Years of research has found that boys tend to enjoy reading far less than girls. Even beyond simply enjoying reading, these studies have consistently shown a large gap between the actual comprehension and literacy skill of male children when compared to female children of the same age — regardless of grade level. This isn’t just a problem in the United States, either. According to the results of several international tests conducted from the 1970s to 2012, girls outperform boys in reading across multiple nations and margins.1
Despite this consistency, however, another study,2 released in 2017 from The University of Stavanger in Norway, questioned if there may be other reasons why female students outperform male students on such tests of literacy. Could it be the way the tests are designed, they asked, or an issue of motivation? The authors noted that the reading large reading discrepancy seems to become smaller or even non-existent when adult males and females are tested.
Regardless of test design, most boys — in general — seem to respond to reading very differently than the majority of their female counterparts (there are, of course, plenty of boys who do enjoy reading, and vice versa).
Even into adulthood, the Norway study notes that boys tend to respond more to fact-based pieces than long pieces of fiction, and less easily to written response questions than girls. At the same time, they tend to skip over multiple choice questions, and, according to other studies, skip over text, as well, when reading.2 Boys, studies have found, even read less thoroughly than girls.3
Why this gender difference? And, what does it mean for the development of young males? Perhaps most of all, what can parents and educators do to help and encourage males to enjoy and properly learn the skill of reading?
Why Is There a Gender Gap Between Boys and Girls in Reading?
There are many theories behind these differences. Some professionals observe that, during early infant development and into childhood, boys tend to show more physical activity, as well as less compliance when it comes to discipline, while girls are quickly more verbal and more compliant. Boys, they find, just don’t like to sit still, and reading is not an activity that involves movement.4
Other scientists, however, note that the brain is a “unisex organ” and wonder which came first — the behavior, or the society that caused the behavior?5 Reading, they say, has always been stereotyped as something that girls like to do, and this would unfathomably affect a young boy’s perception of reading, especially with the peer pressure of friends deeming reading to be a feminine activity.5 Girls and boys are also, as numerous studies have documented, treated quite differently from one another in their upbringing, and each gender is often saddled with a specific set of expectations. Boys are expected to be rowdy and wild. Girls are expected to be chatty and calm.
This social condition may or may not explain why girls also tend to develop different emotional factors, like relationship skills, earlier in life than boys,5 perhaps making them more naturally enjoy fiction, a favorite of school literature classes. Boys, however, tend to enjoy action-oriented pieces,5 perhaps tying into that early developmental recognition of physical activity and action. Pieces like comic books, however, are almost never introduced into the school curriculum, nor are the kinds of non-fiction or action-centered works that appeal to boys, even as male protagonists are more common than female protagonists in novels.4 This, of course, affects their motivation to read and to want to excel in reading in the school environment. They simply don’t find the books given to them to be worth reading.
When boys are given books that appeal to their interests, their attitude toward reading quickly changes.5
How Can Parents Encourage Their Sons to Read?
There are many complicated opinions on why boys tend to fair poorer in reading and literacy than girls, from questions on biology to social conditioning. The answer is, like most things, likely a combination of a variety of factors. The most important question parents and teachers may find themselves asking at the end of the day is how we can change these statistics to get boys on more equal footing with girls when it comes to reading comprehension and even enjoyment in school and beyond?
Young Boys May Benefit From Seeing Male Role Models Who Read
Since elementary school teachers, and even English teachers, tend to skew female, by seeing father figures or male educators reading, boys will be less likely to view reading as a predominantly female activity.4
Let Boys Choose Their Reading Material
While it’s important to remember that each child, regardless of gender, is an individual with his or her own interests, some boys may show greater interest in non-fiction pieces of literature, such as magazines and books on topics that personally interest them.6 However, boys can still (and should) absolutely enjoy fiction — they just need to find the right novel that interests them. The reading of fiction was recently found to be associated with higher traits of empathy, so there is much to be gained by encouraging boys to find fiction books that resonate with them.7
Boys do also tend to enjoy graphic novels and comic books, as well as humor, fantasy, and science fiction.6 Unfortunately, these kinds of books are often not seen as “proper” reading material by caregivers, despite the fact that boys gain valuable comprehension skills from these texts. They should not be dissuaded from these choices. After all, if boys find themselves enjoying reading, then they’ll read more. They’ll also be more likely to expand their reading choices beyond comic books.
Boys and Girls Should Be Given Equal Time in the School Library
Because many girls have already found themselves to enjoy reading, they’re more likely to visit the school library than boys. It’s important that schools visit the library as a class, giving the boys time to explore the many literature options available to them.7 Parents should also consider taking their son to their local library or bookstore and letting them see what peaks their interest. Despite the rise in smart devices, paperback books are still favorites among male and female readers alike.7
Make the Books Come Alive
Get creative, and find ways to incorporate activity with the books that your son is reading.8 A book about robots could lead to trying to build his own robot, for instance. For boys who love action, adding action to the reading experience is one way to enhance their enjoyment and change their perception of reading as only a quiet, calm activity.
Some popular books that both boys and girls are currently enjoying, based on a 2016 survey of young readers:3
- The Diary of a Wimpy Kid series by Jeff Kinney
- The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
- Percy Jackson and the Olympians series by Rick Riordan
- The Inheritance Cycle series by Christopher Paolini
- The World’s Worst Children book by David Walliams
When Is it Typical and When Is it a Reading Disorder?
Reading has provided knowledge and entertainment for generations. All children should be given the opportunity to enjoy a wonderful book that resonates with them.
If your son or daughter is struggling with reading in school despite attempts at engaging their interests, particularly if they seem to struggle with blending sounds and phonics, you might consider an evaluation with a neurobehavioral specialist. A comprehensive neuropsychological assessment can help identify specific reading issues, such as dyslexia, that can have an impact on your child’s ability to decipher text.
Neurobehavioral Associates can perform this assessment and offer you our extensive network of referrals.
You can also keep up-to-date with the latest in neurobehavioral research by following our Facebook page.
- Loveless, T. (2016, July 29). Girls, boys, and reading. Retrieved January 8, 2019, from https://www.brookings.edu/research/girls-boys-and-reading/
- Are girls really better at reading than boys, or are the tests painting a false picture? (2017, January 18). Retrieved January 8, 2019, from https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/01/170118103354.htm
- Boffey, D. (2016, October 22). The truth about boys and books: They read less – and skip pages. Retrieved January 8, 2019, from https://www.theguardian.com/education/2016/oct/22/the-truth-about-boys-and-books-they-read-less-and-skip-pages
- What Is It with Boys and Reading? (n.d.). Retrieved January 8, 2019, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/reading-minds/201803/what-is-it-boys-and-reading
- Wong, A. (2018, September 27). Boys Don’t Read Enough. Retrieved January 8, 2019, from https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2018/09/why-girls-are-better-reading-boys/571429/
- Boys and Books. (2018, January 09). Retrieved January 8, 2019, from http://www.readingrockets.org/article/boys-and-books
- Merga, M. K. (2018, November 26). Six things you can do to get boys reading more. Retrieved January 8, 2019, from https://theconversation.com/six-things-you-can-do-to-get-boys-reading-more-104140
- (n.d.). Retrieved January 8, 2019, from http://www.pbs.org/parents/best-books-for-boys/6-ways-to-encourage-your-son-to-read.html