Reading Role Models: Why They Matter for Boys

Advocating for 9–14-year-old boys and their reading lives is my passion and specialty, however, because I’m female, this hasn’t been an easy row to hoe.

People often question me  on why I’m not advocating for girls and empowering them instead.

But I don’t see my advocacy as a zero-sum game. I see it as imperative for both genders to thrive, not just survive, in the global, knowledge-based, information/technology-driven world they’ll live and work in together as adults.

So, What About Girls?

Currently, girls outperform boys in reading achievement and have closed the gap in math, science, and technology. More women than in the past are graduating from college in the STEM fields, and for the first time, women make up the majority of law school students.

Girls have easier access to same-gender reading role models (moms, pre-school and elementary teachers, school librarians and children’s librarians are typically female), and now they also have access to role models in male-dominated fields and professions.

Role models, mentors, and a more inclusive attitude about 9–14-year-old girls’ math capabilities helped them to make huge strides forward.

But, Boys, On The Other Hand…

Many 9–14-year-old boys lack same-gender reading role models at a developmental time when they need them the most. Unfortunately, this lack of access usually leads to a lack of reading.

I advocate for boys and their reading lives because when they choose not to read, they also inadvertently choose not to gain the accumulated benefits of the daily reading habit:

  • Higher all-around academic achievement and test scores
  • Stronger reading and critical thinking skills, plus cognitive stamina
  • Expansive general/background knowledge
  • A developed vocabulary
  • Improved writing, spelling and math skills
  • More fully developed empathy, imagination and intellectual curiosity
  • Reduced stress

When boys come to value reading, it also opens them up to new ways of thinking about the world and relating to others. That’s because the daily reading habit broadens their understanding of themselves and people different from them, expanding their ideas of justice, fairness, and truth.

But for the reading habit to take hold, 9–14-year-old boys need reading role models in place. Below I share why they matter.

Football Role Models versus Reading Role Models

One thing I noticed as a female teacher was how much my boys knew about a sport they loved. Every rule. Every player. Every statistic. They could talk for hours about it and then they took that knowledge onto the field with them when they played.

Football is one example of an activity with lots of visibility and multiple opportunities for boys to see modeling before they ever play on a team.

They can watch football games on television or in real life (professional, college, high school, in the neighborhood). In addition to seeing football players in action, males they know may also talk about football to them or in their presence.

Before the game, predictions are made about what is going to happen, depending on the teams playing.

During the game, there’s debate, thinking, and evaluation of what just happened and what might happen next.

After the game is over, further comments are shared on television, over the radio, in the newspaper and between family members, friends, colleagues and even strangers.

This level of visual and verbal exposure helps boys immensely. They not only know football is valued and prioritized but if they choose to play, there are plenty of models available to help them understand what to expect and how to get better.

Males as Reading Role Models

Now think about boys and reading. Do they have visual and verbal exposure to know what to expect? For boys to understand what reading looks like, sounds like, and feels like they need the adults around them to model it, just like with football. Because if boys can’t see it in action, then it doesn’t exist.

Male reading role models are critical to transforming aliterate preteen/early teen boys into readers. Boys this age pay close attention to the men in their lives, so if they don’t think reading is valued, they won’t do it.

Examples of male reading role models can be a boy’s dad, brother, cousin, coach, teacher, uncle, neighbor, or best friend’s dad. Boys can connect with them face-to-face, on Skype/FaceTime, through email, texts, or by phone.

When I taught, during parent’s night, parent/teacher conferences, and whenever I had an opportunity, I chatted with dads about the importance of reading anything in front of their sons (the newspaper, work documents, a lease agreement, etc.) and to talk about the purpose of the reading in a positive way. I also encouraged dads to have a book club with their son and to include other males (adults or son’s friends), too.

In case the boys in my class didn’t have access to male reading role models, I reached out to the males in the school building (teachers, custodial staff, school police officer), and I also figured out ways to bring in as many male readers as possible. My grandfather read aloud, and dads/older brothers and older male students participated in book clubs, met one-on-one or also read aloud.

My motto about finding male role models for boys: The more, the better

Females as Reading Role Models

 If you’re a female, you might be wondering whether preteen/early teen boys only need male reading role models to make a difference in their reading life; it’s an important question to explore. Being female, I also wondered and worried if my modeling was enough.

Over time I learned yes, yes it was enough, as long as I approached it with a boy-responsive mindset and as if I were a sports coach.

Being a boy-responsive female reading role model means that you appreciate that you read differently and for different purposes than boys do or will. By recognizing and embracing those differences, your modeling becomes increasingly more effective and influential in opening boys up to reading.

As a female, it’s also critical to value the role of male reading role models in boys’ lives. Boys who have plenty of opportunities to see and interact with men who are reading for pleasure will be more apt to become a reader themselves.

Parents as Reading Role Models

In her eye-opening book, The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way, Amanda Ripley discusses the importance of parents modeling reading and talking about books. She dug deep into the results of the 2009 PISA test (administered to 15-year olds around the globe) because she was very curious to learn how the smartest kids in reading and math got to be that way.

One important finding stated that parents and home environments dramatically impact reading scores, even more than education policy and what’s happening in school.

Below are three things she found to produce the high reading scores schools can’t produce alone:

  • Kids whose parents read aloud to them when they were little did much better in reading across the globe.
  • Kids whose parents discussed movies, books and current events with them did better in reading, and when parents talked to their kids about complicated social issues, kids also enjoyed reading more.
  • Kids whose parents read for pleasure at home also enjoyed reading for pleasure.

This stayed constant across countries and family income.

Scholastic’s 2015 Kids & Family Reading Report confirms Ms. Ripley’s findings. Their report stated powerful predictors that tell whether kids will be frequent readers:

  • They have parents who are frequent readers and live in a house with more than one hundred books.
  • They strongly believe reading for fun is important.
  • Their parents encourage reading for pleasure by helping them to find books they will like, putting limits on their screen time, build reading into their schedule, and read the same book as they do, so they can talk about it together.

The above findings and predictors are an important food for thought regarding the importance of parents (male or female) as reading role models for 9–14-year-old boys.

The daily reading habit empowers boys to be the best version of themselves, but they’ll only learn this if they see others reading too.

Here’s to boys reading!


Feature image courtesy of Flickr,jgclarke.

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