Tuesday, March 15, 2011

What Do Boys Like to Read?

My last post discussed the well-recognized fact that, worldwide, boys lag girls in reading skills. Some observers place the blame for at least part of boys' underperformance on the kinds of books served up in school. According to these critics, elementary teachers and English teachers, who tend to be female, assign books that appeal to girls--fiction that focuses on character development, feelings, and literary style. Boys, say the critics, prefer humor, action, and non-fiction.

The pattern of gender differences in reading preference extends to other countries as well. With a quick scan this evening, I found:

* A study of Greek 5th and 6th graders reporting that girls preferred human-interest stories while boys preferred comics and action stories.

* A study of English secondary school students discovering that boys would rather read (and performed better on tests about) a passage on spiders than one on leaving home in wartime.

* A pair of studies from Canada claiming that boys are more interested in
"cartoons, comics, news, sports pages, science fiction and fantasy stories, hobby, craft, and special interest books."

* An Australian study showing that boys preferred mystery, fantasy, and adventure, while exhibiting a strong dislike for poetry.

What about American boys? Accelerated Reader is a program that encourages students to choose their own books and then awards points when students complete a brief quiz on the book. Points are weighted for the length and difficulty of the books read, and students are encouraged to stretch themselves. In 2007, Accelerated Reader's database of over 160,000 secondary school students reported that ten of the top twenty books chosen by boys were fantasy (with a heavy preponderance of Harry Potter books), while the other ten looked suspiciously like books assigned for class: Romeo and Juliet, The Crucible, Animal Farm, The Great Gatsby, and the like. Note that no non-fiction books make the list, with the exception of A Child Called "It" by Dave Pelzer (which I understand has been revealed NOT to be non-fiction.)

Now, Accelerated Reader may actually distort reading choices if not enough high quality non-fiction books have been assigned points and listed. But at least one scholar has suggested that boys' choice of fantasy reveals their longing for action, invention, and heroic male characters not found in the standard school fare. This same scholar bemoans the fact that boys' "tastes and reading skills have not been developed for mature fiction, biographies, and historical nonfiction in self-selected reading."

What are we to make of all this? First, I think it's important NOT to tell boys that some kinds of reading are bad and don't count. When I was a child, my mother refused to let us read comic books. As a result, whenever we went to friends' houses I would hole up in one of their bedrooms tearing through comic books as fast as I could. It made me a boring playmate and unwelcome guest. My own son Damian read all the Calvin & Hobbes comics so many times that he could quote a fitting comic for almost any occasion; it didn't seem to damage his literacy any.

At the same time, I do think it's important to keep encouraging young readers to try new genres. In fourth grade Damian's class had a "Book Bingo" grid with spaces to fill with free choice books chosen from within a multitude of specified genres, from science fact to biography to fantasy to poetry. Damian managed to fill in four and half grids before the year was over.

Kids' magazines often have good, short informational text written in an accessible way. Boys will often follow their favorite teams in the sports pages. And an attentive parent can always keep eyes open for snippets on the Internet that might be of interest (I forward these to my sons). Another trick is to ask our sons to find something out for us on the Internet. Purists may complain about Wikipedia as a source of information, but it's certainly a source for informational reading that's more challenging and rewarding than Captain Underpants.

So look for humor, violence, heroism, mythology, action, mystery, strong male role models, science and sport stories, and a chance for boys to gain specialized knowledge. Still, let's be careful not to stereotype boys. There are some, after all, who love poetry, drama, and the subtleties of character. Let's just keep talking with them about what they're reading and strive to keep books and other forms of print a natural part of their lives.

[For previous posts on the topic, check here and here.]


József Vass said...

The reason for boys' lower performance in reading, is likely because males' speech centers in the brain (Broca's area) is in general less developed than that of females'. This implies that males' language skills will be less developed. This is also why men like to talk less. Think our ancestors hunting vs. collecting berries. Who had more time to chat? "Mystery, fantasy, and adventure" are about the story, and thinking about the story, while poetry is mostly talking for its own sake.

Penny said...

Boys tend to develop language more slowly, but I don't think this means there's an upper limit on their development. I think what happens is that given the various reinforcers in society, we tend to practice more the skills we're already good at. A boy who jumps a little higher and runs a little faster than others will spend more time on athletics - it's rewarded and praised - than will a boy who develops gross motor skills more slowly. Similarly, a boy who learns to read more slowly reads less, and therefore falls further behind. When a man is 30, who cares if he learned how to read a year later than his sister? But if a result he's only ever read a fourth as much, that will make a big difference to his life chances.

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