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Gender and Reading Preferences

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

Worldwide literacy scores indicate that boys do not perform as well as girls. For example, in England, girls score higher than boys in English when tested at ages 7, 11, 14, and 16 (Haupt, 2003) while, in Australia, a 1996 survey found that literacy scores for boys declined over a 10 year period (Bantick, 1996). Von Drasek (2002) reported on the National Center for Educational Statistics National Assessment for Educational Progress of 1992–2000 reading assessments in the United States. Between 1998 and 2000, “the gap between boys’ and girls’ scores increased” (p. 72). Although the percent of girls at or above the proficient level in 2000 was higher than in 1992, for “boys, the percentage in 2000 was not significantly different than in 1992” (p. 72).

In Reading Don’t Fix No Chevys, Smith and Wilhelm (2002) identified a number of general research findings about boys, girls, and reading:

  • Girls comprehend fiction better than boys.
  • Boys seem to prefer nonfiction, magazines, and newspapers.
  • Boys tend to prefer short texts or texts with short sections.
  • Girls enjoy leisure reading more than boys.
  • Many boys enjoy reading about sports and hobbies.
  • Some boys enjoy fantasy and science fiction.
  • Graphic novels and comic books are more popular with boys than girls.
  • Boys prefer visual texts.
  • Boys really do judge a book by its cover.

However, Wilhelm and Smith (Wilhelm, 2001) went on to caution educators that boys can be “more different than alike” (p. 60) and that depending on statistics alone can cause educators to “lose sight of individual differences” (p. 60). Citing Millard (1997) and Telford (1999), Wilhelm and Smith (Wilhelm, 2001) noted that “teachers tend to use conventional wisdom to reinforce traditional notions of gender and gender preferences, thereby denying boys wider choices and chances to expand their tastes” (p. 60).

Gurian (2001) pointed out that most of the “reading traumatized and reading-deficient high school students” (p. 297) are boys. In a national survey conducted during the 2001 Teen Read Week, adolescents responded to the question: “If you don’t read much or don’t like reading, why?” Boys reported the following as obstacles to reading: boring/not fun (39.3%), no time/too busy (29.8), like other activities better (11.1%), and can’t get into the stories (7.7%). Other responses constituted less than 5% (Jones & Fiorelli, 2003).

In a survey of Arizona high school students that was repeated in 1982, 1990, and 1997, Hale and Crowe (2001) found that, while contemporary boys’ favorite books are about adventure, sports, science fiction, and mystery, contemporary girls rank mystery and romance/love stories as their favorites. The lowest-rated categories of books for both boys and girls were historical, western, and biography/autobiography. Although humor books were favorites in 1982, they dropped significantly in popularity by 1997. It should be noted there was no category for realistic fiction on the survey and that the top pleasure reading titles in 1997 were from the genres of fantasy/science fiction/horror, mystery, contemporary realistic fiction, and historical fiction.

While these findings cannot be applied across the board to all adolescents, it is necessary to keep them in mind when selecting young adult literature. Reading takes practice. A coach would never say to a basketball player, “You know how to shoot a basket so you don’t need to practice anymore.” Instead, both the coach and the player know that practice improves performance. The same holds true with reading. Von Drasek (2002) notes that “skilled readers read an average of 11 pages a day” (p. 72). However, if teachers and library media specialists are not providing the kinds of materials that boys and/or girls enjoy reading, there is a lower probability that adolescents will spend time practicing their reading skills and thus developing reading proficiency.

To encourage boys to read, Allison Haupt (2003), coordinator of Children’s and Young Adults’ Services at the North Vancouver District Public Library, declared: “I’ve decided to be overtly and blatantly sexist in everything from the way I approach storytelling to the books I promote. It’s not that I don’t think that boys and girls...can’t read and enjoy the same books...But [I am convinced]...that our ability to promote reading can be greatly enhanced by recognizing biological and developmental differences between the guys and the gals” (p. 20). Both boys and girls need to see that reading is important and that it can blend with their academic or professional goals. For boys, if “reading is identified as being ‘soft’ or feminine, then reading would diminish rather than develop...[a boy’s] fragile sense of self and growing masculinity” (Haupt, 2003, p. 21). Connecting Adolescents and Their Literature 2–2 has some suggestions for encouraging boys to read.

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