I never thought I would have a teenage son who was reluctant to read books.
We’d spent countless hours lying together on his bed reading Spot, Thomas the Tank Engine and later the Treehouse series and Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events.
He loved going each year to listen to Andy Griffiths speak at Writers Festival events and would line up in long queues on hot February days to have the author sign his Treehouse books.
But in Year 7, all voluntary reading stopped.
And nothing I did - including suggesting books from shelves full of a wide spectrum of young adult reading in the City of Perth’s enticing space for teenagers - made any difference.
All he wanted to read was Mad magazines, which is fine in its place, but I wanted him to continue reading “real books”, as he started to dismissively refer to them, so his writing skills didn’t fall behind.
I first turned to his grandma. Not just any grandma, my mum had worked for about half of her almost 50-year teaching career as a senior English teacher at a respected boys’ school. She said not to fret so much about trying to make her grandson read books as such but encourage reading for information related to his own interests. This material could be in magazines and magazine articles, whether hardcopy or online.
My son is currently fascinated by psychiatry so amid encouraging this interest and letting myself be ‘diagnosed’ for a whole range of personality disorders I never knew I suffered, I’m also ensuring he is reading well-recognised and quality websites.
Additionally, I share with him other articles I see that will encourage him to read well-written material, such as a recent newspaper profile about the new Dr Who, Jodie Whittaker. And he gets a subscription to the CSIRO magazine for young readers, Double Helix, from his grandma.
I’ve also found it very helpful - and personally enriching - to read novels my son has to read as course work, such as the Morris Gleitzman's Once series. Talking about the books with him and adding my own insights helped my son understand that the author had something important to say about key events in history, issues of good and evil, and dealing with adversity. This input, I believe, helped him see that in reading the books and gaining an understanding of these events, he was adding a significant and lasting dimension to his understanding of the world and other people.
After talking to my son’s English teacher and reading about studies on teenage boys and reading, I was further reassured that I was not alone in struggling to engage my son in fiction as he entered high school.
Many studies have found that boys are less likely to read or enjoy the relationship-based fiction so beloved by girls - and the many female English teachers. However, biographies, autobiographies and other fact-based works often have appeal to boys. These can include stories about war heroes, sporting heroes, inventors and inventions, scientists and scientific discoveries.
A Psychology Today article published on 31 March this year says a more fundamental problem is that many boys see reading as an essentially feminine activity. It suggested that this is perhaps because so many primary school and English teachers are female.
Maybe, too, they hear their mothers (such as me!) talking about catching up with “the girls” at book club. The perceptions can be exacerbated by the fact that fathers and older boys’ peers are less likely to read. Girls, on the other hand, are more likely to report reading with friends and, in precursors to book clubs, talk with groups of friends about what they are reading.
A large American survey of teenagers found that avid male readers particularly valued talking with their fathers about what they were reading and were also more likely to read books recommended by their fathers. “Boys need masculine reading models that they actually know and can talk with, too,” the study authors said. "They should talk about what they are reading, casually and often.”
This is something I’m encouraging my son’s father – an avid reader of non-fiction – to do more often to balance out my natural affinity to fiction.
While the digital age has certainly impacted on reading and literature, it is still vital to ensure that reading, including books and articles of significant length, is fostered. It is vital for basic employment skills, being able to engage meaningfully with the wider community without appearing ignorant – and it can give immense life-long pleasure.
Paula J. Schwanenflugel, Ph.D., and Nancy Flanagan Knapp, Ph.D.
Posted Mar 31, 2018