Encouraging boys to read

Written by: HTU | Published:

For 40 years, the charity Beanstalk has been providing trained volunteers to help encourage primary school children to read. We asked volunteer Sally Floyer for some tips on engaging boys with reading

It is widely recognised by educationalists that more boys than girls find learning to read difficult. The 2011 SATs results showed that one in 10 boys aged 11 read no better than a seven-year-old. They enjoy reading less and fewer boys become enthusiastic readers once they have conquered the challenge of decoding and can read competently. 

As a result of this reluctance to read, boys are also less good at writing and find it more difficult to articulate their ideas and feelings, not just in English lessons, but across the curriculum.

This has an impact on their performance at secondary school and is of concern to schools across the country. There is a clear link between an inability to read well and crime, with 60 per cent of the prison population being functionally illiterate. 

The National Literacy Trust recently published a report on boys’ reading which said that 75 per cent of schools are concerned about boys’ reading abilities and while the majority of these already have strategies in place to try to support boys, there are many reasons why boys do not like reading.

An important reason is lack of male role-models – there are fewer male teachers in primary schools than females, and women read more than men in the home, so boys are less likely to see a man reading regularly and one in five therefore thinks of reading as a girls’ occupation. 

Boys are often more physical than girls and many prefer more active pursuits in their free time. Though there are huge numbers of excellent books available for both boys and girls, there is a lack of simple exciting short stories to hook boys at the point where they are becoming independent readers, and it is easier for girls to find engaging series to lead them to more challenging reading. There is a vast amount of technology competing with books for leisure time too and boys often prefer the excitement and competitive aspects of computer games.

The National Literacy Trust’s report recommends a number of strategies for all children, not just boys, to support reading, especially for those children who are least likely to get help with reading at home. It particularly advocates the use of volunteers to support children and give them reading practice at least once a week, ideally of male volunteers to help boys. 

This is where the work of charities such as Beanstalk fits into the equation. Beanstalk (formerly Volunteer Reading Help) has for 40 years been providing trained volunteers to primary schools to work with at least three children for a year on a one-to-one basis to help them with reading. 

It is important to make the distinction between teaching children the technical process of decoding, which begins in nursery and reception classes and is carried out by skilled teachers with specialist programmes, and further support for children who understand the basic process but really struggle to become fluent independent readers. As with any skill, regular practice is essential, and too many children get no help at home.

Founded by Susan Belgrave in 1973, Beanstalk was specifically set up to address the problem Susan identified of children who did not have access to books at home and who therefore found it hard to learn to read fluently and enjoy books. 

In 2012/13, Beanstalk supported more than 7,300 primary school children across England, providing almost 2,400 volunteer reading helpers to almost 1,200 schools. 

In the light of other research, it is not surprising that Beanstalk volunteers work with more boys than girls – in 2012/13 only 43 per cent of the children were girls. 

The children are selected by the school’s SENCO or literacy subject leader in consultation with the class teacher and the children are mainly from years 2 to 4, though there are also some older children who still need practice and motivation. 

The younger children are very often lagging behind their peers in learning basic decoding, and this can be for a number of reasons ranging from simple lack of confidence to more specific difficulties such as social problems, lack of an English-speaking parent to read with at home, interrupted schooling due to frequent moves, and diagnosed learning difficulties such as dyslexia. 

So what strategies work?

So what works for Beanstalk’s volunteer reading helpers? Each child is an individual, with different interests, concentration spans and reading skills, and the fundamental principle of the Beanstalk method is tailoring the session to the child. That the children really value this attention is demonstrated by a story one of my fellow volunteers told me recently.

She was working with a very challenged year 5 boy who started to be really difficult with her as well as with other one-to-one teachers, and eventually his class teacher decided he should not have any more individual help.

But after half-term the boy came to find the Beanstalk volunteer and begged to be taken back. It was agreed and now he and she choose a book from the library which they read together. His reading is still not confident but she hopes that next term when he is in year 6 he will eventually read to her, and he is at least already enjoying the books.

