Help me get a 16 year old boy to read.
December 3, 2007 1:01 PM   Subscribe

Does anyone have any advice or strategies or good books that will get a 16 year old boy interested in reading?

A little about him: He loves football and is on the track team (shotput). He also fails to see the point in school except as a means to play sports and hang out with his friends. I'm his aunt and I'm trying to help him get his grades up. He's got a good memory and is a smart kid if he'd only read the assignment in the first place. I watch him read passages from his books and I can tell he's only skimming. Short of reading the passages to him, is there any way to get him to read better? I'm sure he doesn't have any sort of a learning disability when it comes to reading. Several years ago, he read most of the Harry Potter series, so I know he can do it. Now that he's older though, reading isn't cool apparently. Any tricks that have worked for you?
posted by SheIsMighty to Education (46 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Catcher in the Rye.
posted by meerkatty at 1:04 PM on December 3, 2007

Fight Club! It's a little racy, but a 16 year old could definitly handle it. And its the ultimate in cool.
posted by thebrokenmuse at 1:06 PM on December 3, 2007

posted by milarepa at 1:08 PM on December 3, 2007

The Illuminatus! Trilogy.
posted by jeffamaphone at 1:09 PM on December 3, 2007

How about some Alan Moore? Start him on Watchmen, then V For Vendetta, then From Hell. These are graphic novels, but more intelligent than many novels, and they involve plenty of reading and attention-span-building.
posted by WPW at 1:10 PM on December 3, 2007 [1 favorite]

Get him a subscription to Sports Illustrated.
posted by warble at 1:11 PM on December 3, 2007 [1 favorite]

Ender's Game , I read it when I was 13 and it re-sparked my interest in reading.
posted by utsutsu at 1:11 PM on December 3, 2007

A Song of Ice and Fire? Absolutely addictive reading (4 of the planned 7 are out now).

On preview, definitely Ender's Game as well.
posted by mysterious1der at 1:12 PM on December 3, 2007 [1 favorite]

I'm going to go against the grain here and say that no book is going to magically make this kid start reading his homework assignments.

It seems like the problem is not reading, its studying. There's a big difference. If he has the ability to read and understand the material in school, and just isn't bothering to do it, then suggesting more books for him to read in his spare time isn't going to help.

He's old enough that you're not going to be able to trick him into putting more effort into school than he wants to. The only way you can get him to do it is to somehow convince him to make his grades a higher priority. Some times that comes down to bribery (as in offering some reward for a perfect report card).
posted by burnmp3s at 1:15 PM on December 3, 2007 [2 favorites]

Seconding magazine subscriptions. My now 20 year old son doesn't like to read, though his dad and I both read a lot, there are loads of books in our homes, and we read to him as a child. He'll read The New Yorker, Newsweek and the car mags my brother gifted him. He has good reading skills and comprehension. I'm sorry he doesn't share my love of books and reading, but he just doesn't.
posted by theora55 at 1:19 PM on December 3, 2007

During the summers, I teach for a program called the Institute of Reading Development. I teach all ages including high school and college students. Many of the older students are there to both improve their reading skills and and to develop a love of reading. There is also a lot of resistance, especially from high schoolers. One of the reasons we encounter resistance is that their reading speeds sometimes aren't up to normal conversation level, making it hard to actually get into a story in the first place. Another reason we encounter resistance to reading is because some students haven't really had a nice, rewarding experience with literature, even in a classroom setting.

To remedy these issues, I teach a sort of speed reading technique along with comprehension retention strategies. These techniques are also accompanied by really wonderful classroom discussions about the book that the students read in class. In addition, I teach how to implement these strategies in textbook and non-fiction type reading materials.

Over the past four years, I've seen students come into the classroom with an absolute hatred for reading and leave after five weeks loving it. I've also heard wonderful progress stories from parents over the years. And while I'm not really recommending this program per se, I think that trying some of these sorts of strategies might help get your nephew interested in books again.

As far as specific books are concerned, given his interests, I might recommend football/sports biographies or autobiographies.
posted by inconsequentialist at 1:20 PM on December 3, 2007

Kerouac and Vonnegut. On the Road and Cat's Cradle are good starts.

