The Gender Gap In Reading

Staff Writer
Baystateparent Magazine

How And Why We Should Be Motivating Boys To Read

By Kristin Guay

Gone are the days when reading and writing were considered for girls, while boys excelled math and science. Many literacy skills that were once reserved for the language arts classroom are now incorporated in the math and science curriculum. It is not uncommon for a science teacher to ask a student to write, in detail, a scientific process or a math teacher to ask the students to readFlatlandto better understand dimensions. All of these skills are important for young minds but, while females advance in STEM test scores, males are continuing to fall behind in language arts skills.

In her article “Why Boys Don’t Read,” author Linda Jacobson states that this problem is negatively impacting male students far beyond the elementary and secondary school years. “Experts believe this gap is responsible for another disturbing development: as college completion rates continue to rise in this country, young men are not keeping up,” she notes. “Since the early 1990s, college graduation rates have steadily increased for women but remained stagnant for men. Only about 40 percent of college graduates last year were male – a difference that many education experts believe is linked to poor reading habits and literacy skills that boys developed in the elementary and middle school grades.”

So here is the problem: Males are significantly lagging behind their female peers in literacy skills.

According to William Brozo, a professor of literacy at George Mason University’s Graduate School of Education, these statistics are very alarming. In an interview with theDesert News, he said that some of the most compelling data on the topic comes from the results of exam given to 15 year olds in 65 countries. “On the 2000 PISA exam, girls outperformed boys in reading by an average of 32 points. By 2009, the gap had increased to 39 points. To put those numbers in perspective, a 32-point difference means that boys are a year-and-a-half behind girls in reading skills,” he said.

Why the gap? Is it that reading is portrayed as being a more feminine activity in our society? Do females have more connections between their left and right brain, as shown on imaging studies? Perhaps books and textbooks in elementary school and public libraries reflect interests of females more than males? Maybe tougher literacy curriculum is being used in younger grades when males are not receptive to these verbal challenges? These are just a few theories.

 Unfortunately, the problem does not end with college graduation rates. Journalist Peg Tyre illustrates the life-long significance of the reading gender gap in her bookThe Trouble Boys, A Surprising Report Card on Our Sons, Their Problems at School and What Parents and Educators Must Do.“It’s not only college courses but our contemporary job market that demands high-level reading and writing skills,” Tyre points out. “Forty years ago there were plenty of employment opportunities for boys who didn’t read or write well. But over the last several decades, jobs for unskilled workers have been outsourced overseas. There are no illiterate scientists, tech geeks, and engineers. Kids can’t do well in math and science unless they have a strong grounding in reading and writing.”

What Can We Do About It?

So, there are all the grim statistics, theories and finger-pointing but what can be done about this problem? Since educational experts are not really sure what is causing this problem, it is a challenge among parents, teachers and librarians to find the solution. Here are several techniques to engage boys (or any reluctant reader) to finding joy and purpose in reading.

  • Set an example for your child by letting them see you read, especially males who are a positive influence in their life. This conveys the message that reading is about learning new and exciting things, no matter your age or gender.
  • Try to be receptive to what boys want to read and give them reading options that are of interest to them. Potty humor, gore, battle stories, and silly comics might not be the first choice of adults, but many boys gravitate toward this type of material – at least during some point in their life. They might also be more interested in more non-fiction material such as sports, trucks and cars, or survival stories. Let them explore magazines, graphic novels, comic books, and even joke books – the shorter chunks of reading material along with the graphics might be more appealing to some boys. If they are interested in a story (and feel like they had a voice in the choosing of the story) they will be more invested and more likely to enjoy reading. Over time, their interests might change to material with fewer pictures and more words, but let them set the pace.  
  • Show an interest in what they are reading even if it is not your interest. This can be accomplished by asking them questions about the story and characters, looking at the graphics, and even helping them find more of these books in your local library or bookstore. Show your support for their choices and support them in feeling good about reading.
  • Keep in mind that not all kids like to engage in “literary discussions” so think of ways this can be accomplished without being so overt. Casual conservation in the car or quick comments seem to work better  in some cases – remember, it is not a language arts classroom, so do not expect your child to recite character development and use of symbolism – keep it simple.
  • Consider using technology to encourage reading. Some boys prefer reading if they can do it on a Kindle, iPad, or some other electronic device. Another option is to try audiobooks, either following along with the paper book or just simply listen to the story. Parents might initially reject the idea of audiobooks because they feel that it is not actually reading the book, but remember that listening is an important literacy skill. In many schools, reading, writing, listening, and speaking are the four components of the language arts curriculum. If your child enjoys listening to an audiobook they are not only experiencing the pleasure of a good story but developing an important literacy skill.
  • Make connections to their interests and reading material. Explore their interests by gathering some reading material on the subject whether it is a book, magazine, newspaper article, or even an article on the Internet. Show them that reading allows them to learn more about  something important to them. Researching nearby skateparks, family vacation destination or new hobby are all ways that reading can be used for their benefit. After looking at all the material, have discussions about the topic. Prompt them to read more to gain more information about the topic (details about the skate park, kid-friendly attractions at the vacation destination, how they can begin their new hobby interest). By doing this, you are teaching your child that reading is an excellent way to learn about something that is actually important to them.

How to Choose the Right Book

Maybe it’s not that they don’t like reading, but rather they haven’t found the right book. Young readers are just like adult readers – sometimes we need to try a few authors and genres before knowing what kind of reading material we enjoy. Sometimes we want to curl up with a good book and other times, we want a short read like a magazine or newspaper article. Kids are no different. Try something, and if that does not work, try something else. Likewise, if you find a genre or a favorite author, stick to it like glue and never let go.

