Forget About the Reluctance and Focus on the Reader

This article first appeared in Acculturated in June 2015.

By Stephanie Cohen

Stand around with any group of moms of elementary school-aged boys and eventually the words “reluctant” and “reader” will enter the conversation. A recently released local book list for the summer called attention to the fact that it was designed to entice reluctant readers.

The “reluctant” umbrella captures a wide swath of children today, especially boys. If your son is picky (maybe he only wants to read about baseball), or will only read for mandated 15-minute periods ticked off on the kitchen timer and not a second more, or if he dislikes most of the books you bring home, or says the books his teachers assign are boring, someone will eventually suggest that he’s a reluctant reader.

Reluctance, by definition, can mean unwillingness, hesitancy, or disinterest. There is a long bridge between a reader who hesitates or lacks enthusiasm and a reader who is completely unwilling. When they buck a little and resist a book, when they hesitate to pick a book, or seem unable to finish a book that they like, when they drop their book to grab a basketball, we say, “They must be a reluctant reader.”

It’s a label that can apply to any child who doesn’t intrinsically love reading and want to spend hours curled up in a chair surrounded by books. One education book described a reluctant reader as any person between the ages of 12-18, who chooses, for whatever reason, not to read.  If this were a psychiatric disorder, the entire population would receive this label at some point; we’ve all felt reluctance to do something.

Strategies to entice these tentative (especially male) readers abound: let them play Minecraft, then they’ll want to read Minecraft books; let them use the iPad or computer more, then they’ll want to read more afterwards; let them read graphic novels (aka comic books); let their fathers read to them; get them a dog.

Anyone who has spent time around early readers knows that it sometimes takes cajoling, deal making and flat out ordering to get kids to read.

My eight-year old son will only read nonfiction, mostly biographies. This started out as a desire to read about real-life baseball players and then became a literary calling. Biographies of Babe Ruth, the Wright Brothers, Ulysses S. Grant, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, and Alexander Graham Bell were all great. Matt Christopher’s fictional books about boys who play sports? Nope. Fictional books about dragons, animals, cars, and aliens? Not a chance.

Yet I would never describe my son as a reluctant reader. Picky? Absolutely. Single-mindedly interested in a certain type of writing that I think should be left for the historians? You betcha.

In the 1970s, academic researchers began asking boys how they felt about reading and their “attitude” toward reading. Their responses would unknowingly lay the groundwork for the now widely-accepted “gender gap” movement that aims to understand why boys say they don’t like to read as much as girls. Educational researchers later argued that boys are different learners, need different stimulation in their school setting compared to girls, and can’t expect to have their attention held by reading a “dense” book. Some of this may be true.

But all of this focus on why boys don’t connect with reading or want to read transformative literature begs the question: Does the reluctance even matter?

“The trouble we have here is not with the boys themselves. The trouble is that we don’t fully understand our boys,” a book on building literacy in boys says. How long are we willing to let a little reluctance prevent boys from eating a healthy and dynamic literary meal?

This year I set out to read a gorgeous illustrated copy of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer aloud to my three oldest children (between the ages of five and eight). I prepared myself for a little resistance. “The old language is strange, I’m not sure I’m going to like this” my daughter predicted at the very start. “Is this going to be boring?” my son asked.

In chapter two we reached the passage where Tom sees his friend Ben Rogers coming down the street pretending to be a steam ship. The language, the sounds, the awesome illustrations, the pacing of the sentences—it is an utterly flamboyant parody of the things boys do. And suddenly my son is on his back howling with laughter. He can’t stop. “Please read that again, pleassssssseeeeee!”

So I read it again, with even more drama; my son made me reread it each night thereafter before we picked up the narrative again. A few weeks later, when we read the episode where Tom drugs his Aunt’s cat and the cat goes bonkers on two legs, my son started howling all over again.

Mark Twain did this for my son, and he did it by giving him a fabulously real portrayal of what is potentially the most reluctant schoolboy/reader in literary history: Tom Sawyer. Tom’s “mental stomach” never hungers for the prizes that come with academic success and, as Twain writes, “the harder Tom tries to fasten his mind on his book, the more his ideas wander.” But even Tom can be bribed to learn his verses with the promise of a Barlow knife.

Perhaps the problem isn’t that boys are reluctant to read.  It’s that parents need to relax and exercise some patience until their boys stumble across a book that they can’t put down; unlike a few rounds of Minecraft, such well-loved stories will stay with them for the rest of their lives.