Boys Fall Behind in Reading Skills

A gap between boys and girls in overall academic achievement and reading skills grows more obvious every year. According to the latest assessment of adult literacy in this country, National Assessment of Adult Literacy, released by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) in 2005, the reading skills of American adults have declined dramatically from 1992 to 2003. Specifically, the report found the following:
  • The higher the educational level, the bigger the decline in their ability to read ordinary prose, one of the three kinds of literacy assessed by NCES. 
  • Even more astonishing, the decline in literacy skills among college graduates and those with graduate study or degrees rated “proficient” was confined to males.
  • The percentage of highly educated males rated “proficient” in all three kinds of literacy assessed (prose reading, document reading, and quantitative reasoning, as defined by NCES) declined.
  • The percentage of highly educated females rated “proficient” in the first two kinds of literacy remained the same, and in the third kind, increased somewhat.
The NCES study doesn’t show the differences in scores between men and women in age ranges, but results on the main tests of grade 12 reading achievement by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) indicate that a decline is occurring among both young males and females, but that the decline in reading skills is far more a young male than a young female phenomenon.  
  • Results on the 2005 grade 12 test of reading achievement, released in February 2007, showed over one grade level difference between girls and boys.
  • Both male and female students’ scores were lower in 2005 in comparison to 1992, when these main tests began, with female students now outscoring male students by 13 points.

What Boys and Girls are Reading

A large debate is currently waging over the reading gap and role of the English curriculum in students’ scores. In May 2008, the American Association of University Women (AAUW) reported that there is no "boys' crisis" in education and that "long-standing inequalities are not specific to boys." . However, the AAUW report did not include the results of the 2005 National Assessment of Adult Literacy and the main tests of reading in grade 12 given by NAEP.   On the other side of the debate, many educators in the schools acknowledge the gap (the gender of their high school valedictorians, for example, is obvious), but prefer to see its causes as external to the curriculum and beyond their control. However, in May 2008, Renaissance Learning published a report that revealed the book-reading habits of over three million students in grades 1-12. The data  suggest that the English curriculum has influenced the decline in scores for both boys and girls in grade 12, as well as the growing gap between them.  
The report is based on the database for Accelerated Learning (a computerized system for keeping track of what students read and how well they read, now in thousands of schools across the country). Overall, boys and girls gravitate toward "young adult fantasy." Young adult fantasy books make up 10 of the top 20 books among the entire sample of students in grades 9-12. These young adult fantasies are most likely self-selected readingfor book reports—because English teachers are unlikely to assign them. Most, or all, of the other 10 books were likely assigned reading since it is doubtful that large numbers of students would read The Crucible, Night, or Romeo and Juliet, for example, on their own initiative. The dominating presence of "young adult" fantasies makes one wonder: Where is the contemporary realistic fiction that educators once heavily promoted based on the notion that students would become motivated to read if they encountered novels they could relate to their daily lives? And are there good reasons why this genre seems to be the common literary core for American adolescents?  
Experts have raised a number of concerns about the young adult fantasy genre exemplified in these lists:
  • These fantasies do not tend to have the socially or politically profound themes one finds in Fahrenheit 451, Animal Farm, or Lord of the Flies, which are considered mature novels of imagined worlds. 
  •  Their main characters are all unusual teen-agers who use magic and mischief to solve their problems.
  •  Most of the books in these series do not have high readability levels, according to the formula used by Accelerated Reader, although they are generally well-written. Most of the books by Christopher Paolini, Stephenie Meyer, Orson Card, Lemony Snicket, Scott Westerfeld, Eion Colfer, and J.K. Rowling have fifth to seventh grade readability levels. Some (e.g., the Harry Potter books) are long, but most are much shorter.
  •  The overall readability level of the top 20 books for grade 8 is 6.2 . For grades 9-12, it is 6.1.

