Reluctant Readers: Empowering Reluctant Readers

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Reluctant Readers: Empowering Reluctant Readers

By Alan Gibbons

There is an old proverb that you can take a horse to water but you can’t make it drink. Much the same could be said about an awful lot of reluctant readers, especially those ‘hard to reach’ boys.

But we’re not talking about drinking water or anything else. We’re talking about becoming confident, engaged readers. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve had conversations with despairing parents and teachers, wondering just how they can get the lads in their care to develop a love of books.

There is a real problem here. Though we shouldn’t tar all these children with the same brush, a significant number would rather chew their own right leg off than confess to enjoying reading and writing. It isn’t often that I agree with the late Chris Woodhead, a former Chief Inspector of Schools, but I do concur with the following statement: "The achievement of working class boys, is the single most pressing problem in British education." At age fourteen, girls outperform boys by 12% in reading (National Literacy Trust).

It is one thing to argue that forming letters into patterns is essential to reading. It is quite another to contend that simply mastering forty four phonemes alone will create a reading child. A recent survey by the LSE's Centre for Economic Performance (CEP) said the method has had 'no measurable effect on pupils’ reading scores at age eleven. The Rose Review said phonics was effective as part of: “a broad, rich language curriculum with lots of experience of good quality literature.”

As an author and educational consultant I visit 150 schools a year. The schools that succeed with boys tend to have certain common features and the specific delivery of how to teach reading really doesn’t emerge as the most important. I am one of Woodhead’s working class boys.

In the nineteen fifties I learned to read through a ‘look and say’ scheme and I am as literate as friends who learned through phonics, ITA or any other vogue.

What made me a reader was hearing good models of speaking and listening from my parents and teachers, being offered plenty of boy-friendly fiction, from Emil and the Detectives to Treasure Island, Bows Against the Barons to Lord of the Rings and being allowed to write stories and poems on subjects in which I was interested. I read comics and Look and Learn, quiz books and puzzlers, typical male fare.

So what seems to work with reluctant readers in general and lads in particular? Well, a literate classroom helps, in which the teacher is obviously a keen reader and glows with the love of story telling and poetry. Boys tend to love listening to poems and joining in with the chorus lines. They tend to be less enthusiastic about deconstructing and ‘comprehending’ them. Nothing is more guaranteed to put most boys off reading than an over-prescriptive curriculum where everything is filleted and assessed and literacy becomes functional not fun. Fast-paced teaching, laced with humour comes high on the agenda.

What’s more, there should be no snobbery about what sort of book the lads are reading. We need sport, horror, adventure, jokes, facts, puzzles. Reading is at least as much about immersion as technique. In order to become a reader most boys have to be motivated. They have to want to read. We can have all our debates about specific pedagogies but it boils down to this: are we creating the kind of environment where reading is valued? Some schools do a marvellous job. Others fall far short. 

When I go into secondary schools what makes the difference? Is it that their boys have had systematic phonics teaching or can identify a fronted adverbial? No, it is the existence of a good school librarian, seen as part of the English team, somebody who connects with the students and provides a rich and varied diet of great books. In the final analysis it is not technique that makes a reader. It is the presence of other experienced and inspirational people ready to pass on the reading habit.

Books by Alan Gibbons

Hate Ages +12

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Alan Gibbons

Alan Gibbons  ·  Alan Gibbons

Alan Gibbons is a full time writer. Born in 1953, Alan is the author of scores of books. He has won seventeen literary awards including the televised Blue Peter Book Award. He has twice been shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal. Alan visits 150-180 schools a year in the UK and overseas. Alan lives in Liverpool with his family.

Comment on post


My son likes to read and be read to. I'm a keen reader. This article is very relevant to boys I'm sure.