What Boys are Reading (page 2)

By — Gender Differences Special Edition Contributor
Updated on May 2, 2014

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.
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