader theme. For instance, Secrets of a Civil War Submarine: Solving the Mysteries of the H. L. Hunley (Walker, 2005) is an award-winning book that explains the mystery of how the first submarine to sink a ship vanished into the ocean’s depths. While hundreds of Civil War books have been written for children and young adolescents, this picture book focuses on the construction of the H. L. Hunley so students learn about ballast, hull plates, and snorkel tubes as well as the men who served on board. The book addresses a piece of folklore that a coin had stopped a minnie ball from penetrating one of the Confederate sailors during a battle. The tale was found to be true when the body and its belongings were exhumed over a hundred years later. How could any boy resist such a book?

Another recent picture book that connects science and history is The Story of Salt by Mark Kurlansky and S. D. Schindler (2006). From examining the chemical makeup of salt and the critical need for the element by humans and animals to the wars fought over it and economic trade of it, the authors tell an intriguing tale of a common kitchen substance. Boys will pore over this book, discovering that their own bodies each contain about three shakers of salt.

History as a Content Area Boys Enjoy

Most popular textbooks on children’s literature cite the value of story in teaching history. Recent research by Cathy Block (2004) indicates that engaging students with two pieces of current, award-winning literature read back-to-back increases motivation and comprehension for both strong and struggling readers. Camp (2000) and Hancock (2000) also advocate reading fiction and informational text sequentially in order to enhance comprehension. For boys in the study of history, a major portion of their interest in topics also comes from the stories that are told in film. Students’ interest in the topics, time periods, and issues are connected especially closely to the films and to the stories of the individuals who lived through those experiences. Films such as Glory, Gettysburg, and the more recent Sands of Iwo Jima deepen interest and background knowledge that send them in pursuit of more information.

A study by Pamela Nelson (2005) of fifth graders e-mailing preservice teachers as they read notable historical fiction found that the interest of the boys who were involved in the e-mail project was heightened as they read a book set during the Civil War. More recent interest in Jackie Robinson flowed from their reading and discussion of Teammates (Golenbock, 1992) and their teacher’s use of United Streaming video clips associated with Jackie Robinson.

If story is used in teaching history or science, however, teachers must urge students to approach it with knowledgeable and critical eyes. Doing so provides opportunities to gather schema or background knowledge that strengthens comprehension. It also allows students to compare and contrast fictional and informational writing styles and to explore the literary devices authors use to reach particular audiences and goals. Students may also be involved in noting the writing traits of main idea, organization, details, sentence fluency, word choice, voice, and presentation in order to detect bias and to check accuracy of interpretation.

In particular, boys tend to note details. If the teacher demonstrates the scientific method in weighing and discarding information, students will hone their own research skills. Keeping in mind that the greatest scientist never to live was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, trained not as a police officer but as a chemist, students need to refine their “research reading skills”— that is, the ability to note subtle changes in a character’s actions or mood.

Combining Literature and Primary Sources

Using literature and primary sources gives students the opportunity to see that there are indeed differences in perspectives and interpretations of the same event when it occurs and over time. Historical objects and reproduction objects bring a more complete picture of the past to the present. Maria Harris calls this anamnesis (Nelson, IRC Journal):

Anamnesis is a recalling to mind, as is all remembering. However, it is not so much a mental act as it is the actual bringing into the present—the re-membering—of a past event… at the core of anamnesis is the human capacity to take hold of an event or occurrence or person from the historical past in the present, and to allow that event, occurrence or person to take hold of oneself… [teaching] becomes a… ritual of re-membering where as teachers and learners we reenter the past and make it our own….

Museums, libraries, community agencies, and families often have photographs, memories, and objects that are related to a particular unit of study in either the sciences or the social studies (Nelson and Brady in Farris, 2004). Using such documents or artifacts creates the need to provide a context for the document or artifact being used. It is equally vital that teachers actively teach students ways to take from such documents.

This includes transcribing handwritten letters or diaries, introducing unfamiliar vocabulary, and using small portions at a time. In the case of maps, charts, and graphs, students must have the necessary skills to draw information from them. However, the power of seeing the copy of an actual document or artifact in itself lets the students know that the topic is “real.” Boys in a fifth-grade class remembered what it took the Wright brothers to be successful as developers of the airplane through the biography The Wright Brothers: How They Invented the Airplane (Freedman, 1994) as well as through seeing and holding a copy of the U.S. Patent Office drawings of the plane.


Boys seek out the nuts and bolts of informational texts and historical fiction. Facts that many girls readily discard are pounced upon by boys as though they were pure gold nuggets—memorizing them for sharing at a future date. Adventure books and coming-of-age novels with male protagonists are readily sought after if the teacher can give a motivating book talk that fires up their imaginations. Actual documents and artifacts are revered and pondered as boys gravitate toward hands-on activities. Using this knowledge we can spur boys’ interest in reading by sharing books that motivate them and, in turn, improve their comprehension.


