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Helping Underachieving Boys Read Well and Often

By — Educational Resource Information Center (U.S. Department of Education)
Updated on Dec 16, 2008

The ability to read well is the most important skill children can acquire. Reading ability and the desire to read vary significantly among groups of children, however. This was demonstrated, for example, by the findings of the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Kindergarten Class of 1998-99 (ECLS-K), a national study on school readiness that measured children's ability to identify by name uppercase and lowercase letters of the alphabet, associate letters with sounds at the beginning and ending of words, recognize common words by sight, and read words in context. ECLS-K found that on all these measures girls were more proficient than boys, whites more proficient than non-Asian students of color and Latinos, and children from higher socioeconomic (SES) backgrounds more proficient than lower SES children (reported in Coley, 2002). Moreover, the reading gap between whites and students of color frequently widens with age (Coley, 2001).

There are many reasons why some children do not read well and do not like to read, some of which are related to biological and cognitive factors. Other impediments to reading achievement include the use of ineffective teaching strategies and materials; the lack of sufficient and enticing reading resources in schools, communities, and homes; and family habits that do not include reading. This digest provides information on how schools and families can improve the reading skills of native English speaking children, particularly poor elementary school level boys of color. It focuses on ways to increase the time they spend reading and the enjoyment they get from doing so; it does not cover strategies for teaching reading. The recommendations presented below, based on the analysis and experience of experts, have proven to be particularly useful with boys who are most at risk of underachievement but least likely to view reading as an important activity.

How Boys View Reading

Boys tend to learn to read at an older age than girls, take longer to learn, and comprehend narrative texts less easily. Boys also value reading less, and see reading as a way to get information rather than as a recreational activity (Simpson, 1996; Smith & Wilhelm, 2002). While researchers differ on whether boys of color see reading as "acting white," and, thus, something to be avoided (Smith & Wilhelm, 2002), one study of African American boys found that they resented activities they defined as schoolwork, believing that they will never benefit from an education (Tanksley, 1995).

Reading Materials That Boys Like

Boys tend to read a "wider number of genres over a broader range of topics" than girls (Simpson, 1996, p. 272). They are usually most interested in books and periodicals about hobbies, sports, and activities they might engage in, and in informational resources. They like escapism (science fiction, adventure, and fantasy) and humor more than fiction and poetry, and they like to collect series of books (Simpson, 1996; Smith & Wilhelm, 2002).

Reading choices made for boys frequently do not reflect their preferences, since girls are clearer and more vocal about what books they want, elementary school teachers are predominantly women, and mothers rather than fathers select reading materials for their children. Obviously, then, involving boys in the selection process will increase their attentiveness (Simpson, 1996). Further, boys, like all children, want to see characters like themselves sometimes. Therefore, materials should feature people of different ethnicities, races, and backgrounds who live in a variety of types of homes and communities. (One resource for materials of particular interest to African American children is a bibliography produced by the National Association for the Education of Young Children [Brown & Oates, 2001]).

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