I recently asked Harman, a 9-year-old third grader (and my husband’s nephew), if he thinks girls read more than boys. He said, “Yes. Because they don’t do lots of stuff like us boys. We find things to do like hunt aliens and play Xbox.”
Reading experts agree with Harman. Boys are doing a lot of things these days, but sadly, reading is not on the list for most. The male-female reading gap is staggeringly large and shows no signs of closing. This canyon-sized problem is having far-reaching effects on our society as a whole. Boys who don’t read turn into men who may not do as well in the professional, adult world.
The Center on Education Policy reported that “substantially more boys than girls score below the proficiency level on the annual National Assessment of Educational Progress reading test. This disparity goes back to 1992, and in some states the percentage of boys proficient in reading is now more than 10 points below that of girls.”
This gap is found in every socio-economic and ethnic category.
So why, in a society once dominated by well-educated, well-read males, are the majority of our boys not picking up books and falling behind in school? And what can we do to start reversing this trend?
What parents can do
1. Limit or remove time spent playing video games.
Harman was spot-on when he said boys find other things to do like playing Xbox. According to an article in The Wall Street Journal by Thomas Spence, a major culprit in the boy-reading problem is technology. He said, “The appearance of the boy-girl literacy gap happens to coincide with the proliferation of video games and other electronic forms of entertainment.”
The male brain is wired differently than the female brain. Boys and men are very visual creatures, and so the lure of video games and technology is stronger for most of them. Dr. Robert Weis, a psychology professor at Denison University, found that “boys with video games at home spend more time playing than reading, and their academic performance suffers substantially.”
Spence said, “The secret to raising boys who read, I submit, is pretty simple – keep electronic media, especially video games and recreational Internet, under control (that is to say, almost completely absent). Then fill you shelves with good books.”
2. Fill your home with good books, magazines, nonfiction, graphic novels, etc.
Boys read differently. Many are not interested in novels and traditional fiction. Boys like the facts and they like things to be visual. Thankfully, there is a wealth of alternative reading material perfect for those wants and needs. Make them all available to your boy, from nonfiction picture books for little guys to graphic novels and nonfiction books for older boys. Magazines on a subject they are interested in like sports or science can also get and keep a boy reading.
3. Give boys the freedom to choose.
No one enjoys being told what to read. Reading is a very personal endeavor, and the books we choose must match us for the experience to be enjoyable and meaningful. If a boy can make his own reading decisions, then it “fights the impression that reading is a chore that is imposed on him,” as asserted by Michael Sullivan, a boys-and-reading expert. Allow boys to choose what they want to read, as much as possible. Even if that means he wants to only read comic books or fantasy novels or the same book over and over.
But also, be a resource. Help your boy find the books and reading material that get him excited and interested. That is how you turn a boy — or anyone — into a lifelong reader.
4. Read with boys.
Sullivan also said, “Reading is hard for many boys, but stories are still appealing. Share the reading. Listening to things being read encourages boys to read.” From their earliest days up through high school, boys can benefit from being read to and with, especially by dad.
Strive for daily reading time.
4. Let them move.
Boys are active. Harman told me that most his friends don’t read because “they think they have better things to do, like play.” Boys definitely need to play. They need to move and expel energy. Don’t force them to sit and read if they are bouncing off the walls. Give them something physical to do first (like hunting aliens) and then offer the book.
Encourage shorter reading times if that works better. Three 10-minute sessions are as good as one solid 30-minute session.
For younger boys, make reading an active experience, a fun one. If there are actions going on in the book, have the boy act them out. For example, if a character jumps over a puddle have your boy get off the couch and show you how he would jump over a puddle. Make noises, do voices, move the book around, etc. The more engaging the reading experience, the more likely he is to return to it.
5. Be a reading role model — that means you, Dad!
Sullivan said, “Even when you are not reading to your son, make sure he sees you read, especially you fathers out there! Read in front of your boys. If you can’t bring yourself to read, at least prop yourself up in plain view of as many boys as possible with a book in your hands and daydream or nap or whatever. Boys need to see men with books.”
A major reason boys aren’t reading these days is because they think it is something only girls do. Most of the reading role models in their lives are women — teachers, mothers, sisters, grandmothers. This stereotype is a massive hurdle. A diligent father can help break down this stereotype and show a young boy that men read, too.
Male reading role models are the most important way to help boys come back to books.