But, I'd actually have to agree with burnmp3s. Enjoying reading and schoolwork are two different beasts.
posted by General Malaise at 1:22 PM on December 3, 2007

I'm with burnmp3s on what the issue is. But here's an idea. Read the books yourself and then start a conversation with him about them. Give him room to express that he thinks they're stupid or boring, and keep up the conversation so you get to hear why. Articulating what you like or don't like about a book, or how you think the material could have been presented or written better, is part of becoming a good reader.
posted by cocoagirl at 1:23 PM on December 3, 2007

Maybe Jim Carroll's Basketball Diaries (and if he likes that, also try Forced Entries: The Downtown Diaries). Cavaet: they're very heavy on the sex and drugs thing (he was a heroin addict and worked as a prostitute as a teenager), but they're also incredibly engaging, heartbreaking, and even funny (in a pretty pitch-black way) -- and they're also about sports, too, given that he was a basketball whiz who, had he not been a junkie, probably would have had a shot at playing professional ball. Everyone I know was reading Jim Carroll around ages 16-18 -- he was about as hip as it got.

If he really winds up liking Jim Carroll, he might like his poetry (try Fear of Dreaming) and his kick-ass punk record, Catholic Boy (in which various characters from the diaries show up in songs).
posted by scody at 1:26 PM on December 3, 2007

the best american sports writing series may be of interest.

if he hasn't developed a love for reading now, he may never. but any reading is better than none. and a lot of sports writers are deceptively, sneakily good writers...
posted by thinkingwoman at 1:27 PM on December 3, 2007 [1 favorite]

I agree with burnmp3s. The trouble is not reading in general but reading the books from school. The best you could do is try to help him engage with those books, maybe by discussing them with him, like what cocoagirl says. For novels, there's going to be some he likes and some he doesn't like. I hated Catcher in the Rye and slogged through it, while Heart of Darkness was pretty interesting. For school, like in work, there's stuff you just have to do to get along and not screw yourself.
posted by demiurge at 1:28 PM on December 3, 2007

cocoagirl is right on. Finding the right book or books is great but it's not enough to turn someone into a good reader or even into someone who likes to read. I like the idea of reading the books yourself so you can talk to him about them. Make it into a mini book club! You could each read portions or chapters of a book and then get together to talk about them (or find someone who might be interested or have time to do this sort of thing if you don't). If you're enthusiastic about a book, that enthusiasm tends to rub off.
posted by inconsequentialist at 1:28 PM on December 3, 2007

Seconding burnmp3s. Don't get me wrong, I'm definitely for instilling a love of reading. However, if the problem is getting him to read for school, then it's completely unrelated to pleasure reading.

Thinking back on my high school experience, a lot of my classmates didn't care about studying because they knew they were work- or community-college-bound. Even if their ultimate plans included a four-year degree, attending a JC for the first two years obviates your high school grades. It's hard to want to try hard if you know your work will ultimately go unnoticed.

The kids that got good grades at my high school studied because they knew that if they got in to a good college, their families would find a way to pay. Your nephew is 16 and old enough to think about college. I don't know what your price range is, but perhaps a serious talk about how he can pay for college, and maybe how you could help, might be what it takes to get him on track.

Of course, if he already knows he has the financial wherewithal to attend a four-year college out of high school and is just goofing off... well... Bribery is probably most effective. Try ipods or cell phones.
posted by samthemander at 1:31 PM on December 3, 2007

Here's a practical solution to the skimming problem. This is similar to the speed reading technique that I've taught. Try having him take a few fingers (2 or 3) and run them underneath the text as he reads. Don't use a ruler. Don't use a pencil. This practice can help a student focus on the text and often prevents the mind from wandering too much.
posted by inconsequentialist at 1:46 PM on December 3, 2007

Seconding thinkingwoman on the sportswriting.

Some engaging non-fiction might be just the thing.

I've always been a big reader but I have gone through spells when I was "meh" about a lot of novels and read mostly essays, memoirs, and other non-fiction.
posted by pointystick at 1:49 PM on December 3, 2007

If the issues is just getting him in the habit of reading (not school, not books), then it sounds like you could use some football blogs. From 5 minutes of googling and following links:

We Are The Postmen
NFL Fanhouse

Set him up with RSS feeds, and you've got him nigh addicted to reading.
posted by heatherann at 1:51 PM on December 3, 2007

I was many years ago in the army during the Korean war. In Korea, a friend doing grad work encouraged me to read books he had read for school. Boring! When I began college, I had courses with books, lots of them. Boring. A friend there got me reading a few popular books and that got me stuff closer to your own time. I would suggest some good bios or autorbios on athletes. There are very fine ones on elite runners...any runner will gobble them up.
ps: I had difficulty in learning to read but a retired teacher down the block taught me after school. I taught literature for 25 years at college with a Ph.D. in literature from Rutgers.
posted by Postroad at 1:54 PM on December 3, 2007

As his aunt, I doubt anything you give him can count as "cool". Which is fine, 'cause the issue isn't that he needs to read more; it's that he needs to read his assignments, which is an entirely different beast, born out of discipline and an affection for academia, not out of a love of reading.

