Why Johnny Won’t Read and What To Do About It

More & more children do not like to read, especially boys. Why is that and what can we do about it? To answer these questions, I will address the following:

  • Developing a love of story
  • Lack of reading skills
  • Short attention spans
  • Competition for children’s time and attention
  • Lack of good, appropriate content

Each of these points presents problems as I see them and possible solutions. In addition to my book & writing background, I am a certified teacher and taught in a juvenile detention center as its school master for two years in 2000-2002. I’m also a professional storyteller (since 1997) who toured my state’s schools as a performer on the Kansas Arts Commission’s Touring Roster.

Developing a love of story

When I was a little boy in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, My grandmother and my mother read to me or told me stories often. Each day I would anxiously await the Story Hour program on Purdue University’s radio station, when a story lady or man would read from an exciting children’s book—each day carrying the story along serial fashion until the book was finally finished and then a new one would begin. My favorite teachers were ones who would read aloud to our classes whenever they had the chance. All this developed my love of story and contributed to my love of reading. At one point, my mother and step-father (who were not readers of habit) actually took me to our family doctor with their concern that I was reading too much (is there such a thing?). Reading was my escape, my transport to other worlds and lands. Famous British children’s fantasy writer, Brian Jacques, understood that compulsion, when as a ragamuffin boy, he used to sneak into the library, grab a book, and hide back in the stacks to read until he was caught and they threw him out for being a dirty street kid. (He personally shared that story with me one night at an Author’s Dinner at the BEA).

Are we inculcating a love of story in our children today? Did we we read to them until they learned to read at school and then assumed they would read now that they knew how? Did we stop reading to them? Did books cease to come alive for them in the hands of a skilled adult reader? I read aloud to my incarcerated juveniles 30-60 minutes a day and they loved it. In my own family, even when my kids were in their teens, we would take turns reading thrilling children’s books aloud as a frequent family activity.

Finally, are we good role models to our children? Do we allow them to catch us reading? How can we teach them a love of reading, if we don’t display that behavior ourselves? All this illustrates what I mean when I talk about developing a love of story and a love of reading them.

Lack of reading skills

I could always tell when a student had been taught to read by the “whole word” reading approach. As they stumbled along, guessing at words until the passages became utter nonsense, I cringed at their frustration. Teaching reading by whole word recognition is like teaching the very visual Chinese written language. Instead of teaching students how to sound out words for themselves, using phonics, the students are required to memorize the shapes of words and encouraged to guess what words might be. It just doesn’t work well and makes reading a hideous, frustrating chore. How can children love to do something that they don’t have the skills to do?

Short attention spans

It is a great temptation to use the electronic babysitter (the TV) to occupy our children while we focus on getting the housework done. The next time you watch TV, note how often the camera shots change, about every 3-5 seconds. This constant stimulation of the brain at the unconscious level programs it to expect to be stimulated often. When that doesn’t happen, boredom immediately sets in. Is it any wonder we have so many children with ADD problems. The TV has trained them to expect constant stimulation on a very shallow level. Responsible parents should limit TV watching to few favorite shows per week instead of a constant bombardment of the senses. Books don’t hold up well in the competition for the senses because they require thought, visualization, and imagination. TV, movies, and video games offer immediate and constant gratification which doesn’t require any of these brain skills. In my early years, TVs weren’t available yet, so I sat and told myself stories I made up by the hour for my own entertainment. From this came my imagination and creativity in my adult years. Turn off the boob tube!

Competition for children’s time and attention

When I grew up, there were very few organized activities. Playdate? What the heck is that? Our biggest complaint as kids was there was nothing to do. Today, there are way too many things for our children to do: gymnastics, dance, music, horseback riding, sports, you name it. Moms and dads are worn to a frazzle just trying to keep track of all the schedules and transport there to. When is there quiet time just to read? When a child is constantly stimulated with physical activities, how can a non-physical activity such as reading compete in that environment?

Lack of good, appropriate content

My last point is directed more toward young boys than girls. There is not enough good content to read. That is slowly starting to turn around, although way too many children’s book authors tend to only write fantasies for boys and a wider range of literature for girls. Writers and publishers, you must consider your target audience/market! What do boys like to do? That’s what needs to be written about. Like their fathers, many boys tend to prefer nonfiction. They like true life tales, sports stories, history, as well as fantasies. There are a few authors championing this cause; however, they are too few. Make a difference! provide interesting, fun content boys can identify with.


If you go back over the above material, the common theme is adult responsibilities. The child can’t and won’t make these fixes. YOU have to. Hopefully, this has given you some ideas as to how a love of reading can be inculcated. From my experience with wayward juveniles, it’s never too late, but the earlier you start, the better your chances will be. Our civilization is threatened. Remember what the old cartoon character, Pogo, once said: “We have seen the enemy, and he is we.”

This is a cross-posting from Bob Spear’s Book Trends blog.