Real Men Read: Raising Boys Who Love to Read

by Laura Lambert

Image credit: MoMo Productions / Getty Images

Male reading role models are more important than you think.

“You can’t be what you can’t see.”
—Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF)

Typically, people quote Marian Wright Edelman to bolster arguments for putting women in positions of power, so that young girls can imagine themselves as CEO or as the next president.

But it works on many levels — including creating readers.

And, in particular, male readers.

Elementary-aged boys lag behind girls the same age in most aspects of reading and literacy. Experts have suggested that it’s because reading and liking to read is seen as “feminine.” This is understandable when only 14.6 percent of elementary school teachers are male (and only two percent of Pre-K and Kindergarten teachers).

What’s the best way to inspire the next generation of male readers?

Male reading role models.

Real Men Read in Schools

Real Men Read is an excellent call to action for dads, grandfathers, brothers, uncles, and boys to reclaim reading. It’s also an ad hoc collection of literacy programs that sprung up across the country over the last decade with a similar aim.

The United Way of Wabash Valley (UWWV) runs Real Men Read in Terre Haute, Indiana. The program is in 115 kindergarten classes across six counties.

“We’re completing our 11th year, and quite a few of the men have been reading since the beginning,” says Dorothy Chambers, Community Impact Senior Staff at UWWV. “It’s an extraordinary example of enthusiastic volunteers.”

The efforts fill a gap, especially in low-income communities.

“In our area, there’s a high percentage of kids living in single-parent households, in transitional housing. There are kids who lack a long-term male adult in their lives.” Having men from all walks of life come into the classroom consistently is meaningful, says Chambers.

In Houston, Gary Chaffee, manager of Library Services for Houston Independent School District, recently joined the district’s RMR program.

The program, which began with 2nd, 5th, and 7th graders, is now rooted in 3rd grade. “I can tell you, in my experience, how important it is to be reaching out to kids at any grade level,” says Chaffee. But 3rd grade is critical, as the curriculum shifts from learning to read to reading to learn.

“Within our district, not every school has a certified librarian,” says Chaffee.

What’s more, less than 10% of school librarians are male.

“These kids need to be hearing from us,” he adds.

For Chaffee, the program is an opportunity to share books that have real meaning for him — and that can spark fruitful conversations with boys and girls.

For example, the book A Chair for My Mother by Vera Williams has significant value. There is a house fire in the book, and the family works to recover. “It speaks to me on a personal level,” says Chaffee.

“I went through a house fire,” he explains. “And I can make those connections — how the characters are feeling, what it’s like to be displaced, and the idea, in the end, that home is what we make of it.”

For Terry Stuczynski, the Real Men Read (RMR) Coordinator for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Northeast Indiana, the proof is in the numbers.

  • 98% of teachers consider Real Men Read volunteers a valuable resource to help students build literacy skills.
  • 89% of teachers are confident the program helps students achieve higher literacy performance.
  • 89% of teachers can identify specific examples of how students have benefitted from the program.

Mentorship — which is at the heart of Real Men Read — also translates into fewer absences from school, a better attitude toward school, a more positive attitude toward peers, and an increased chance of continuing beyond high school.

“It’s huger than anyone can imagine,” says Stuczynski.

What Any Man Can Do

Similar school-based programs have been profiled in Chicago, New Jersey, and even in a high school in Minnesota.

But families don’t have to wait until a Real Men Read program springs up in their community.

For anyone who wants to help young boys become lifelong readers, let Dad — or a brother, an uncle, or another trusted male — handle the bedtime stories.

Tell them that real men read.

And give them these tips:

You Can Make Any Moment Count
“You don’t have to commit a large chunk of time,” says Chambers of the UWWV. “You can be in the grocery store. You can be at the bus stop. Any time is an opportunity to read with your child. It can be 10 or 15 minutes a day. Those special moments will add up to a much stronger reader.”

You Cannot Wing It
“Not with 5-year-olds,” jokes Chambers. While you don’t have to be an expert reader for a read-aloud, even a little preparation helps with voices, inflection, and understanding of the story arc.

Don’t Just Read
One way to show children the power of books is to talk about the book in hand. Ask questions. Make real-world connections.

Let Them See You Read
Men don’t always have to do the bedtime story. It’s effective to have kids see you reading for yourself as well.

Talk About Reading
One tenet of the Real Men Read program in Fort Wayne, Indiana, is that male readers talk about the role of reading in their own lives when they introduce themselves to a new classroom. Tell kids why you love to read, and chances are, they’ll feel inspired to do the same. It’s a strategy that works anywhere.