Basically, I second what burnmp3s said.
posted by Greg Nog at 1:56 PM on December 3, 2007

If he's worried about reading not being "cool," nonfiction may be better than fiction, especially science fiction and fantasy. I would suggest The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Fast Food Nation or really any book on a topic he likes. That aside, Fight Club is basically the coolest thing ever written.
posted by martinX's bellbottoms at 1:57 PM on December 3, 2007

One odd thing to me is that whenever a kid doesn't like reading, people always start suggesting books, as if the right story will get him hooked on books in general. I guess that's possible, but it seems unlikely to me. Plenty of people love stories, but they get their fixes from TV and movies.

I remember going through an age when I didn't like to read. It wasn't because books bored me; it was because I was a slow reader. If I could have sat down and read a book in an hour, I would have done it. But I'd be on page three and I'd see how many pages lay ahead, and I'd just want to give up. (Funny how I'm now the opposite -- I see that I only have three pages left, and I get sad.)

What NOBODY told me is that good writing can come in small packages!

Here's what I wish someone had done: found cool short writings for me. I'm not talking about 50-page stories, I'm talking about three-paragraph stories (or humor pieces). It wouldn't have worked to start me on Shakespeare Sonnets or Emily Dickenson poems, because I wasn't interested in that stuff back then. But I would have read page-long stories/essays about whatever interested me.

One VERY important thing: it would have helped to have someone else read these same things and have a lively discussion with me. Kids should be able to read short items and enjoy discussions about them.

VERY gradually, the items should get longer. Three-page stories, 10-page-stories, propper short stores, novelas, novels... New lengths should not be tackled until the young reader is ready. It's it's VITAL that cool discussions take place all the while. It won't work to say, "read the short stuff all you want, kid, but I'm not going to talk to you until you read 'War and Peace'."

No one ever did this for me, but in a way, I did it for myself. As many kids do, I started with comic books. They were easier to read, and they were about stuff that interested me. (Robots, etc.)

Very important: I could talk to my friends about the comic books (it would have been really cool if I'd had a friendly aunt to talk to them about, one who wouldn't condescend to me about them). Luckily, my parents -- college professors -- were not snobbish about comics. Then never made me feel stupid for reading them or pressured me to read more advanced stuff.

I graduated from comics to short stories and then to novels. I real almost exclusively sci-fi and fantasy. Finally, I graduated from genre books to modern lit and classics. The key was that no one ever pressured me. On the other hand, I grew up in a house full of books. They were everywhere. If I reached out a hand, it touched a book.
posted by grumblebee at 2:01 PM on December 3, 2007 [1 favorite]

Nthing burnmp3s.

It's a drag, but I'm finding that the best motivator for my similarly situated kid is to let nature take its course. There's nothing like no pass-no play (or no perform/participate/whatever) to create a magical incentive. It's a result not imposed by the fuddy-duddy get-off-my-lawn parent, but by the greater Forces That Be (tm).

Similarly, I think that for many, there's nothing like the pain of getting stuck in a lower-level course (or lower-paying job!) because of past performance to stimulate some improvement. Until that happens, whatever I say somehow magically isn't reality.

Whenever the kid is ready, I'd be prepared with many of the excellent tomes that others have suggested as material that may feed a new-found hunger.
posted by LoraxGuy at 2:01 PM on December 3, 2007

I was a senior in high school last year, and I can safely say that I knew fewer than 10 people that actually read all (or even most) of the school books. We're overloaded with work, a large part of high school is stamina, and there just isn't time to balance work, friends, and Faulkner's Absalom Absalom.

My strategy: Read the first two chapters (or 25 pages, whatever's longer). If it sucks, just Spaknotes and skim.
posted by theiconoclast31 at 2:02 PM on December 3, 2007

The previous advice notwithstanding, how about pointing him to Mack Bolans? Blood, guns, and loose women. New book every month.

I know, I know, but I couldn't get enough of that when I was 16 and I turned out just fine.

Now pardon me while I slit the throat of this Soviet spy...
posted by unixrat at 2:03 PM on December 3, 2007

If he's lacking the motivation or attention to pick up a book and start reading, perhaps you can introduce a new medium. Maybe a gift certificate to or will spur his interests in reading. I much prefer reading ebooks to tree books. With my current schedule I know that I couldn’t get through a book a week if it wasn’t for ebooks.

