Engaging the Boy Brain

How do we motivate boys to learn to read and write?

Ben was six. Before walking into my classroom for the first time I already knew he had an anger issue, he was disruptive, and he was not showing progress as he should.

On meeting him, I immediately liked him. He communicated directly, contributed to group discussions, and while he did get easily angered when frustrated, he was also able to take on board some simple behavioral techniques to manage his emotions.

But he was not at all interested in reading.

As he turned headed towards seven, he was put forward for special reading assistance. Nothing was making an impact, so I sat down with him and asked him one very simple question, “Ben, don’t you want to learn how to read?”

His answer? “It’s not that I don’t want to. It’s that I don’t need to.”

I was shocked—of course he needed to read! So I asked him why he believed it wasn’t so important.

He replied, “I’m going to be a builder when I grow up, and builders don’t need to know how to read.”

I was a little dumbstruck. Ben wasn’t lazy, or slow as others had thought. Instead he was envisioned, focused and choosing to put his energy into the things he believed mattered.

There was an easy fix for this—I invited a builder to come into the school and talk t him about why he needed to read for his job, and how it helped him every day, and Ben was a changed boy.

Within ten weeks he was not only reading on a par with his peers, but was in the top reading group, and much of his frustrated behavior also reduced.

Part of the issue with many boys in education is that they are often driven to seek the higher purpose of a task. A girl tends to be driven by a desire to please—her survival process (whether we like it or not), is to keep the adult who is responsible for her on her side, and she does this by being compliant, and willing to do what is asked of her. This fits our education system far better than a boy’s all too common desire to survive through independence, and exploration.

A boy needs to know why. What is the reason for learning this? Does it fit in with his plan? He’s not particularly interested in YOUR plan, if it’s not in line with HIS plan. We need to create a need for him, before we provide the solution.

In early years this can be helped by adding clipboards, and paper and pens to the process before letting boys loose with carpentry tools, or with blocks or Lego. Give them the option of drawing down their ideas. Help them make lists of the materials they might need, and help them get to a point where they are frustrated that they can’t record their findings the way they need to during a scientific process, because they cannot not yet write. Through that haze of frustration, we can provide them the solution of teaching them how to read and write.

We need to tap into the types of books and writing young boys love. Create signs to tell birds to keep off the garden, or create books made of photos of thier favorite Lego creations, or block work, with their pointers of how they created them. (Boys’ art tends to be non-permanent creations, whereas girls’ art tends to be beautifully two dimensional, and far easier to keep and store.) Use non fiction books as reference books and the internet to explore fascinations.

Instead of us trying to fit boys into a girl styled education system, let’s reshape the process to fit them and how they learn best.  Isn’t that what teaching to the individual needs is all about?


Read more in Education.

Image credit: woodleywonderworks/Flickr

About Rachel Goodchild

Rachel Goodchild is a parent and behavior coach. Her course Boys are Brilliant is a popular choice for both teachers and parents wanting to help address the needs their children.


  1. Teach Kids not Who We Imagine Them to Be says:

    Rachel – Thank you for bringing up this important issue, but…..Really? “Ben was six. Before walking into my classroom for the first time I already knew he had an anger issue, he was disruptive, and he was not showing progress as he should.” Seriously?

    How would you feel if someone wrote,”the pretty little 6 year old girl, was dressed in pink frilly lace, I knew she would never like science. She would only want to play with dolls.”

    I’m glad you talked with him and invited someone to your classroom to spark his interest in reading. But, as a teacher, AP and principal, I’d be furious if I heard someone say, “oh boys tend to …. or girls tend to …..”
    There are plenty of girls and boys who love to read without inviting visitors. And there are lots of kids who become delighted in a kind of genre or type of play after meeting other people. (FYI – if you can’t find an adult carpenter, you could ask other teachers if they had kids who were really into building books. It doesn’t always have to be an adult. The key seems to me that you found a genre that intrigued this child.

