Boys’ love of reading

With a dynamic approach we can reach at least some of the non-readers and fortify the boys’ love of reading

It is often said that the more young boys use digital media the less they read novels. Moreover, recent reports show that the majority of weak readers in the Nordic countries are boys. This raises the question: What can we do to bring boys’ reading skills up to the level of the girls? Is it a question of minimizing the time spent on computers, or should we develop alternative methods?

A large group of boys lose the interest in literature when they start school, presumably because they are forced to read texts that don’t appeal to them. Yet, the undeniable success of novels like Harry Potter, Hunger Games or the Manga books show that it is possible to get boys to read.

The importance of literature

1/5 of school graduates in Denmark do not have the reading ability or skills necessary for finishing high school. Needless to say reading is an important skill in order to participate actively in a modern knowledge society.

From literature, not only do we improve our practical skills, but we also gain knowledge of different societies and cultures, it’s an exercise that allows us to stretch our imagination and view ourselves in relation to the rest of the world. The above titles have created universes that are very appealing to young people (and also to many adults).

Adding more colour to the media palette

Just like “video killed the radio star” in the early 80′s, one can argue that the internet and new media are digging graves for books.

Many young people in Denmark prefer reading magazines and e-papers, whereas fiction and scientific literature is less popular. This is an indication of a move towards a different reading tradition. Many boys like reading on a screen and experience and create the stories through for example a game universe. We therefore have to think differently to catch their attention. One way is to offer them different reading platforms. Smartphones, tablets, magazines, computer games, graphic no-vels even audio books can improve the boys’ reading skills.

One way of reaching this group of boys would be to offer them different forms of reading instead of viewing the alternative media as a barrier. Instead of fighting against different media we have to evolve with the changing reading habits of young boys.

The danish writer Søren Schultz Hansen illustrates in his book Årgang 2012 (Year group 2012) how children of today live in a different media world than previous generations. The new generation was born into a world with mobile media, their approach to knowledge is therefore affected by this. In an interview with two boys, Hansen asked them as to how they would gather information on a particular subject:

“Interviewer: Besides from the internet, what could you have used?

Jesper [boy 1]: We could have used a news-paper, but most people probably wouldn’t do it

Interviewer: Would you ever do it?

Both [boys]: No

Interviewer: Why?

Søren [Boy 2}: We don’t have enough experience with that.”

(Shultz Hansen, 2011:15)

Hansen’s book is a good example of how the current generation, born into a digital world, are simply not used to printed media as sources of information.

Libraries and ministries: strengthening the literary field for young boys

As opposed to forcing children to read, a way of improving their reading skills is by supporting their desire to read. The Danish Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Children and Education are offering a literary award for the best novel aimed at boys aged 10-14. 153 authors participated in the competition this year. Five novels were nominated by a jury of professionals and the novels were published on the Danish national children’s library site. Boys from all over Denmark had a month to read and vote for their

favourite novel and decide who should be the winner of the Drengelitteraturprisen (Boy’s literature prize). The site offered related literature and prizes for the boys that voted.

This competition differs from many other great children’s book awards by letting the children, the target audience, decide who is the winner. The award underlines the importance of literature for this segment, but more importantly, it gives us a deeper knowledge of what they prefer reading.

Reaching the boys

The five novels that made it to the finals are characterized by speed, action and a clear plot from beginning to end, full of humorous twists, great dialogues and strong descriptions of friendship.

Stine Reinholdt Hansen, jurymember for the award, describes in an article from 2012 how boys’ reading habits differ from those of girls. Boys’ reading has a more social character, they prefer to actively participate with others, for instance through video games or audio books. Furthermore, their reading has a more utility-oriented character, primarily because boys’ reading is done with a specific purpose (Hansen, 2012).

Norwegian researchers support this thesis and add that boys as opposed to girls do not consider themselves ‘readers’, as framed above they view reading as an activity, rather a character trait (Hoel and Helgevold, 2005). Moreover, Jorun Smemo, researcher at the Norwegian National Centre for Writing Education and Research argues that the term ‘readers’ is strongly associated with school, which can be another reason for rejecting it (Sme- mo, 2010).

Redefining ‘readers’

Out of respect for children we may have to reconsider the classical definition of a reader, or at least broaden the definition. Northern lights on Pisa 2009 – focus on reading highlighted that more boys read online than girls and moreover, that boys read comic books more frequently. Additionally, the survey suggests an explanation of boys’ negative views on reading may be that they would rather express a negative approach than admitting that they have difficulties. If this is the case then we need to start thinking differently as to how we can change these boys’ reading patterns.

It has been shown that schools are an important arena for stimulating reading and  introducing literature. The key is to inspire and support boys’ desire to read. The educational approach to reading is necessary, but

children ought to read in their leisure time as well. A way of promoting leisure reading is perhaps through a broader cooperation with, for example, the libraries who are well experienced in the sharing of literature in informal settings.

Moving forward

To improve children’s reading skills we need to challenge ourselves and let the children lead the way in order to get a better understanding of their everyday life and interests. The boy literature prize is one such way. We need to do this against the backdrop of a greater cooperation between the sectors e.g. the schools and the libraries. We also need to be more colourful in our use of different media and furthermore legitimize a new definition of ‘reader’, specifically in relation to the evolving reading patterns of this age group. With this dynamic approach we can reach at least some of these non-readers and fortify the boys’ love of reading.

Consultant, Danish Agency for Culture