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What Is It with Boys and Reading?

Why boys often struggle with reading, and what we can do about it.

Pixabay, CC0 license
Source: Pixabay, CC0 license

Boys consistently read less, and less well, than girls.

On Scholastic’s 2016 survey of over 2000 U.S. children, ages 6-17, only 52% of boys (versus 72% of girls) said they liked reading books over the summer, while only 27% of boys (versus 37% of girls) said they read books for fun at least 5 days a week. Forty-five percent of boys (versus only 36% of girls) said they often have trouble finding books they like.

On the U.S. National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), boys have scored significantly lower than girls in reading at all grade levels every year since 1992 (the first year for which NAEP scores are available). And the gap grows larger, not smaller, as children get older, such that, by twelfth grade, more than twice as many girls as boys (5% versus 2%) scored as “advanced” in reading on the 2015 NAEP. Not surprisingly, given these data, boys are also for more likely than girls to be identified as learning disabled in reading.

International comparisons tell the same story, with 15-year-old boys scoring significantly lower than same-age girls in every one of 40+ countries on every administration of the Programme for International Students Assessment (PISA) tests since they were first given in 2000.

By the way, these disparities continue into adulthood as well; in 2016, the Pew Research Center survey of adult reading habits concluded that “women are more likely to read books than men,” and noted that 32% of men (versus only 23% of women) surveyed said that they hadn’t read a single book in the past year.

The data are pretty consistent across time, countries and age groups: there is little doubt that, on average, boys read less, and less well, than girls. The real question is why? What is it with boys and reading?

A note of caution

As noted in the previous paragraph, all the data presented above, and our subsequent discussion of boys and reading, are based on averages. It is really important to remember that averages do not apply to individuals. Thus, there are many boys who read very well and love to read, just as there are many girls who struggle with reading, and many who don’t like it. We have to be very careful, as psychologists, parents and educators, never to assume less motivation or capability in an individual child based on average group measures. However, average group measures can help us see a problem that needs addressing and even suggest some possible solutions, and they do in the case of boys and reading.

Boys often get a slower start in reading

Girls and boys differ in temperament from the earliest ages. For example, even infant boys show higher levels of physical activity than infant girls; they are more likely to be “wigglers,” and sit or lie still less of the time. This tendency toward increased physical activity may impact boys’ attitudes toward reading, which, after all, requires sitting still. Boys are also, on average, more physically aggressive and less compliant than girls. These differences can affect reading acquisition in two important ways: boys often have a harder time adjusting to the behavioral constraints of elementary school, which makes it harder for them to focus on learning and can negatively impact their attachment to school, and they may also be less eager to read just to please teachers or parents.

Girls also outscore boys on early tests of general verbal ability; in same-age comparisons, they tend to have somewhat greater verbal fluency and larger vocabularies than boys during the preschool years, though these differences all but disappear as children grow older. This early verbal advantage is particularly pronounced in areas related to phonological awareness and letter recognition; that is, the ability to separate, identify and analyze the sounds of language and connect these sounds to written letters.

These early verbal differences can give girls an advantage in learning to read, especially in languages like English with built-in letter-sound correspondences, and most especially when instruction is heavily phonics-based, as it has been in U.S. schools for many years. It might seem that this early advantage, typically only a one- to six-month difference in developmental level, should not matter that much. For example, girls learn to run sooner than boys, on average, but women do not retain this advantage as “runners” throughout their lives, as they seem to do in reading. But the constant grouping and comparing of young children that is common in most schools can solidify early disadvantages, in part because children assigned to the “low group” in reading often actually have fewer opportunities to read connected, complex texts and receive more fragmented reading instruction, and in part due to the well-recognized “Matthew effect” in reading: a self-reinforcing cycle by which successful early readers tend to read more, thus becoming even better readers, while those who struggle tend to avoid reading, and therefore fall even further behind.

Boys can be less motivated to read.

