Want Boys to Read for Pleasure? Start by Untangling the Word "Reading”

How many times have you heard boys declare, “I hate reading!” or “reading is stupid and boring!” when you suggest/invite/encourage/demand they read a book for pleasure in their spare time?

Early in my career as a literacy educator, I heard these declarations a lot and took them at face value. Instead of digging deeper to find out why boys hated reading or found it boring and stupid, I retorted back comments like this:

We don’t say the word hate here, so don’t ever say you hate reading.”


“No, it’s not boring or stupid, reading is fun. Just do it.”

As you might guess, my combative, dismissive talk didn’t move boys closer to reading for pleasure. If anything, my comments pushed them farther away from reading in their spare time, which wasn’t my intent at all. Quite the opposite!

Luckily, I realized (sooner rather than later) that I was part of their reading problem, not the change in their reading lives I hoped to be. This aha! moment led me to dig deep, talk to my boys about their reading experiences and help them unpack what was really going on underneath the surface.

My ultimate goal was to figure out what was blocking boys from reading for pleasure and most importantly, how to open them up and let it into their lives.

After lots of conversations with 9- to 14-year-old boys, here’s what I discovered.

Discovery #1: The Word ‘Reading’ is a Tangled Hot Mess

Think about it: teachers, parents, the media, the government—basically everyone—labels anything that is reading-related as ‘reading,’ without any distinctions, descriptors or purpose attached.

Unfortunately, boys can’t differentiate one type of reading experience from another on their own, so they lump together everything that is reading-related and follow the example set by the adults around them.

I call this lumping together of all reading experiences a ‘tangled, hot mess’.

Tangled,’ as in a big, nasty, impossible knot where reading experiences that shouldn’t be connected are and ‘hot mess,’ because of Freud’s ‘pleasure-pain principle,’ which states people are motivated to approach pleasurable things and avoid painful things.

With a large percentage of boys, just say the word ‘reading’ in their presence and you witness the tangled, hot mess right before your eyes. ‘Avoid pain, avoid pain, avoid pain’ is written all over their faces, in their eyes, their behaviors and most of all, their shudders of disbelief when the word pleasure is put together with the word reading.

When boys do react like this, it’s not reading for pleasure they are fighting against, it’s their own tangled, hot mess.

Discovery #2: Boys Stuff Their Reading Pain Deep Down

Once I started talking honestly with boys about reading and really listening to what they had to say, a pattern began to emerge. Aliterate boys (those who know how to read, but choose not to read) always shared at least one painful reading experience they had had in the past and kept hidden or if they did share, they thought no one really cared.

So they stuffed their reading pain deep down and that’s how it got all tangled up into an impossible knot and became a hot mess.

To show you what I mean, below are two snippets from boys who wouldn’t read for pleasure if their life depended on it. However, after we unpacked what was really going on in their heads and hearts about reading, I was better able to help them.

  • “I hate reading… I couldn’t sit still during reading time when I was little and I used to kind of stand and sit in my chair because it was more comfortable. My teacher would send me out of the room because it annoyed her, making me miss reading time because I just couldn’t sit. When my mom came home from parent/teacher conferences, I got in trouble for not sitting during reading time, like my teacher asked.”
  • “Reading is boring and stupid… I can’t focus when I read the social studies textbook because it’s so boring. I try, but my mind wanders and I can never remember what I read. Then in class, my teacher makes me feel stupid when I don’t know the answer.”

I’ve come to learn that it is this emotional stuffing to avoid pain that shuts out any possibility of reading for pleasure (and all of its benefits) from boys’ lives, but by investing the time to really listen and hear what they’re saying, this can change.

Discovery #3: Redefining Reading Opens Up Reading for Pleasure

I knew it was up to me to help boys re-define the word ‘reading,’ but first I needed to become crystal clear on the types of reading they viewed as pain, then give each type a name and a valid purpose for doing it that made sense to preteen and early teen boys.

Below are the four types of reading and their purposes that I consistently used throughout my teaching career and to this day:

  • Foundational Reading (skills/fluency/decoding/comprehension) is critical to crack the code and understand what’s written on the page; all other reading is built on this type and it’s essential for reading success.
  • Standardized Reading (test prep and standardized tests) compares readers to proficiency standards and the norm; it is used for accountability and as a gatekeeper to goals and advancement (driver’s license, SATs, LSATs, GREs, work certifications for jobs/promotions/raises).
  • Mandatory Reading (reading for someone else: schoolwork, homework or forced-on-them reading material that’s ‘boring, stupid or uninteresting’) is important to understand and do successfully to survive in the world of school, work and duty (household, as a citizen).
  • Pleasure Reading (reading for oneself only: self-directed, engaged, for fun, to learn, to grow, to be entertained) is the type of reading that is critical to successfully thrive in school, work and the world.

Instead of calling everything ‘reading,’ I always made sure to distinguish between the four types and their purpose whenever I talked to boys or taught them about reading. Boys always caught on pretty quickly and would describe reading the same way when talking to me, their peers and parents. This separating out was a game-changer for them.

Through the act of naming and defining the types of reading (thereby redefining the word ‘reading’), boys untangled their knots and cleaned up their hot messes.

And the best news: once they stopped equating all reading as pain and understood the four purposes of reading, boys willingly opened up space in their lives for pleasure reading to exist too.

So, here’s to boys reading!


Feature image courtesy of Flickr, CHRISSPdotCOM.

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