Why Boys Aren’t Reading More

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credit: blog.janicehardy.com
credit: blog.janicehardy.com

The other night, I experienced one of those rare highs in a mother’s life, the sort that makes you think maybe you actually are doing something right after all. It was about 10:30 p.m. I’d tucked in my 10-year-old an hour earlier, and he usually conks out immediately. So when I heard a small voice coming from behind his bedroom door, I thought: Oh no. Bad dream. Diversion from my own bed calling me.

I opened my son’s bedroom door tentatively. He looked at me sheepishly, with wide-open eyes, and said: “I finished the book.” He’d completed, on his own after lights out, Mildred D. Taylor’s Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry. It could have been any book and I would have had the same reaction. I smiled stupidly, ruffled his messy hair, and told him to get to bed.

I was ecstatic. My son is what you’d call a “reluctant reader.” He loves listening to me, or anyone else for that matter, read a good book out loud. But ask him to sit down, alone, and read for 30 minutes, and you’d think he’d been asked to jump barefoot on a bed of nails. I’ve wrestled with this situation ever since he was in first grade, and his teacher called me a month into the school year to inform me that she would only read the math problems that she’d concocted for a few more weeks, and then he was on his own.

Whatever happened to “Reading By 9,” I had wondered miserably. My son had just turned six, and clearly wasn’t ready to read on his own. Over the next few years, his reading skills progressed, albeit slowly, and reading was never something he chose to do on his own. Expressing my frustration to a librarian one day, her response made me a little more sympathetic to his plight.

She explained to me that, for adept readers, reading is like having a movie unfold in our heads, but for a child who is not a completely proficient reader the act of reading is like attempting to watch a movie that stops and starts constantly, never really coming together in a seamless fashion. If that had been my son’s early experiences with reading, it’s no wonder he wasn’t eager to choose to read for fun.

It’s a problem that’s been called an epidemic among boys nationwide.

Girls are far outpacing boys in reading, both for pleasure and scholastically. Boys fall behind girls in reading by almost a year and a half by middle school, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. By high school, almost 50 percent of boys declare themselves “non-readers.”

Some experts say it’s because boys learn to read at a slower rate than girls. This makes sense. If girls grasp reading sooner, they’re more likely to adopt it as a go-to hobby at an earlier age. What’s more, says Jon Scieska, children’s author and former elementary school teacher, the majority of books in teen sections of book stores and libraries are “girl books” whose heroines often mimic those of realistic twenty-first century girls. Only a small percentage are geared towards boys.

That’s part of the reason why Scieska created the website guysread.com. It offers a lot of great reading suggestions for boys, covering various genres and subject matters. The site is geared more toward moms like me who want to get their sons to read rather than boys themselves, and it’s got some great suggestions. Scieska’s site may not turn a “reluctant’ reader” into a voracious reader overnight but, as I can attest, sticking to a reading agenda at home in whatever fashion works, even a little bit, can’t hurt.

Case in point: I’ve been reading to my son every night pretty much since the day he was born. Recently, I’d begun to wonder if I was wasting my time. Sure, his listening skills are great, but I questioned whether it was doing a darn thing to sharpen his reading skills. And then, the other night, long after I’d tucked under his bed the book I’d been reading to him, he had the wherewithal to pick it up, turn on the light, and keep reading—without me even knowing. He found the book that compelling.

Looking back, I’ve shared a lot of great reading adventures over the years with my son. We’ve chuckled and shaken our heads over goofy Jack Gantos books, held our breath at the mysterious stories written by Paul Fleischman, routed for the characters in Mike Lupica’s sports novels, and been spellbound by master storyteller Avi. Truth be told, I hope we’ve still got a few more years of this co-reading thing before he tells me he’s too old to be read to. If and when that happens, I’ll hold my breath and hope he’ll pick up a book on his own.




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  1. “Reading by 9,” our old benchmark, is entirely more appropriate from a developmental standpoint for most kids. Studies show that the age at which a child acquires reading as a skill has no bearing on later achievement in school, except when a child is labeled or tracked into a low-performing reading group, at which point, as you say, kids (usually boys) will self-identify as “bad at reading” and sometimes “bad at school.” It’s tragic, and many teachers and librarians tear their hair over this mania for earlier and earlier reading.

    Best of luck to you and congratulations to the boy!

  2. My reluctant reader loves non-fiction and now that he has access to an ipad he reads more. You mention the listening: when my son takes standardized tests that measure listening he scores consistently in the 95%. and neither of my kids were proficient readers until age 9.

  3. Great article Elizabeth! My (female) teenagers still like being read to occasionally – especially the night before Christmas. Hope your son continues to find interesting stories he wants to read.

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