Boys and reading

Boys may not be reluctant to read, but reluctant to read what we want them to. Research shows boys like to read over a wider number of genres and a broader range of topics than girls.

In New Zealand, like in many other countries, girls perform better in reading literacy than boys by a statistically significant amount.


Boys' reading: why it is an issue and why it matters
Strategies for getting boys into reading
Further reading

Boys' reading: why it's an issue and why it matters

New Zealand pupils ranked fourth out of 34 OECD countries in the 2009 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) study of literacy performance-PISA. However, girls performed well ahead of boys. Other studies echo the findings of the PISA results. Results from Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) reports show in 2001 and 2006 showed that fourth-grade girls in all 30 plus participating countries scored higher in reading literacy than fourth-grade boys. And there was little improvement in the 2011 PIRLS report.

The US National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores, and studies in New Zealand, England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland also show disparity between boys’ and girls’ reading achievement.

Research shows that generally:

  • Boys take longer to learn to read and read less than girls.
  • Girls tend to comprehend narrative texts and most expository texts significantly better than boys.
  • Boys value reading as an activity less than girls.
  • Significantly more boys than girls declare themselves non-readers.

Reluctance to read and the associated poor literacy skills have far-reaching effects on boys, on the men they become, and on the society they influence in the following areas:

  • their education
  • future employment - literacy skills are essential in the 21st century workplace, for communication and life-long learning
  • citizenship, to be able to participate as informed citizens
  • life skills, in all areas - relationships, conversation and in parenting - helping their children become the next generation of readers
  • pleasure, enlightenment, empathy, imagination, creativity and insight.

Read more about the research into Reading for pleasure.

Strategies for getting boys into reading

There is no one template to copy. Schools and families need to develop, trial and review strategies that work for their boy readers. As with any student it's important you provide access to a wide variety of reading material, reading role models, know the literature, the student and their interests. The following strategies are suggestions.

Expectations and reading culture

  • Start with an expectation that every student will be a reader. Don’t accept the idea that boys aren’t naturally good at language - people used to say the same thing about girls and science.
  • Focus on encouraging reading as a positive and enjoyable experience, rather than just developing skills.
  • Reading encouragement can come from all teachers, male and female, at any level, and any subject across the curriculum.
  • Encourage parental expectations, in particular by fathers that their sons will be readers (though not unrealistic expectations, which add pressure).

Provide reading role models

  • Provide positive male role models. Invite guest readers; encourage fathers to read with sons, be a role model as a teacher within the school.
  • Invite male authors and allow students time to interact with them through workshops on reading and writing.
  • Fathers or other significant males in a boy’s life, who read and are seen to be readers, are vital.

Have a variety of reading material available

Research shows boys like to read over a wider number of genres and a broader range of topics than girls. Boy readers need jokes, anecdotes, comics, corny juvenile funnies, all-action thrills, more demanding novels and well developed characters alongside each other and intertwined to enrich their reading experiences.

  • Have a range of resources in different formats and genres, which are age and ability appropriate and will entertain them.
  • Ensure regular exposure to new books through library visits, book talking and other book promotion activities.
  • Know your students’ passions and interests
  • Increase borrowing limits to encourage borrowing a larger number of titles / a wider range.
  • Sometimes offering a limited choice can help with book selection eg having a “Good books box” with 10 great books.

Generalising, boys like:

  • mystery, adventure, fantasy, crime, horror, fact-based books, history and humour, books with characters like themselves and stories with events they can relate to
  • books related to favourite topics, activities or sports
  • bright, user-friendly, well-illustrated non-fiction
  • print in many forms - magazines, web sources, collectors cards, etc
  • fiction linked with high profile TV series or movies
  • comic-strip style and manga
  • poetry with pace, rhythm, rhyme, and often humour
  • series fiction.

Read more about engaging tweens and teens with reading.

Provide reading times, places

  • Provide time to read with no tasks attached, formal or informal.
  • Allow boys to design a welcoming and comfortable reading area in the library.
  • Choose and organise the books for the reading area with as much face-out display as possible - the cover is a big selling point.

Provide ‘Bookchat’

Often boys’ reading is more social so provide opportunities for discussion, interaction and reading in a group. Encourage discussion about whether they empathise with the characters, how they can see connections between literature and their lives. Research shows girls tend to dominate discussions of books. Some schools have developed ‘boys only’ discussion groups where boys feel able to express themselves without fear of failure.