As we have stated in previous columns, the best way to get good at reading is to read a lot, but boys may be less motivated to read than girls for many reasons besides the early struggles referred to above. In school, boys are often asked to read books with protagonists and themes that do not resonate with their gender. Though male protagonists outnumber females in children’s books by a ratio of 1.6:1, elementary school and later English teachers (who are mostly women) don’t tend to assign the nonfiction or action-related books that appeal more to boys.

A more fundamental problem is that boys may feel that learning and liking to read are somehow not masculine. In fact, multiple studies suggest that many boys see reading as an essentially feminine activity, in part perhaps because so many early elementary teachers are female. Combined with the fact that fathers are less likely to read themselves and also less likely to read to their sons, the result is that young boys are left with few models of masculine readers. Older boys’ peers are also less likely to value reading, while girls are more likely to report reading with friends or talking with friends about what they are reading.

So, what can we do?

The encouraging news is that none of the problems described above suggest any long-term barriers to boys' learning to read well and liking it! Some of the ways teachers and parents can help this happen are:

Reduce high stakes assessment, comparison and ability grouping around reading in the early grades. In this way, students, including many boys, who initially struggle with reading will not be as easily discouraged or disadvantaged by being assigned to “lower” reading groups (and they all know which are the lower groups!)

Encourage boys to develop phonological awareness. We can carry out fun activities both in preschool classrooms and at home that encourage boys to develop phonological awareness. Having this skill will help boys (and girls) to sound out words more easily in the initial phases of learning to read. You can find many research-based activities to help pre-schoolers develop their phonological awareness here. And remember, there's no need for this to be a drudgery. Keep it brief and game-like.

In school, offer boys multiple paths to reading and multiple methods of learning to read. Boys with slightly less phonological awareness may just need some phonological awareness activities like those above, or maybe a bit more time and practice to catch on to phonics. But others with significant phonological gaps (the ones most often identified as learning disabled in reading) may never really catch on to phonics. For them, extensive phonics instruction is more of a barrier to reading than a help--they may need to learn to rely more on visual patterns for word identification. Children learn to read differently, and if the “reading wars” of the past 50 years have taught us anything, they have shown us that there is no single best way to teach reading that works for all children, so teachers need “a balanced repertoire of instructional strategies” (Pearson, 2004, p. 245) for all children, but perhaps especially for boys.

Let boys choose, and help them find, the kind of books and other materials they want to read. While boys may be less likely to read or enjoy the relationship-based fiction so beloved by girls (and female teachers), studies show they often enjoy reading and talking with other boys about non-fiction and fiction related to favorite activities like sports and video games.

Connect boys with men that read. All those READ posters featuring athletes and movie stars are fine, but boys need masculine reading models that they actually know and can talk with, too. In schools, male principals and teachers need to be seen reading during D.E.A.R time. They should talk about what they are reading, casually and often, and post book jackets and quotes from their favorite books on their bulletin boards and classroom and office doors. Men who are teachers, administrators or even trusted community members can lead book clubs just for boys, focusing on books, as one wise librarian we know puts it, about things that “bite, run, win, blow up, or gross you out.” Similarly, in the community and family, men need to read more and talk more about what they read; a recent large scale survey of teens about reading found that avid male readers particularly valued talking with their fathers about what they were reading and were also more likely to read books recommended by their fathers.

Of course, all adults--male and female, gym teachers as well as English teachers, mothers as well as fathers--need to do these things to promote reading in a society that increasingly requires it for basic employment and citizenship, but again, this may be especially important for men to do, because it is especially important to boys.

For further reading: Jon Scieszka's Guy's Read website is full of information about boys and reading, great stories and books for guys, and excellent ideas about how to engage more boys in reading.

And here's a blog post from the Brightly site with a great list of early chapter books especially for boys.

More from Paula J. Schwanenflugel, Ph.D., and Nancy Flanagan Knapp, Ph.D.
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More from Paula J. Schwanenflugel, Ph.D., and Nancy Flanagan Knapp, Ph.D.
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