Block, C. (2004). The research-base: Effects of trade book reading on student achievement. Paper Presented, International Reading Association Regional Leadership Workshop East and Great Lakes, Pittsburgh, PA, June 25-27, 2004
Brozo, W. (2002). To Be a Boy, To Be a Reader. Newark, DE: International Reading Association.
Camp, D. (2000). It takes two: Teaching with twin texts of fact and fiction. The Reading Teacher, 53, 400-408.
Farris, P. J., Fuhler, C.A., and Walther, M. (2004). Teaching Reading: A Balanced Approach for Today’s Classrooms. Boston: McGraw-Hill.
Fuhler, C., Farris, P., and Nelson, P. (2006). Reaching across the curriculum: Opening the doorway to the past through artifacts. The Reading Teacher, 59,646-659.
Graves, D. (1983). Teachers and Writers at Work. Portsmouth, NH: Heineman.
Guthrie, J. T., Alao, S., and Rinehart, J. M. (1997). Engagement in reading for young adolescents. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 40(6), 438–446.
Guthrie, J., Wigfield, A., and Perencevich, K. 2004. Motivating Reading Comprehension. New York: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Hancock, M. (2000). The survival of the book in a megabyte world: Children’s literature in the new millennium. Journal of Children’s Literature, 26, 8-16.
Harris, M. (1988). Women and teaching: Themes for a spirituality of pedagogy. New York: Paulist Press.
Moffitt, M. A. S., and Wartella, E. (1992). Youth and reading: A survey of leisure reading pursuits of female and male adolescents. Reading Research & Instruction, 31, 1-17.
Nelson, P. (2005). Preparing students for citizenship: Literature and primary documents. Social Studies and the Young Learner, 17: 21-29.
Nelson, P. A., and Brady, M. (2004). Social studies and the arts: From inner journeys to faraway lands. In P. J. Farris (Ed.), Elementary and Middle School Social Studies: An Interdisciplinary, Multicultural Approach, pp. 510-554. Boston: McGraw-Hill.
Piazza, C. (2002). Journeys: The Teaching of Writing in Elementary Classrooms. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Children’s and Young Adult Books

Freedman, Russell. (1994). The Wright Brothers: How They Invented the Airplane. New York: Holiday House.
Gibbons, Gail. (2003). Chicks and Chickens. New York: Holiday House.
Gibbons, Gail. (1994). Spiders. New York: Holiday House.
Gibbons, Gail. (2005). Owls. New York: Holiday House.
Golenbock, Peter. (1992). Teammates. New York: Voyager.
Kurlansky, M., and Schindler, S. D. (2006). The Story of Salt. New York: Putnam.
Paulsen, Gary. (1987). Hatchet. New York: Atheneum.
Simon, Seymour, and Elsa Warnick. (1998). They Swim the Seas: The Mystery of Animal Migration. San Diego: Browndeer Press.
Walker, Sally. (2005). Secrets Of A Civil War Submarine: Solving the Mysteries of the H. L. Hunley. Minneapolis, MN: Carolrhoda Books.

Lists of Award-Winning Books

The Carter G. Woodson Award and Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People, featured each year in the May-June volume of Social Education, are excellent sources of high quality, content-accurate literature for students. Recognized books are drawn from all genres—poetry, nonfiction, fiction, historical fiction, and picture books. The National Science Teachers Association also identifies and recognizes children’s and young adult literature that present science content accurately and skillfully. That list appears in Science and Children annually. Another source, which consists only of informational books, is the list of Orbis Pictus Award and honor books identified by the National Council of the Teachers of English. These are published by the Council in the November volume of Language Arts. They include nonfiction books of science and social studies content. Finally, the American Library Association recognizes high-quality nonfiction books through its Siebert Award which is found on the American Library Association website.

The books on all of these award lists offer a wide range of readability levels on a variety of topics. Books that are recognized as winners and honor books meet stringent content and literary criteria. The books are reader-friendly in terms of text structure and text features which boys identify as being important. Books that are honored by these professional organizations also include experiences and views of diverse groups, which offer insider perspectives. All of the award groups have recognized that persons of color, persons with physical and emotional handicaps, and the elderly and very young have often been marginalized in terms of their place in informational books. The committees also look for materials that present fresh interpretations or perspectives of events, concepts, or individuals.

Motivating Students to Read

If students are reluctant to dive into informational text, create a climate of mystery and intrigue in your instruction by wrapping up a picture book on the topic to be covered along with four or five copies of an appropriate historical or scientific novel. Present an authentic or recreated artifact from the period or a recreated one for students to examine and discuss. Where would you expect to find it? In what time period? Who would likely use the object? Finally have the students take turns reading the picture book as a group, stopping from time to time to discuss it. Then they can open the package of novels and begin reading the title as a book club (Fuhler, Farris, and Nelson, 2006).

Dr. Pamela J. Farris is a former elementary teacher. She’s the author of several books including Teaching Reading, Language Arts, and Elementary/Middle School Social Studies as well as over 175 journal articles. Dr. Farris served as distinguished teaching professor in the Department of Literacy Education, Northern Illinois University.

Dr. Pamela A. Nelson is a former elementary teacher. She’s the author of several articles on children’s literature and social studies. Dr. Nelson is an assistant professor in the Department of Literacy Education, Northern Illinois University, where she teaches children’s literature and language arts and serves as director of the Children’s Literature Collection.


Source: Today's Catholic Teacher, January/February 2007