    This is not a gender issue. This is about finding the book/the genre that sparks a child to find the excitement in books. Some kids will like some books. Some kids won’t. And that’s okay. I like some books and I don’t like others. But I’ve been lucky enough to find books that reflect who I am, to intrigue me.

    You wrote: “Instead of us trying to fit boys into a girl styled education system, let’s reshape the process to fit them and how they learn best. Isn’t that what teaching to the individual needs is all about?”

    No. Finding what sparks interest in each individual child is what teaching & learning is all about. The child’s gender is not the pedagogical issue. The issue is learning about each individual child.

    What if I started my comment by saying, “Rachel was a female teacher. As soon as I saw her name as the author, I knew she was going to be predisposed to find faults with boys. As a female teacher she will find boys to have anger issues, be disruptive and not show progress in her class – because she was a female teacher.” What if I sent you to a professional development workshop with the other female teachers to help you see the potential in boys before any boys walked into your classroom?

    I am happy for this conversation. I think too often we get caught up in who we think the child is. Learning to listen and learn from kids (like you did when you asked the child about his interest in reading) is very important for every one. Every child is different. We would all be better off if we learned about each child from what they taught us, not because how they walked into your classroom on the first day of school. Getting past our preconceived notions are not an “easy fix.” It’s about listening to each child.

    I’m curious, are you in a school with a wide variety of teachers? Are there men teaching the youngest grades as well as the oldest grades? Are there teachers with a wide variety of cultural backgrounds?

    If you haven’t, definitely check out the 100 Languages of Children from Reggio Emilia. It will change you forever.

    Thank you for putting your article out there. I know it was brave. We all need to have these discussions so we all become better teachers. Thank you. I apologize if I was too abrupt. My favorite book was “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs” and I’m in NYC. Maybe the hurricane has put me in a bad mood, since it’s only raining rain, I was hoping for mashed potatoes.

    • Hi

      Thank you for your reply

      I fear I won’t respond in the fullness you deserve- but I’m just about to step into a workshop, then have a full schedule for four days- and wanted to reply

      First- I was told Ben had anger issues by the AP, his previous teacher and his parents. I went in with their thoughts in mind, but quickly disregarded their perception when I saw why and how his anger was represented, and helped him work through it. I personally.

      I am delighted you an advocate of Reggio. Me too! 🙂

      The school this was in did not have many male teachers- and those that were there taught the older children. It was a predominately white, middle class school and that was reflected in our teaching.

      I believe there IS gender differences. And I believe we do children, teachers and parents a disservice by pretending otherwise. Does it mean every child acts like within their gender norms? No – and we should always teach to the individual needs of every child, whether male, female, black, white, whatever.

      A group of like minded individuals can be taught as a group. But our education system in general tends to aim it’s style and methods towards the needs of a group of children who happen to be female or have “female type” brains. I have, and always will advocate that we also need to teach to the needs of the male type brains as well.

      I run a course called “Boys are Brilliant that is aimed at teachers and parents of boys aged 0-8. All too often a female teacher will come up and thank me for making her realise there was nothing wrong with the way she thought or learned- but instead she just had a “boy type brain” that didn’t fit the traditional education system. Or a parent, who relaxes and is thankful she doesn’t have to worry her boy is not into sitting down with a book at four, because he’s learning his own way. Or the father who gets affirmation that the rough play he does with his son is indeed doing him the world of good.

      I’m not politically correct. And I’ll never try to pretend there is no gender difference between the majority of boys and girls. There is. Despite what I was taught when I trained as a teacher. Regardless of whether it’s due to biology or environment, it matters not when I’m presented with a boy in front of me that I am responsible for.

      I adore boys- and I adore the lessons I’ve learned from teaching them, learning with them, living alongside them.
      I adore seeing the light ignite behind a child’s eyes. And the light ignite behind the eyes of a parent or teacher when they realise the boys they interact with are learning the way they are made to.

      That makes my day very sunny indeed 🙂

      Hope the rain passes quickly.