Many volunteers find that boys need something active to help them engage with a story. One volunteer makes her boys act out the meaning of new words to help them remember, for example “show me a stumble”!

She also finds they really enjoy reading plays where they can be an exciting character such as a giant, or a role reversal such as a mother telling off her child. Plays are also good for really struggling readers because the dialogue comes in short bites and the drama helps them to add expression and meaning to what they are reading. For younger children lift-the-flaps and pop-ups are excellent – again the tactile element helps engage them.

Boys also enjoy practical activities. One volunteer had great success with a book of folding paper planes for which her boy had to read and follow the instructions. They then moved on to non-fiction about aircraft and airports, and he realised there was a point to reading.

Humour is of course a great encouragement to boys. They love characters like Francesca Simon’s Horrid Henry because he is both funny and anarchic. They like jokes, both actual jokes and also jokes imbedded in a story such as inverted fairy tales – a great series is Seriously Silly Stories by Lawrence Anholt in which familiar tales are given a new twist with plenty of puns and reversals.

Fiction which features sports or topics they are interested in will often engage boys and turn the magic switch – Martin Waddell’s football books, Steve Cole’s Astrosaurs series are good examples. It helps to find situations they can identify with - Roald Dahl’s Danny the Champion of the World worked really well for a Traveller boy. Perhaps surprisingly, some boys will relate to classic stories such as Shoo Rayner’s retellings of the Just So stories (plenty of action and humour), or tales from mythology.

One reading helper was working with a Portuguese speaker who did not seem to be interested in anything, when one day he offered him a book of Greek myths and the boy was so inspired that he went off and wrote his own myth, much to his teacher’s surprise.

Many reading helpers report that struggling boys get stuck with anything that does not offer speedy rewards. For a slow reader there needs to be action on every page – they lose interest if nothing is happening, and in a half-hour session actual reading time is probably only around 15 minutes. Barrington Stoke has a great range designed specifically for children whose reading age is lower than their actual age, with plenty of action. 

One reading helper has been working with the same dyslexic boy for three years and he has made huge progress with various additional support programmes, but he still finds reading for any length of time very hard work. 

One day he turned up with Jeremy Strong’s Living with Vampires which the SENCO had given him and asked if he could read it. He said he had read a chapter with his father that morning, which was a first, and he then insisted on reading the whole of the rest of the book to her – their session ran well over their allotted half hour but his eagerness was such a breakthrough that she had to let him carry on.

Given boys’ interest in computer games, many volunteers find that boys respond to technology. Looking up Google maps to find out where a school trip is going, reading news stories and checking facts online have all been used by reading helpers, and downloads to an iPhone or iPad always fascinate boys. 

To that end Beanstalk has just accepted a generous gift of 1,000 Nook tablets from Barnes and Noble, and each school will have one for volunteers to share next term. They come pre-loaded with a range of books, including Beanstalk’s very own anniversary book, Jack and the Beanstalk and Other Beany Stories, Poems and Jokes.

This book, with 10 commissioned versions of what might have happened to Jack, embodies much of what Beanstalk has learned about boys’ reading over its 40 years. Short stories which can be read in one session, loads of humour and anarchy, different formats including a play and jokes to encourage shared reading, verse and prose stories, and a range of reading levels to provide at least one story for everyone from absolute beginner to confident readers.

Finally, there are ideas from a reading specialist for further activities to make the most of each story. These include putting on a play for the class, writing their own version of the story, and shared reading activities.

There is no silver bullet for the problem of boys’ reading, but an individual approach, lots of encouragement and praise, activity wherever possible, and the provision of opportunities for boys to succeed and be really engaged have all been found by Beanstalk to make a significant contribution to helping them want to read.


  • For more primary education best practice and advisory articles from Headteacher Update, click here.

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