The Common Good

Helping Boys Become Readers

Many boys at my school struggle with reading. Most are more interested in video games and outdoor activities than books. Our school is not an anomaly.

Elena Blokhina / Shutterstock
Photo: Boy Reads a Book, Elena Blokhina / Shutterstock

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Across the country adults have grappled with the lag in boys’ reading interest and skills. According to the 2010 Kids & Family Reading Report sponsored by Scholastic, fewer than 40 percent of boys said that reading outside the classroom is important.

So when my school’s coordinator asked me to start a lunchtime reading group to get boys interested in reading, I was excited. The first fourth-grade literary lunch would be called BEREAders (Berea Readers).

I am excited about reading.

As a child, I recall declaring to my mom, "The only reason I want to go to school is so I can learn to read."

Mom supported my enthusiasm by joining the Book of the Month club. Each month, a new book came to my house.

I greeted each delivery by joyfully tearing open the brown paper packaging. I’d find books like Danny and the Dinosaur by Syd Hoff, Frog and Toad Together by Arnold Lobel, or Little Bear by Else Holmelund Minarik. Then, I read those books over and over again. Now, I read them constantly to my students. I still love them.

My parents and early elementary teachers helped me learn to read. Books, however, helped me become a reader. I fell in love with characters and looked forward to new adventures and discoveries in their stories.

I was in fourth grade, when I discovered Robert Lipsyte’s The Contender. On the cover was a drawing of an African-American kid with a towel draped around his neck and tape wrapped around his hands — he was a boxer.

I looked into his eyes and saw a mixture of courage, fear, hope, sadness, and compassion. In those emotions, I saw myself, even though I was not African-American. The kid’s name was Alfred, and his story was about friendship, family, and fortitude. It was about hunger, heart, and humility. It was about me. I connected instantly.

I browsed books in the fourth-grade classroom of one of my colleagues and found Sounder by William H. Armstrong. It seemed like the perfect story with which to start. Most of the boys in my school are like the boy in the book, in search of fathers who have been beaten down and broken by poverty, in search of friends who will stick close to them lovingly and loyally like Sounder, his pet, sticks to the boy.

In a New York Times article, “Boys and Reading: Is There Any Hope,” Robert Lipsyte said boys are turned into readers when the stories connect with their lives.

"Boys need to be approached individually with books about their fears, choices, possibilities and relationships — the kind of reading that will prick their dormant empathy, involve them with fictional characters and lead them into deeper engagement with their own lives,” Lipsyte wrote. “This is what turns boys into readers."

I was excited to help create readers. I asked the fourth-grade teachers to choose six students to pilot the program. One teacher had a drawing to see who could be in the group because every boy in her class wanted to be in the group. There was already enthusiasm.

We placed a sign for our group at the front of the stage in our cafeteria. The boys brought their trays up on the stage and we dramatically closed the curtains to begin reading.

Every Wednesday we meet and start with a quick vocabulary matching game with words they might not know from the book, continue with a clip from the movie Sounder starring Cicely Tyson, Paul Winfield, and Kevin Hooks that was nominated for four Academy Awards including Best Picture, and finish with discussion questions about the story from a Sounder study guide from the Scholastic website.

We are creating an advertisement, complete with illustrations and descriptions, for the "best hunting dog ever" as we read through the weeks. We are having fun. These boys are connecting to the material.

Fourth-graders have recess after lunch, so I work hard to finish our literary lunch in 30 minutes so the boys can have their full time on the playground. One week, I looked at the clock and realized I had gone five minutes over time. "I'm so sorry, guys. This won't happen again," I told them. I was surprised when one of our group members said, "It's okay, Mr. Barton. We can play anytime. We'd rather read with you."

I saw boys becoming readers. There is hope. What a wonderful thing.

Trevor Scott Barton is an elementary school teacher in Greenville, S.C. He is a blogger for the Teaching Tolerance project of the Southern Poverty Law Center

Photo: Elena Blokhina / Shutterstock

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