The Social Justice Influence in the English Curriculum

Interestingly, the reading lists reveal a trend in the assignment of novels reflecting a “social justice” for required reading. This approach now dominates teacher preparation programs and many of the textbooks used in the K-12 English and history curriculum.
In a social justice approach, teachers seek to develop students’ political understandings of people who are considered marginalized or society’s victims. For example, a Web-based teacher’s guide for a book on a middle grade list, Touching Spirit Bear—about indigenous Alaskans—recommends asking students to agree or disagree that ”juvenile delinquents are a symptom of a broken down family or community.”
A social justice approach also seeks to foster political activism. For example, a book named Holes, listed (and probably assigned) at many grade levels, is about homelessness. Here’s what a teacher’s guide on the Web recommends: “Stanley's friend was homeless before he came to camp. Discuss homelessness in your community. What would it be like to be homeless? Create a poster advocating a way that one can help...”
Research suggests that both boys and girls are unlikely to choose books based on an “issues” approach, confirming what earlier educators and parents recognized; most young people are not terribly interested in reforming society—or themselves. A social justice approach may well be driving all students but especially boys to easy-to-read exciting fantasies that are totally divorced from reality. As can be seen in Table 1 below, every one of the seven Harry Potter books was on the 9-12 list for boys (though not for girls).  
Top 20 Titles in 2007 for Boys and Girls in Grades 9-12 in the Accelerated Reader Database*



1. To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee (5.6)
To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee (5.6)
2 Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, J.K.Rowling (6.9)
A Child Called "It", Dave Pelzer (5.8)
3 Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, J.K.Rowling (5.5) Twilight, Stephenie Meyer (4.9)
4 Holes, Louis Sachar (4.6)                Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck (4.5)
5 Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck (4.5) Night, Elie Wiesel (4.8)
6 Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, J.K. Rowling (6.7) The Notebook, Nicholas Sparks (5.5)
7 The Outsiders, S.E. Hinton (4.7) Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, J.K.Rowling (6.9)
8 Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, J.K.Rowling (6.8) Speak, Laurie Halse Anderson (4.5)
9 Night, Elie Wiesel (4.8)
The Crucible, Arthur Miller (4.9)
10 Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, J.K. Rowling (7.2)
New Moon: A Novel, Stephenie Meyer (4.7)
11 Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, J.K. Rowling (7.2) The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald (7.3)
12 Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,J.K. Rowling (6.7)    Holes, Louis Sachar (4.6)
13 Eragon, Christopher Paolini (5.6) Lord of the Flies, William Golding (5.0)
14 Lord of the Flies, William Golding (5.0) A Walk to Remember, Nicholas Sparks (5.8)
15 The Crucible, Arthur Miller (4.9) Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, J.K. Rowling (5.5)
16 Animal Farm, George Orwell (7.3)               Animal Farm , George Orwell (7.3)
17 The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald (7.3) Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, J.K. Rowling (6.7)
18 Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare (8.6) The Outsiders, S.E. Hinton (4.7)
19 A Child Called "It", Dave Pelzer (5.8) The Scarlet Letter (Unabridged), Nathaniel Hawthorne (11.7)
20 Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury (5.2) Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare (8.6)
* Data are from 162,823 students in ninth through twelfth grades who read a total of 972,309 books in the 2007 calendar year.

** A book's readability  level is in parentheses. The average readability level of the top 20 books read by ninth- through twelfth-grade students was 6.1 overall, 6.4 for boys, and 5.7 for girls.

By reading popular fantasies, boys escape pedagogical injunctions to relate what they read to their personal lives and to engage in political activism to combat their society’s ills.  And, best of all, they find the adventurous, courageous, and clever male characters that are likely not in their middle or high schoolEnglish curriculum. The problem is, so far as we can tell from the novels listed in the top 20 on these lists, that their tastes and reading skills have not been developed for mature fiction, biographies, and historical nonfiction in self-selected reading.

Tips for Parents and Teachers

  • It has long been known that there are strong differences between boys and girls in their literary preferences. Consider assigning books that appeal to boys that convey interesting facts, high adventure and practical information
    • Interesting Facts – boys enjoy reading about the natural world they live in. Encylopedias, Ripley's Believe It or Not, and. the Guinness Book of World Records are popular with boys of all ages.
    • High Adventure –boys like a fast-moving story with a plot that captures their imagination  and shows leading male characters with courage and daring. 
    • Practical Information– follow the student’s interest. If he is interested in mountain bikes, by all means, allow him to read about the latest crop of professional mountain bikers.
  • Involve boys in the selection process to increase their interest and attentiveness to reading
  • Boys want to see males as leading characters and as models for the kind of people  they want to be. Consider biographies of important American presidents, inventors, scientists, military leaders throughout history, high-achieving athletes, and unusual, bold entrepreneurs. Years ago, the Landmark Series of biographies turned many children, especially boys, into readers years ago, and many are now in print again.