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How to Engage Teenage Boys with Literature

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by Erin Connelly (subscribe)
I am a medievalist in the process of completing a PhD (involving medieval medicine). I travel as much as possible at home (UK) and abroad. I'm always ready for new experiences!
Published February 26th 2013
Engaging disinterested readers with advanced secondary school material has been a complex problem for generations. In recent years, the problem has become distinctly gendered. Low engagement with literacy begins in early education and, if not addressed, becomes a significant problem for young men. A study in the journal New Library World reports that by secondary school some boys have simply "ceased reading". Increasing the literacy achievements of young men is a multifaceted and complicated issue. This article aims to provide some simple, boy-friendly teaching techniques that may help to alleviate classroom frustration and even spark the interest of disengaged male students.

Wren Library, Cambridge. Photo by Andrew Dunn.


In general, teenage boys show a more positive response to kinesthetic, competitive, and interactive aspects of a lesson. When asked to sit quietly and take notes for an hour, generally young women cope with the task more successfully than their male peers. Active techniques to engage students with literature include:

Interactive and tactile components, such as building storyboards, using online media, acting out a scene from a play or reading aloud

Turn ordinary lessons into games and competitive challenges. Instead of lecturing on grammar principles, divide the class into teams and let them compete to answer questions correctly

A combination of marking methods: written and oral tests, class participation points, and extra credit awards for completing reading assignments

Research has shown that boys tend to thrive under male leadership in single sex classrooms; however, it's not always possible to provide separate learning environments in a mixed school. Many interactive and competitive learning methods will also appeal to young women in the classroom. The point is to use a variety of activities, challenges, and methods to engage the full range of individual interests and abilities in the class.

Integrate Adolescent Literature

In the mid-20th century, Dr. Robert Havighurst of the University of Chicago identified 11 developmental tasks unique to the period of adolescence. These include:

Forming a new sense of identity
Increased cognitive demands
Preparing for an adult occupation
Establishing emotional and psychological independence
Developing a personal value system
Forming stable peer relationships

Adolescent literature engages the reader by using such tasks as the primary plot points. Selecting literature with a relatable male protagonist, such as Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye, can draw teenage boys into the process of reading comprehension and reflection.

Use Technology

A study by the Pew Research Center and MacArthur Foundation shows that 99 percent of teenage boys play computer, web, portable or console games. Of those teens who play games on a daily basis, 65 percent are male and 35 percent are female. Such technology may seem diametrically opposed to a subject concerned with books, text, reading, and writing; however, there are many ways that electronic media can be used to engage attention. These include:

Access to ebooks, online collections, and digital libraries
Online literacy and grammar games
Web-based research
Supplementing lessons with video clips, PowerPoint, or interactive SMART Boards

Select Boy-Friendly Topics

Standard secondary school curriculum and the classics of literature cannot be ignored. Still, efforts must be made to appeal to the interests of young men who refuse to engage with such high school staples as Pride and Prejudice or Romeo and Juliet. Virginia Tech has produced a useful list titled Cool Books for Tough Guys, which is targeted to adolescent males who do not enjoy reading. If these cannot be incorporated into a school curriculum, they can certainly be made available to boys on a reading list or given as extra credit for reading done in spare time.

These simple techniques, for reading in the home or classroom, can provide some encouragement for students who have likely been disheartened with literature for the majority of their educational career.
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