Since it's the digital age, maybe he needs a digital solution.
posted by enobeet at 2:05 PM on December 3, 2007

Remember that it's a very rare teenager who reads for fun, and he doesn't sound like a very rare teenager. That's no value judgment; it's just that you're trying to sell a not-very-tasty sandwich to a guy who just ate. He's buried in things he has to do, whether or not he chooses to do them; and you're going to give him reading assignments?

Your goals here are very well-intentioned, but keep in mind that these goals put you squarely in league with The Man. You're just another turd in the pile of school bullshit that he has to suffer through. Try admitting to him that school is indeed bullshit, but that there are big rewards in life in learning to handle bullshit efficiently and with aplomb; to learn to play the game with the Man and win.

Don't be that Aunt who is always insisting that he grows up and reads a book for a change, it makes it very hard for you to have any credibility with him. If he can read fine, then don't worry about what he chooses to read; instead try to show him that you're a resource to him and not part of the problem. Let the conversations gently turn to his future and how you can help him realize HIS dreams, or help him realize that he has dreams beyond next weekend.

For a teenager, reading is NOT cool. You can't make it be cool. A poster of Samuel L. Jackson holding The Fountainhead doesn't make it cool. He will evaluate if something is cool first, then all other considerations second. If you want to help him succeed through his adolescence, let him tell you what would be a cool adult life, and help him find out what bullshit he needs to get through to make it there.

Then IM him Rainbows End. Reading does not equal books in his world!
posted by ulotrichous at 2:08 PM on December 3, 2007

Get him some Philip K. Dick and tell him about all the movies that are based on PKD stories. His wikipedia page will tell you more.

William Gibson is also good and would be interesting at his age.
posted by mullingitover at 2:16 PM on December 3, 2007

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series. Especially the first three books. Injected some much-needed humor into what was a rather difficult time of my life. Had me in hysterics from page one.

Vonnegut. Vonnegut Vonnegut Vonnegut. To quote Jon Stewart, "He made my adolescence bearable."

Seconding Catcher in the Rye.

At that age, I found Stephen King to be endlessly enjoyable. Perhaps he'll enjoy Firestarter or The Gunslinger?

He'll probably like Chuck Palahniuk. Fight Club is good, and so is Survivor.

I'll post more as I think of them.
posted by Afroblanco at 2:18 PM on December 3, 2007

A study skills course is probably better than a book for this young man. Teach him how to dispose of his work more quickly and efficiently and he may pay more attention to it. If you really just want him to develop a habit of reading for pleasure then some sports biographies etc. might work What are his interests? Reading does not have to mean reading novels. It could be a sports book about how to better play the game, a particularly memorable season, etc. Boys also like things that go boom. Books about weapons, war etc. may have some interest, but at this age will probably seem too scholarly.
posted by caddis at 2:38 PM on December 3, 2007 [1 favorite]

The only times I really sat down and read as a teen were when my parents shipped me off to China for a few fun-filled weeks with the relatives, which weren't all that fun considering my inability to express anything beyond the capabilities of a 5-year-old in Chinese. So starved for the English language, I ended up reading books I normally would've avoided like the plague out of sheer desperation.

So you might consider shipping him off to a foreign country for a few weeks and slyly slip a few books in "for airplane reading." Even if the books stay in the duffel bag, he'll have broader horizons by the time he returns.
posted by reebear at 2:50 PM on December 3, 2007

My 17-year-old cousin, who everyone claimed didn't read, loved it when I got him FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS and FIGHT CLUB. He had seen the movies. They were something he "shouldn't be" reading in his parents eyes. And they were masculine, etc.

It didn't make him a more avid reader. It didn't improve his grades. But it made him think I respected him as a grownup, and that's something.
posted by Gucky at 2:57 PM on December 3, 2007

Sounds a lot like me at that age, except that I found reading earlier. I read pretty much whenever I wasn't involved with sports. School was a drag and reading was another avoidance tool.

You can't make school interesting and you can't make him care about his grades but you can help spark an interest in learning which has nothing to do school.

There was a quote from a Cabinet member who was a high school dropout. He was asked what he had against education. "Nothing. I love education, " he answereed, "which is why I dropped out of school."

I'd say that if you have a good relationship with your nephew that you can be a big influence in how he relates to learning. Show him (as opposed to telling him) what a difference learning can make in his life.
posted by trinity8-director at 2:58 PM on December 3, 2007 [1 favorite]

Nthing the many suggestions that pleasure reading is not what he needs (I used to read close to a thousand pages a week sometimes when I was in junior high and almost flunked out -- reading for pleasure and reading one's assignments are not the same thing).