Some ideas for engaging boys with reading include:

  • Harness the competitive aspect: Literature quizzes, online competitions, Wayne Mills’ Kids’ Lit Quiz, or in-house reading competitions, using a buzzer made by the science department.
  • Using interactive sites such as:
    • the BBC's School Radio site where you can hear students' interview authors about the inspiration for their books and tips for writing 
    • Wonderopolis, which explains a wonder of the day using text and a video, then tests your knowledge.
  • Engage boys in more ‘physical’ activities around literature, such as drama activities. For example, a ‘symbolic story representation’ where students create cut outs of characters and backdrops and ‘walk’ their peers through the story, adding their responses as they tell the plot, enacting scenes from plays or other texts, role playing, writing and performing vignettes from missing parts of the story or for related conflicts.
  • Allow boys to write about what interests them:
    • Connect writing to digital storytelling, using music or visuals
    • Hold writing workshops with visiting authors.
    • Display writing in the school library.
    • Encourage students to take their writing outside the school. For example, students who wrote poems about Anzac day and read them at a memorial service.

Read more about book clubs.

Allow free reading choice

Boys may not be reluctant to read, but reluctant to read what we want them to. Let students choose what they read and what to buy. Literacy programmes should encourage and support self-selected reading in addition to teacher assigned reading.

Encourage book ownership: give gift vouchers as prizes. One school gave students ‘virtual’ money to ‘spend’ at a bookshop then ordered titles from their selections for the library.

Find the right book to ignite a successful reading experience

Help students find the right book – the “home run book”. The impact of finding the right book at the right time can be the catalyst for a successful reading experience, one that triggers further reading.Harry Potter was a “home run book” for many.

The potential for finding a home-run book is increased when:

  • teachers and librarians have a good knowledge of literature and can recommend titles
  • you offer a wide selection to appeal to all tastes, interests and abilities
  • you understand that popular material rather than critically acclaimed titles might hit the mark. If it is a series the reader finds, all the better for reading mileage.

Read more about helping students choose books for reading pleasure.

Use ICT to encourage reading

  • Use online/ICT resources to hook boys in. Encourage students to sign up for book sites such as Good Reads to compare and critique books and write reviews or make movie trailers for favourite books.
  • Set up web-based reading fan clubs on the school website, with students choosing and creating their own clubs. Allow boys to make reading/language presentations using ICT.
  • Set up a library blog for reviews and links to online information about authors, titles, series, discussion, or book trailers.

Read aloud regularly

  • Read aloud as much as possible from novels as well as picture books. Hook them into a good story. Read from a wide variety of genres and vary it week by week.
  • Don’t make boys read aloud.
  • James Moloney identifies two types of books: books for reading BY reluctant boys, including the Paul Jennings, Roald Dahl type of fiction, and those to read TO reluctant boys which may be more demanding but are rewarding when shared aloud.

For further information and ideas on reading aloud, see Reading Aloud section, and also Read Alouds.

Further reading

Atwell, N. (2007). The reading zone: how to help kids become skilled, passionate, habitual, critical readers

William G. Brozo. (2010). To Be a Boy, To Be a Reader: Engaging Teen and Preteen Boys in Active Literacy. (Second Edition). International Reading Association.

Sullivan, Michael. Connecting Boys with Books and Connecting Boys with Books 2

McFann, J. (2004). Boys and Books. Reading Rockets article, reprinted from Reading Today, 22(1), 20-21.
“Young male readers lag behind their female counterparts in literacy skills. This article looks at the social, psychological, and developmental reasons why, and suggests solutions — including the need for more men to become role models for reading.”

Moloney, J. (2000). Boys and books. ABC Books. James Moloney is an author and a former teacher librarian. A chapter is available online: Ideas for getting boys into reading

UK Literacy Trust - Boys’ Reading Commission report.

Schwartz, Wendy. Helping Underachieving Boys Read Well and Often, ERIC Digest.

Smith, M.W. & Wilhelm, J.D.(2002). Reading Don’t Fix No Chevys: Literacy in the Lives of Young Men. Heinemann. Chapter 1 (PDF) and Chapter 2 (PDF) available online. Smith and Wilhelm discuss why boys embrace or reject certain ways of being literate, how boys read and engage with different kinds of texts, and what qualities of texts appeal to boys.

Me read? And how! (PDF) Ontario teachers report on how to improve boys' literacy skills, Ontario Ministry of Education, Canada

Boys and Reading: Strategies for Success

By Linda Jacobson. Why boys don't read, Great Schools

Websites and booklists

Boys blokes books and bytes: blog with reviews, competitions and more - a project of the Centre for Youth Literature, State Library of Victoria in partnership with the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development aimed at bringing boys, schools, public libraries and families together to read for pleasure.

Boys Read a site run by an organisation of parents, educators, librarians, mentors, authors, and booksellers that aims to transform boys into lifelong readers.

Getting boys to read Librarian, author and teacher Mike McQueen's blog includes interviews with experts and articles on ways you can connect boys through reading.

Good Reads: Popular site with reviews and book recommendations.

Guys Read: author Jon Scieszka’s website.

Ontario Education has developed a range of resources for teachers to help encourage boys to read including Me Read, No Way!

Tales Told Tall: Michael Sullivan’s website includes booklists, articles, and his blog Boy meets book. Author James Patterson’s site with book reviews- many by kids.

Image: it's in a book, by Amanda Tipton on Flickr