Have a variety of reading options available. Chapter books can be used when there is a little more time, like a car ride or the weekend, while a magazine article or comic book might be better for short bursts of reading time. It is also important to find books with a topic that is relatable to your young male reader – they can see a part of themselves in the story. Sometimes boys like reading sport biographies of their sport of interest or of a career that they aspire to explore.

Try to find books that appeal to the humorous and silly side of young boys. Why do you think theDiary of a Wimpy Kid series is such a huge success -- with both boys and girls? It is because it is wonderfully silly and kids can laugh at all the ridiculous antics of Greg Hiffley as he navigates middle school. In the academic setting, kids will have years and years of Shakespeare, Mark Twain, John Steinbeck, and Toni Morrison. They will have plenty of opportunities to translate dramatic plays of the Renaissance period and read engrossing stories of human suffering, but for now, let them read what appeals to them.

Something to keep in mind:The Diary of a Wimpy Kid and the classicsThe Adventure of Tom Sawyer, Mrs. Dalloway, A Passage to India, and even the adult bookBossypantsby Tina Fey all have something in common – the same Lexile score of 950. Lexile scores are determined by two factors, semantic difficult (how often the same work appears in the text) and syntactic complexity (the average sentence length). When put together, it is basically how difficult a text is to understand. Some books that boys want to read adults might dismiss as silly and a poor choice in reading material while these books actually have high Lexile levels.   

The graphic novelMarvel Heroes: Amazing Powers actually has a Lexile level of 1040. Lexile levels are only one aspect in determining appropriate reading material, but at least parents can rest easy knowing that some of these popular choices are actually challenging text.

Website Resources As the website states, this site is “a web-based literacy program for boys founded by author and First National Ambassador of Young People’s Literature Jon Scieszka. Its mission is to “help boys become self-motivated, lifelong readers” by offering book suggestions (based on categories such as “At Least One Explosion” and “Creepy and Weird”), Book of the Month, interviews with authors, statistics about boys and reading, how to start your own “Guys Read” club. mission of this organization is to collaborate with parents, educators, mentors, authors, and book sellers to transform boys into lifelong readers. The belief is that “It’s not that boys can’t read; it’s that boys won’t read.” This site offers book suggestions, reviews of new books, ways that schools, libraries, and book sellers can support boys and reading, and a blog – all with the common goal of creating lifelong readers with boys.

Book Suggestions That Appeal to Young Male Readers

The Summer I Got a Life, by Mark Fink. Life lessons are learned by two competitive brothers while staying with family in rural Wisconsin.

Stepping Up, by Mark Fink.Teen issues are played out at a competitive basketball camp.

Something to Hold, by Katherine Schlick Noe. Based on the author’s childhood experience, this books outlines the tensions between white kids and Native American kids on a Native American reservation.

The Road, by Cormac McCarthy.Post-apocalyptic tale of the journey between and father and a son – won a 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

Charlie Bone series and Children of the Red King, by Jenny Nimmo.This is a series of eight fantasy and adventure novels.

The Thief of Always,by Clive Barker.This book tells the story of Harvey, a bright 10-year-old boy who is having a boring winter – until a creature takes him to a special place every day filled with fun and adventure. This is a story enjoyed by both children and adults.

The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson.Goodreads calls this supernatural thriller “a perfect work of unnerving terror.”  

Danny, the Champion of the World, by Roald Dahl.This story centers around a young boy and his father that make a living fixing cars in a gypsy caravan.  Adventure ensues when they go on a pheasant poaching expedition.

The Amityville Horror,by Jay Anson. This horror story is said to be about the true paranormal experiences of a family living in Long Island.

Running Wild, by Micahel Morpurgo. This is a survival story of a boy after a tsunami has hit his Indonesian town.  Fortunately, he is not alone – his elephant Oona is by his side.

We Were Liars, by E. Lockhart.This YA novel was listed as an ALA Top Ten Best Fiction for Young Adults in 2015.  This story focuses on the theme of family values, acceptance, and the consequences of one’s actions.

Rifles for Watie,by Harold Keith.This is a civil war story as seen through the eyes of a sixteen-year-old boy caught up in all the events.  This book is a Newbery Medal winner.

Wicked History of the World, by Terry Deary, Martin Brown.This book presents the fascinating, yet disgusting, history of different people of the world – the ghastly fate of Captain Cook, smelly sport played by Samurai warriors, and why Alexander the Great banned his soldiers from having beards.

100% Pure Fake: Gross Out Your Friends and Family with 25 Great Special Effects, by Lyn Thomas. This book features 25 safe, kid-tested projects to trick family and friends.

Bug Butts, by Dawn Cusick.Discover the wild and weird ways insects use their butts.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid series,by Jeff Kinney. This best-selling series is a hilarious hit with both boys and girls (and even some parents).

Alien in My Pocket series, by Nate Ball, Macky Pamintaum.These books feature hilarious adventures between a boy and his alien friend.

Eerie Elementary series, by Jack Chabert, Sam Ricks.These are fast-paced, high-interest books designed to appeal to newly independent readers.

Danny’s Doodles: The Jelly Bean Experiment, by David Adler.From the author of the Cam Jensen series comes a silly story of unlikely friends.  The books are filled with whimsical drawings.

Flat Stanley: His Original Adventure, by Jeff Brown, Macky Pamintuan.Ever popular with school projects, this book continues to delight young audiences.

Tintin series, by Herge.This comic series features a young Belgian reporter and his faithful dog Snowy – and their many adventures.

The Adventures of Captain Underpants, by Dave Pilkey.Potty humor at its best – and boys love it.