Thursday, April 02, 2015

"How Do I Encourage My Son To Read More?"

I was in Jordan in March to visit some schools and run some writing workshops. What a great week in a terrific country. In preparation for my visit I was directed to this pertinent question posted online by a Jordanian parent to see if I could offer some help:

How Do I Encourage My Son To Read More?

He's 11, and refuses to read, no matter how much I encourage him. He is full of energy, but his time is consumed either with sports or electronics. He does well in school, and is generally well behaved. Wondering if anyone out there has ideas on how I can get him excited to read.

You can see the original question and my full answer on the forum here, but this, or some variation on it, is such a common question I thought I'd offer a lightly tidied-up version of my answer for you here...

It seems that 11 is the age at which there’s the biggest drop-off in reading, especially among boys. (Then there are all the boys who weren't really all that into reading in the first place - don't forget about them.)
It’s no good just presenting your son with a book, or even a small choice of books, no matter how right you think your choice will be for him or how highly it's been recommended by 'experts'. He has to have ownership of the process. So:
Does he have the chance to choose things to read himself?
You’ll need to make a huge amount of reading material available to him – really huge. And reading material of all different kinds. Broaden the range of what you might think of as ‘reading’. It doesn’t have to be the classics, or even a book. Find magazines, instruction manuals, listings of sports statistics... anything like that. Much of it he will ignore, but eventually he will choose to pick up something that piques his interest. That’s the first step – he’s not going to become a bookworm overnight, but stick at it. For sports and electronics fans, magazines and manuals are brilliant gateways. But don’t rush him.
The right material is important, of course, but it’s only part of the answer. There’s a lot else you can do that might seem small but in the long run will make a huge impact.
Does he have a reading light by his bed? Think about when and where you’re expecting him to read. It’s not going to happen unless he has a quiet space with a light and books or magazines within arms’ reach. And his schedule is probably packed with school activities and homework, so make sure he knows he can stay up as late as he likes if he wants to read a magazine.
Do you have the sports pages of newspapers spread out in the kitchen when he comes down for breakfast every morning? You don’t need to make a big deal out of it, just let him find them and discover the most interesting writers on the sports he likes. (You might have to research who those are for yourself first.) Or it might be relevant, engaging blogs open on the ipad, just there, casually in front of his nose when he sits down to eat.
Does he ever hear you discussing what you’re reading? Not necessarily with him, but with your friends or with the rest of the family? Make books and reading part of everyday talk around him. Argue about stories or about an article you read. If he hasn’t read that story or that article the discussion might seem to go over his head, but if it keeps happening he won’t let it go on indefinitely, he’ll do something about it.
Does he ever see you reading? For an 11 year-old boy it can make a huge impact to see his father reading, or other male role models. You don’t need to point it out, just make sure it happens, consistently and for a long time.
As with all these things, it will take time to turn him into a reader but if you’re persistent he won’t be able to resist.
Find someone else who can recommend reading material to him. Again, not just books, but magazines, websites and manuals as well. If there’s an older sibling or some other teenager in his life that influences him, get that person on your side, even if they don’t realise that’s what you’re doing, and put interesting reading material in their way. It can filter through to your son second-hand.
I refused to read when I was 11. But one of my strongest memories from that time is helping my dad drill the reading light into the wall by my bed and wire it up. (Again – being involved in the process. If he likes electronics let him fix up his own reading light or ask him to fix a new one for you and everybody else in the family.)
There were nightly family discussions – often heated – about books I’d never heard of. They were like public performances for my benefit. On an errand with my sister she suggested I pick out a film magazine. (I read it cover to cover, and every issue of that magazine for the next ten years. It’s basically how I learned to write.) Eventually it was my sister who was able to pick out books that would grab my attention.
My father used to set up two books on the table in front of the TV, alongside the evening paper. (He invented and built a device that enabled him to keep both books open at once while keeping his hands free to eat.) He read both books and the paper at the same time, in front of me, while calling out the right answer to every single question on every single TV quiz show. Eventually, any 11 year-old makes the connections himself. It will take time, but it will happen.
Make it a tide that’s impossible to resist. Make it demonstrative and daily. You must be patient and flexible. He won’t want to read the same things as you, or even the same things as many other 11 year-old boys. He won’t suddenly go from not reading at all to picking up a dusty, leather tome. He may never pick up dusty, leather tomes – I still don’t. But I did become a huge reader, eventually.
Without that, of course, I would never have become a writer. But it was also my impatience with reading, and not liking the kinds of books I was 'supposed' to like, or that everybody else seemed to like, that led me to the kind of writing that I do. I started writing the Jimmy Coates books to grab the attention of readers like the 11 year-old me, readers like your son. The path to writing those books began with film magazines, sports articles and statistics and the ostentatious displays of reading from my family.
It's a lot more than just picking out books that are 'popular' with his peers, or that you liked when you were his age, or that you think he should like for any other reason. But don't give up. It'll happen, and it's worth it.


Nick Green said...

Some kids just don't seem to be natural readers, of fiction anyway. One of mine isn't. Recently he came home raving that the famous author Joe Craig had just visited his school. 'Oh!' I said. 'Shall I get you some books by him?' 'Nah,' he said.
Sorry. I tried!

Joe Craig said...

Hey Nick, thanks for the comment - that's so funny! I appreciate your efforts. Glad he enjoyed my visit to his school anyway.
I suppose the serious point to this is that offering to buy him some books by me (or anyone) is exactly the kind of thing I'm talking about - it's never going to work. It just isn't enough. What I'm suggesting is that you don't offer to buy him books - he's not going to choose that. You just buy the books (or get them from the library - free!), have them in the house and YOU READ THEM. So he can see you reading them and enjoying them, laughing at the funny bits and gripped by the gripping bits (which in my stuff is ALL THE BITS, obviously). Get someone else in the house to read them too - again, ostentatiously - then DISCUSS THEM. ARGUE about them.
Doesn't have to be my books, of course, though it should work with mine. This is a slow process. You're absolutely right that some people aren't natural readers - especially of fiction - so an expression of indifference to an offer of books is the obvious response. Changing that takes time and constant effort so that he's drawn to ask about the books himself. He'll have had the catalyst from me, but overnight he's not going to suddenly start asking for books or saying 'yeah sure' when you offer them to him. It'll take longer than that and a lot more engagement than that, in subtle but powerful ways.
Might not apply to your situation, obviously - I don't know. Just thinking through examples! He might devour non-fiction or you might rather he pursue other hobbies or whatever. But it's such a good sign that he was raving about my visit so if you do want to capitalise on that and get him reading it is possible, it just takes time and some crafty manoeuvres!

Anonymous said...

As Joe mentioned I would go buy the books and read them myself. Then after reading, give your son a nonchalant heads-up along the lines of "You're right. That Joe Craig guy is great. Couldn't stop laughing at his books." Then maybe that'll get your son's attention especially when he happens to walk past the books you happened to have left in a just happens to be convenient spot for him me to read.

Nick Green said...

Cheers! But I think it's more complex and puzzling in this case. He's had all that exposure to books from year dot, in every possible form. We're not pushy, either. I suspect that some people just have difficulty following narratives and fictional characters. (He doesn't much watch films either... And I don't think my dad ever sat through a film in his life, though he did read a bit.)

Nick Green said...

Cheers! But I think it's more complex and puzzling in this case. He's had all that exposure to books from year dot, in every possible form. We're not pushy, either. I suspect that some people just have difficulty following narratives and fictional characters. (He doesn't much watch films either... And I don't think my dad ever sat through a film in his life, though he did read a bit.)