Saturday, September 25, 2010

On Getting Boys to Read

I want to talk about reading.  Specifically: boys and reading.

I want to preface this post with the reality that I am simply speaking anecdotally here.  I have no professional qualifications regarding the education of children, I am simply a mother of seven (with number seven quietly gestating away).  I should also say, that I think this may be a saving grace for me because I have retained an exceptionally healthy (in my opinion) skepticism of what the 'experts' say and so far it has served me well.

One of the first opinions I ever encountered regarding the subject of children and reading was a study quoted in the Weekly Standard sometime in the beginning of the new millennia.  It stated that the determining factor in whether your child grew to become an avid reader was not if he was read to early and often, not if he learned phonics, and not even if his parents were they themselves avid readers.  The deterministic factor in forming an avid reader was if there were many books in the home.  Not long after Harry Potter mania took off and likewise the challenges from various quarters that regardless of the subject matter, the books got children reading and that was the most important factor.  Now librarians and booksellers touting bestselling titles, such as: The Day My Butt Went Psycho, Sir Fartsalot, Sweet Farts, etc. all expertly declare, "it is not what he reads, it is that he is reading.  Worry about the rest later."

To date, I have found much of these popular ideas to be tripe.  Don't get me wrong, tripe has a place, in say  chitlins or menudo or in say a variety bowl of phở, but there is no confusion that this is some sort of prime cut.  Comics, magazines, and joke books can provide wonderful breaks in a serious literary diet, but they can never stretch and grow the mind of a child to-ward freedom the way beautiful language does.  And ultimately, isn't that the goal you have for your child's education?  Not only to encourage his imagination, but to free his mind from propaganda and mere facts of little consequence?  Otherwise what is the point in knowing that there is such  a place as India, if it only serves to point him toward some future covetousness (as in, the place where all the jobs went).

My husband and I are avid readers and we happen to have loads and loads of books (when I read the article, I gave myself a mental 'check!' in the excellent mother category.  Guess what happened to that little check list?).  It did not necessarily translate easily into 'avid readers to children.'  Our first child had no interest in sitting and listening to even the shortest nursery rhyme.  He laid waste to board books and Mother Goose Rhymes.  Books were for chewing or floating in the potty or the bath tub or for coloring in or for serving chicken nuggets on.  Books were not for reading or looking at.  We tried new books, old-timey books, everything and eventually nothing.  I was enormously frustrated.  I felt that I had no connection to him and I felt like a failure.  In reality, I did not know what I know now.  This was a child with many preconceived ideas and anxieties. I did not know there was such a thing as trying too hard to do too much too early.   From kindergarten through the third grade, getting N. to read might as well have been ritualized torture as far as he was concerned.  Once when confronted with the written word he threatened to run away from home.  In a fit of despair, we reached out for anything, something that would connect him to the written word.  

"Try Goosebumps," said the nice ladies as the bookstore.

"Maybe. . . but I'm trying to cultivate a love of language. . ." 

"How nice for you. . ."trailed off the nice ladies as the rounded the bookshelves directing me to the Grossout section.

We did try some of these tactics.  N. read, but did this bear more literary fruit, even more reading?  Good luck.  He was not any more likely to read post Diary of a Wimpy Kid than he was before it.  And so it went.  N. did not lack the intelligence or ability to read.  His spelling and word recognition, thanks to Saxon Phonics, was impressive.  He had some unnamed anxiety or some sort of tiredness that kicked in.  I'm still not sure what it was.  Many things produced a similar reaction from him (tying shoe laces, speaking to an audience of more than 1 or 2, swing sets, naptime. . .).  He is not autistic, nor does he have any other developmental differences, other than some easily managed ADD.  Ultimately, it was a magazine that got him reading.  Boys' Life Magazine was interesting and challenging to his imagination and it got him reading.  It did not drag him down to the lowest common denominator of Everyone Poops. 

From there we were able to expand our bookshelf (and our hopes) to fairy tales, mythology, and poetry.  Real.  Honest to God.  Poetry.  Robert Louis Stevenson, ee cummings, Shel Silverstine, Emily Dickinson, Edgar Allen Poe.  In the time it took us to get No. 1 to read and like it, we had 5 more children.  All of the energy, the tears, the frustrations, the horrible self-recriminations, and feelings of failure that went into getting N. to read, to connect, to want to learn, to respond favorably to our suggestions and discipline paid MEGA dividends in the other children and for us as parents.  Reading is not simply an expectation we have imposed on them.  They want to read; they read to each other.  They were anxious to learn and to be read to, they desired the time and interest that he got in our trying to get him to read and they got it.  It was time and energy and effort redeemed.  N. for his part, has become an incredibly voracious reader of anything and everything.  He reads Scripture! without being told to or why it is good for him.  He read the Hobbit and then read it again!  And discipline wise, he is a dream child.  My 10 year old loads the dish washer because he wants me to rest and take care of the baby.  5 years ago, I wondered if I was raising a laceless, illiterate convict.  Today, I have a son who wants to be at school early to spend time reading in the library.  Today, I have a son who wants to be a Man.

So what is the take away?  If nothing else, it is this:  cultivating a love of language and learning in a child can be enormously difficult work.  The experts opinions and check marks may not add up in a way that will make sense to you, when you are deep in the trenches.  The only thing that I know that works to get a child to read, to like it, and to do it voluntarily is this:  be persistent and keep the tv off.  Keeping books around like furniture will not cultivate a want of reading or culture or anything else if the tv is the major competition.  Parents reading habits will not make readers of your children if they, themselves, never pick up a book.  Phonics derived vocabularies that increase word recognition and facility of spelling will not necessarily ease your child into the saddle of learning.  None of these things on their own and absent a parent's drive to acquaint your child with the written word will likely ever turn any child into a Reading Hungry Hippo.  For us, it was somewhere around age 8 that he found his connection.  The synapses locked into to place one day and we've been firing along ever since, but I still think it took many different puzzle pieces, not the least of which was our constant encouragement to try new resources.  Keep at it and be patient.
A friend of mine shared this article from the Wall Street Journal.  Also, here are some of the resources and books that we found  the most helpful in our quest to get N. to read:

1 comment:

GretchenJoanna said...

Wonderful post. Thank you for taking the trouble to tell the details of all the good times and wearying times, and what was helpful....We had three eager readers and then one who wasn't interested until he was much older, but we persevered. Then the last one, who didn't like to be read TO, very much. Each one was so different. But having no TV was a big motivator for everyone, eventually, to pick up the books. Bravo! for all the hard work. You are giving to society, too.