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Boys Speak Out on Reading

By Donna Alvermann
 | Nov 12, 2015

ThinkstockPhotos-179217093_x600Has barely a month gone by since you’ve last seen or heard a report on how boys are disengaged as readers? Ever wonder what boys themselves would say in their defense, if asked?

Loukia Sarroub and Todd Pernicek, a high school English teacher and a literacy teacher, respectively, shared similar interests. They wondered about the predominance of boys enrolled in Todd’s literacy classes, which are intended for students who struggle with academic reading assignments, and whether learning about the boys’ lifetime encounters with reading might shed some light on their current placement. Their curiosity, fueled in part by a desire to share what they would learn with other reading teachers, led to a two-year case study of three high school boys deemed representative of their classmates.

Sarroub and Pernicek’s study, titled Boys, Books, and Boredom: A Case of Three High School Boys and Their Encounters With Literacy, is particularly notable because daily observations (recorded as field notes) were supplemented by information gained through interviews, informal reading inventories, schoolwork samples, grade point averages, and biographical pieces. Analyses of these data sources resulted in the following findings:

  • Over a lifetime, the boys had learned to “do school” by disengaging. Two of the boys had intensely disliked school and home reading for years, whereas the third boy’s views were more moderate. However, all three showed varying degrees of reluctance to engage with reading of any kind. This disengagement likely contributed to low achievement and negative perceptions of themselves as readers, particularly for the two boys who strongly disliked reading. Yet Harry Potter books and automotive repair manuals were a few of the rare bright spots in their collective reading memories.  
  • The boys’ perceptions of themselves as poor to moderately successful readers were stable and permanent. They believed their situations were out of their control and linked teachers’ actions to their low status as readers. They could differentiate the characteristics of teachers who helped them learn versus those who did not and were highly critical of teachers who did not succeed in forging positive relationships with them. Teachers who gave a lot of homework overwhelmed the group and caused them to stop trying. One boy, in fact, said he could distinguish between “trying” and “trying to try.” Interesting to note, however, is that a perceived sense of failure caused by circumstances out of their control was not confined to schooling.
  • Interactions (or lack thereof) with parents, plus the complexity of their home lives, contributed to the boys’ perceptions of why they were disengaged as readers. One boy remembered his father reading to him as a child but not teaching him about reading, and another boy recalled times when he and his father would pore over car manuals in advance of making repairs. The third boy’s home life had been in turmoil since he could remember. He had distanced himself from both parents and was working a 40-hour per week job as a high school senior.

The sense Sarroub and Pernicek made of these findings, given that a key reason for conducting the study had been to inform classroom practice, was that no single factor accounts for the struggles disengaged readers have encountered over a lifetime. Instead, the complexities inherent in each and every student’s separate struggle will call for flexibility in instruction and the implementation of a school district’s curriculum.

In the first instance, it is the teachers who are in control—those who “reclaim their literacy classrooms and the courage to do what is right by first focusing on students and then making the appropriate pedagogical adjustments” (Sarroub & Pernicek, 2014, p. 27). The authors provide an example that Hinchman (2007) has advanced: namely, the pedagogical principle of simplicity rules. This translates to a plan of action in which homework loads are reduced considerably and then increased as disengaged readers find less reason for believing success is beyond their control. Another plan of action implied by the findings involves giving students some degree of choice in materials to be read. Attending to reader choice will likely also address issues of relevancy, motivation, and sustained engagement.

But teachers exerting their flexibility need a school district’s support to succeed. Thus, Sarroub and Pernicek encourage school boards to demonstrate a similar flexibility in matters that pertain to implementing curricula, especially in an era of high accountability. This action, the authors of the study submit, could “help young men avoid becoming yet another statistic in a report about how boys are falling behind in reading” (p. 27).

For additional suggestions on how to engage reluctant readers, see an earlier scintillating study featuring the work of Gay Ivey and Peter Johnston as blogged by Ryan Rutherford and Jo Worthy.

donna alvermann headshotDonna Alvermann is the University of Georgia Appointed Distinguished Research Professor of Language and Literacy Education. She also holds an endowed chair position: The Omer Clyde and Elizabeth Parr Aderhold Professor in Education. Formerly a classroom teacher in Texas and New York, her research focuses on young people’s digital literacies and use of popular media. 

The ILA Literacy Research Panel uses this blog to connect educators around the world with research relevant to policy and practice. Reader response is welcomed via e-mail.


Hinchman, K.A. (2007). I want to learn to read before I graduate: How sociocultural research on adolescents’ literacy struggles can shape classroom practice. In L.S. Rush, A.J. Eakle, & A. Berger (Eds.), Secondary school literacy: What research reveals for classroom practice (pp. 117–137). Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

Sarroub, L.K., & Pernicek, T. (2014). Boys, books, and boredom: A case of three high school boys and their encounters with literacy. Reading & Writing Quarterly, 1-29.doi:10.1080/10573569.2013.859052


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