  2. Eric Sentell says:

    Great article and insights. I teach English at a Midwestern university, and I will definitely implement your suggestion to explain the purpose of our assignments and activities. I’ve already tried doing this, but I am sure I can emphasize purpose more frequently, clearly, and tangibly. Thanks!

  3. I always liked reading, but I didn’t like school literature. Maybe teachers should look for books that are fun to read (like Winnie Pooh for starters) and not for books that you should have read.

  4. I also think it is helpful to let boys know there are GREAT stories that could interest them reading wise. I never needed encouragement to read, but I found that there were so many stories worth exploring. I got my first library card when I was five, and that summer I read every single Hardy Boys book that existed at the time. I also read lots of books about military planes and guns and war. If more books in school were aligned with a boy’s interests, he’d be more inclined to read.

  5. As the mom of a 7 year old boy, this really hits home. I think there’s also a place for allowing children to come to reading and writing when they’re ready. We push it on all kids from preschool, but I know enough children who jumped whole-heartedly into reading at 7 or 8 or 9, rather than 4 or 5 to say that some kids are interested in other things first.

    I also think it’s a mistake to say that this type of teaching – engaging the child’s interest first in order to stimulate their desire to learn – is only, or even particularly, of benefit for boys. Just because girls generally may be better suited to our current school environment, or better able to adapt, doesn’t mean they won’t benefit from better teaching. I also have two girls, ages 5 and 11, and plenty of their creative work is in the form of legos, found-object sculptures and music.

    I don’t think it serves children well to compartmentalize what works for “boys” and “girls”. I think it works to find what works for children who learn in particular ways. It might be true that more boys learn one way and more girls learn in another, but only teaching in a certain way to a certain gender leaves out all of the other children who don’t fit the mold. Maybe this is just what you are trying to say, but it’s not just boys who “need to know why” and it’s not just girls who are “driven by a desire to please.”

    • I think trying to think of the differences between the minds of boys and girls as superficial is going to bite you Lorraine. These differences aren’t superficial or cultural in nature, or at least not completely. The differences are evolutionary linked to thousands of years of human history and human biology. Certainly education can be changed to better engage girls, but that really doesn’t mean what aids or benefits one gender will necessarily benefit the other gender to an equal amount.

      In my opinion the big issue with education today is we try to treat all children the same, which is why often issues pop up. It is by no means focused on one gender, but taking gender differences in mind is a very good idea to better teach children. Some tactics today work well with girls, but not so well with boys. The differences between how boys and girls think certainly can be used to explain that.

      • I am thinking of more of a middle ground.

        The thing is, single-sex education can greatly benefit a large number of boys and girls out there who learn the way that children of their particular sex tend to learn best at, some are simply more comfortable with being only with kids of the same sex as them, and sometimes really motivated teachers get themselves in to these sorts of jobs.

        It really doesn’t work in some cases, even when done well. A girl who is legally blind had huge difficulties seeing in her all-girl classroom, where the lights were a warm colour and dimmer than the standard issue at public schools. She was also reprimanded frequently for being fidgety. So it’s true that there are students who won’t fit the mould.

        On the other hand, however, we’re on to something. A lot of boys would benefit from having a teacher who specialises in the education of boys in particular, and from a more hands-on approach. So would girls. My condition for a single-sex classroom (which I would LOVE to operate) would be that each student in the programme would need to be enrolled consensually, they would have to succeed more in the programme OR be much more content with it than a gen ed setting, and they would have to be able to opt out.

        If I wanted to get even MORE ideal, I do honestly believe that the single-sex education model is a precursor to the learning styles education model, wherein teachers take students who learn a particular way (the same way that they specialise in!), regardless of ability, and work from there. It would be more complicated to manage, but that’s why we would transition incrementally up to it.

      • I’m not sure why you think that I “think the differences between the minds of boys and girls [are] superficial,” since I didn’t say that and I don’t think it. My point was that there might be broad differences (on a population level) between the way boys and girls learn, but it’s a mistake to generalize and try to teach all boys or all girls in a particular way because of their gender.

        I actually think you and I were trying to make the same point – teach to the individual child.


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