Boys and Reading: Strategies for Success

Student bored with reading

Over the last several years an alarming trend has developed regarding our children’s reading abilities. Nationally there is a significant discrepancy between our nation’s boys and girls reading scores. Boys routinely perform at much lower levels than girls on standardized reading assessments. This is especially true in the middle and high school years. Several researchers have attempted to understand why this trend is occurring while others have worked to devise strategies for combating this gender gap.

Why are boys underperforming in reading?

While there is no definitive answer to this question, a number of researchers have posited several reasons to explain why boys perform at lower levels than girls on reading assessments. Since this discrepancy does not widen significantly until the middle grades years, many of the thoughts are focused on developments occurring during adolescence.

  • Boys generally take longer than girls to develop comparable literacy skills. What is considered a grade level appropriate reading skill for a girl cannot always be considered the same for a boy.
  • Boys generally need more “teacher time” than girls do. In the larger, time limited classes of middle and high school teachers are unable to give boys as much one-on-one time. Therefore, they do not make as much progress in reading as girls do.
  • Boys of all ages generally read less than girls.
  • Middle school aged boys indicate that they believe reading is much harder than it was in elementary school.
  • Boys claim reading becomes less enjoyable as they become older.
  • Many adolescent boys fail to see real life applications in what they read. Literature read in Language Arts classes tells “stories” rather than providing useful information. Some boys stop reading because they think there is no practical value in reading.
  • As they reach adolescence more and more boys stop considering themselves readers. Research on the reading attitudes of middle school boys shows that many consider themselves “non-readers”.
  • Reading is sometimes stereotyped as a “feminine” activity. When boys reach adolescence their gender identification becomes more important. If they believe reading is not a masculine activity, they will abandon it in order to demonstrate their masculinity.

What can parents and teachers do to help adolescent boys become stronger readers?

Again there is no “silver bullet” that will help all adolescent boys become stronger readers. However, research suggests there are several strategies adults can employ to facilitate their reading development.

  • Use texts boys like to read. While boys generally perform lower than girls on reading assessments, there is one area in which they actually “outscore” the girls. Boys’ scores on sections of tests featuring informational texts are often higher than those of their female counterparts. This seems to indicate that informational texts are the boys’ forte. Teachers and parents should provide boys with informational texts to read and learn from. These can include magazine and newspaper articles, non-fiction books about topics boys are interested in (like hobbies or sports) and instructional manuals. Surveys of boys show they are not only interested in informational texts. They also like graphic novels and comic books, stories featuring male protagonists, humorous stories and works that allow them to escape (such as science-fiction and fantasy). Offering these texts to boys as instructional tools or for pleasure reading will increase their interest in reading.
  • Use shorter texts. Because adolescent boys often consider themselves “non-readers” they do not want to spend long periods of time sitting and reading a text. Provide them with short “chunks” or “episodes” of text to allow them the opportunity to read for a focused period of time that doesn’t feel like “too much” to them.
  • Allow boys to actively respond to texts. In the typical English Language Arts classroom students read a text and then discuss its meaning. Boys generally do not like to sit around and talk about literature. Research shows they want to actively and physically engage with a text. Teachers should provide boys with opportunities to actively respond to what they read. This can mean acting out portions of a story, creating visual or physical representations of the text or performing an activity outlined in the story.
  • Know your boys and appeal to their individual interests and preferences. Boys are more likely to become engaged in their learning when they feel like it has some application to their lives. When adults take the time to get to know what makes a child “tick” and then tailors their reading experiences to fit the child, he will embrace the activity. This is not only true for boys. Any adolescent, male or female, wants to see value in what they are doing. Take time to discover what your children are interested in and offer them texts that speak to their interests and preferences.
  • Provide opportunities to immediately apply what they have read. Adolescent boys generally do not like to focus on learning information that they might use later. Saying “you’ll need to know this in a few years” or “this will help you later in life” causes male students to tune an adult out. Instead, allow boys to immediately apply what they learn through reading so that they develop the understanding that reading has real life value. For example, if your class is reading an informational article about the effects of global warming ask students (boys and girls alike) to write a letter to their congressperson(s) or an environmental group stating their views on the topic and offering solutions to the issue.
  • Provide as much one-on-one time with boys as possible. Because boys seem to request and require more teacher time than girls do, teachers should try to structure their classrooms so that they can offer boys opportunities to have one-on-one time with the teacher. This does not mean that categorically boys should always have more access to the teacher than girls. Those that need teacher support, male or female, should be given opportunities to work one-on-one with the teacher as needed.
  • Offer good male reader role models for boys. Since some boys believe that reading is a “girly” activity it is important for them to see that males read in real life. Seek out good male reader role models for boys. These may be celebrities or men in the community who boys look up to.