Monday, January 20, 2014

Boys & Books. . . Lots of Books

On January 18th, Duncan McDougall (Children's Literacy Foundation - CLiF), Dan Greene (U-32 Librarian) and Derek Cote (U-32 Sophomore) joined a lively crowd in the Children's Room at Bear Pond Books to talk about strategies for encouraging boys who are reluctant readers to give books another chance. The discussion covered reading for all grades (pre-K through 12).

Think about how the average school reading list is different from the sort of pleasure reading grown ups enjoy. We get to choose whatever book we want, we get to stop reading that book if it's boring, we can bring home a stack of books from the library (or bookstore) and try each of them until we find the one that suits our mood, and no one nags us about if we're reading up to our grade level (how many grown ups enjoyed Harry Potter or the Hunger Games?).

Well, kids want those things, too.

That's why Duncan McDougall says his #1 recommendation for getting reluctant readers interested in reading is to let them choose. Even if they choose a comic book, that's still reading and it's still erasing the idea that reading is a boring chore used to make children miserable.

Duncan's organization, the Children's Literacy Foundation, works with kids from birth to age 12 to inspire them to read. Boys age 9 - 12 are his toughest customers. National studies (some are linked in our earlier posts) agree. But when CLiF sets out tables covered in books and lets kids choose, some books get snapped up immediately even by that "tough customer" demographic. Hunting books, a giant book of sharks (with a promised life size poster), motorcycle racing and Choose Your Own Adventure, are all popular choices.

Duncan admits that he started his work as a "book snob," insisting on high quality reading vetted by various experts. Now, he simply focuses on encouraging any sort of reading, which includes "snacking" on short little sections of books that can be as purely fun as Calvin & Hobbes. When his own son was slow to get interested in reading, Duncan says he set reading material out around the house and "I felt like I was fishing, getting as many lures out as possible and seeing when he'd bite." Which, eventually, his son did.

Dan Greene, U-32 Librarian, follows the same philosophy, offering as much choice as possible to high school readers. He has a limited budget so not everything that's requested gets on the 'to purchase' list. Still, he is okay with buying something like a sports book about an athlete who is popular today but won't be in a few years, because for the time that the book is relevant, it will be flying off his shelves.

Another reason to bring in popular books is to support reading as a social activity. Kids will read books all their friends are talking about. Plus, they'll read together. Duncan emphasizes parents reading with kids at home, and that reading out loud can continue in the school. Educators in the room on Saturday confirmed that even high school students enjoy opportunities to read out loud, either sharing a book together (particularly a humorous book) or agreeing on a class book for the teacher to read.

Being able to discuss a story with friends is what got Derek Cote into reading. He'd never been an enthusiastic reader, but when the 5th Harry Potter movie came out and his parents wouldn't let him go see it, he asked his brother to lend him the book instead. His brother agreed - on the condition that Derek begin with reading the first four books in the series. 

Derek was in fourth grade when he started Harry Potter. That year, something clicked that hadn't with all the previous school-assigned reading - reading tells a story, just like a movie does. And, just like a movie, Derek has trouble stopping partway through. In fact, he has so much trouble setting down a book that one day in elementary school the school spent hours searching for him while he was tucked away in a corner of the library, finishing a book with no idea of how much time had passed.

Once Derek figured out that reading can be fun, he began to branch out in his reading material. He also began to think of himself as one of the smart kids. He'd always linked reading with being smart, and when he became a serious reader, he had the confidence to succeed in all his classes.

Duncan and Dan both see this pattern repeating itself. Kids find things to read that they enjoy. They branch out to reading more things and reading becomes part of their daily life. They feel more confident in their ability to understand all sorts of text, from history to science, and to succeed in the classroom. Their overall school performance improves dramatically. Sometimes, it all starts with a comic book. Or Harry Potter. Or a book of giant shark attacks.

Duncan, Dan, Derek and the audience shared a lot of great ideas at Saturday's talk. You can find out more at the following links:
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