His real problem seems to be motivational. Sports and friends are good, but if he doesn't get his mind wrapped around the fact that they're not what school is about, he's going to be in trouble regardless of what he's reading.

Maybe just try to talk to him about his future plans? At 16, the two years he has until college can seem like a long time. And if he's not focused on what he's doing afterwards, it can be hard to understand why the day-to-day school bullshit matters. But maybe if he starts thinking seriously about college and post-college, and realizes the effect that his grades now may have on his options later, he'll be more receptive.
posted by Kadin2048 at 3:06 PM on December 3, 2007

Take him to a local bookstore and put a $15 gift certificate in his hands, and tell him to use it on any books he likes, then say you'll meet him at the front of the store in half an hour.

That's it. Then do it again in two weeks. And then again. Don't be judgmental in the slightest about what he chooses; just ask him if he liked it in a week or so. The key is for you to get out of his way and let *him* choose what he's going to read without any fear of judgment.

Thirding the magazine subscription as well, but only if you stand him in front of the magazine rack and say "pick one and I'll get you a year's subscription."
posted by mediareport at 3:09 PM on December 3, 2007 [2 favorites]

I think the trick with being a 16-year-old is that you don't really have the big picture. It's definitely worth turning him on to books and experiences that he'll enjoy. I devoured Kurt Vonnegut at his age but there's been lots of excellent suggestions.

Like many have noted that's different from valuing learning though.

To drive an appreciation of learning home what if you help him research or even interview some professional or retired athletes? Even a wildly successful professional needs to manage their money. Less financially successful pros need a career to fall back on.
posted by deanj at 4:13 PM on December 3, 2007

He might like Tom Clancy. Try Rainbow Six.
posted by Dasein at 5:21 PM on December 3, 2007

That's a tough one. I do think it'll be difficult to get him to read if he's not naturally interested in it. I think a very bad tactic would be to try to push books on him of the kind they have you read in school. I loved to read but I hated the stuff they made us read in school, except maybe Lord of the Flies. Catcher in the Rye was so tedious to me, and don't even get me started on Tess of the D'urbervilles.

If anything will work, it'll have to be something that naturally interests him. If he liked Harry Potter, he could do a lot worse than the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings. That's what really got me started, when I saw my big brother reading those. I was much younger, but they hold up well in to the teens. If he's already seen the movies, that might make him not want to read them, but the Hobbit hasn't come out as a movie yet, so he could get the jump on that by reading it. And it's nice and digestible as a standalone.

So those are book suggestions. I wish I had a strategy for you though. Maybe a boring family vacation to somewhere lame with no internet or cell coverage would force him to read!

Ultimately some people just aren't readers. And a leisure reading habit may not equate to good academic reading discipline anyway. Maybe there are more direct routes to better study habits.
posted by Askr at 7:17 PM on December 3, 2007

"Rule of the Bone" by Russell Banks. It may not be the best book looking back on it, but every single one of my friends when I was fifteen or sixteen read it and loved it.

Buy it, no joke.
posted by Cochise at 10:10 PM on December 3, 2007

Nobody's suggested Snow Crash yet? Raven is the baddest motherfucker in the world, and therefore the epitome of cool.
posted by casarkos at 10:25 PM on December 3, 2007

S.E Hinton books - Outsiders, Rumblefish, That was then and this is now. Great books about teenage struggle.
posted by any major dude at 11:02 PM on December 3, 2007

Roald Dahl wrote some racy books, "My Uncle Oswald" and "Willard and his Bowling Trophies" spring to mind. (He's the guy who wrote James and the Giant Peach.) Another writer that kids know is Shel Silverstein, but he also wrote some things that are not appropriate for small children. I think 16 is an ok age for some of it.

Richard Brautigan is another auther that tends toward the adult material.

These are books/authors I liked at 16-18, but then, I was already a reader.

And yeah, I was reading these awesome unassigned books, but I wasn't doing my homework either. I'd also bet that his value to the track team is potentially getting him off the homework hook.
posted by bilabial at 2:39 AM on December 4, 2007

It depends on whether you want him to enjoy reading or do well in school. If the former, you have a lot of good advice already.

If the latter:
What worked for me was switching from high school to community college for my last two years. In Washington state there is a program called Running Start which lets you get high school and college credit for college classes. I was exceedingly bored in high school, and really loved the adult atmosphere and added responsibility of college.

Even if you don't have a program like this, you may some other way to find more interesting classes.
posted by Margalo Epps at 8:09 PM on December 4, 2007

« Older Which American cities have an active entertainment...   |   Name this rap, yo! Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.