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Boys And Reading

Is there a gender gap?

This article might have been called, “BOYS DON’T READ ENOUGH” as Alia Wong called her examination of the problem, in The Atlantic1. She’s addressing a difficulty that everyone knows about, but, since it is such a fraught issue, most people don’t really want to discuss.

It’s absolutely true that girls do routinely better than boys – across the world – in reading scores, and more often say that they ‘read for pleasure’ (a telltale sign of engagement as well as proficiency). It’s true that girls now outnumber boys in tertiary education, one of the benefits of high literacy skills.

It seems to be the case, if you believe the research, that there is something of a ‘cultural’ problem with reading – for boys. Multiple studies suggest that many boys see reading as an essentially feminine activity, and this may be reinforced by the overwhelming number of female primary teachers, and the absence of models of male readers, possibly at home and certainly at school. Dr David Reilly (Griffith University) comes straight out and says that there is a stereotype, amongst boys, that “liking and excelling at reading is a feminine trait”.

In terms of culture, the figures don’t look so good. In Scholastic’s US survey (Psychology Today)2, barely 52% of boys (to 72% of girls) said they liked reading and 45% of boys (36% of girls) said they’d have trouble finding books they would want to read. This variance is replicated across the adult world, with a big gap in the gender of readers – ‘avid’ book readers are overwhelmingly likely to be women – 63% to 37% - practically twice as many.3

One academic, Christina Hoff Sommers4, even went so far as suggest it was to do with the undue influence of feminism in schools and society, and a ‘feminised’ environment in the primary school - though this has been largely debunked. Even in societies with little or no feminist activity, boys still trail behind girls in reading.

In PISA surveys, the average OECD difference between the sexes is 38 points, with Australia and New Zealand both on 34.5

It needs to be stated explicitly that all the measures and research relate to averages. A host of factors affect reading uptake. For instance, according to the Brown Center Report the gap between African-American and ‘white’ children is bigger by far (at 76 points) than the girl-boy gap. Socioeconomic and other background factors must be taken into account, and as one academic noted, “the differences within genders are far greater than those between the genders”.

Why is there a problem?

It would appear that there are significant gender differences in the way boys and girls cope with the challenge of learning to read.

Here’s one take on the issue:

Girls talk more than boys, speaking 30% more words over a day than boys. And they talk more from an early age … so it’s natural they are more adept with language. (Professor Michael Irwin, Massey University, New Zealand).6

He adds:

Boys are very conscious of what their peers think of them … Their fear of failure curbs their classroom participation. They don’t answer questions because they don’t want to risk being wrong, and having their peers laugh. And after puberty … they start to worry about what the girls will think of them.

Psychologists are very much aware of the gender gap.

Girls outscore boys on early tests of general verbal ability; in same-age comparisons, they tend to have somewhat greater verbal fluency and larger vocabularies than boys during the preschool years … This early verbal advantage is particularly pronounced in areas related to phonological awareness and letter recognition … These early verbal differences can give girls an advantage in learning to read … [while] the constant grouping and comparing of young children that is common in most schools can solidify early disadvantages, in part because children assigned to the “low group” in reading often actually have fewer opportunities to read connected, complex texts and receive more fragmented reading instruction, and in part due to the well recognised “Matthew effect”7 in reading: a self-reinforcing cycle by which successful early readers tend to read more … while those who struggle tend to avoid reading, and therefore fall even further behind. (Psychology Today)2

The Brown Center Report (2015) on American education3 came straight out and said there were three major drivers of this phenomenon:

  1. Biological/developmental – young boys evidence more problems in learning to read than girls (perhaps they are hard-wired differently?)
  2. School practices – boys are inferior to girls on behavioural, social and academic measures (think more restless, less conforming, less committed to achievement)
  3. Cultural influences – which steer boys towards non-literacy activities (sports, music) and define literacy as a feminine characteristic.

Another ‘cultural’ factor is the question of what kind of book do boys prefer? Should they be offered non-fiction – information, practical stuff (rather than stories)? Should it be graphic novels (to appeal to their enthusiasm for visual material)? Should it be digital?

One New Zealand survey, looking at the disengagement of boys vis-à-vis reading, found that they did indeed tend to have ‘special interests’.

In both [anonymous] selections [of texts], graphic novels and humour were favourites. Fiction (fantasy and science fiction, action, mystery and horror) was more popular than non-fiction (wildlife, world records, superheroes, Star Wars…).8

Or as Wendy Schwartz in the ERIC Digest said, in Helping Underachieving Boys Read Well and Often,

Reading choices made for boys frequently do not reflect their preferences, since girls are clearer and more vocal about what books they want, primary school teachers are predominantly women, and mothers rather than fathers select reading materials for their children.9

The same report also noted that ‘reading aloud’ could be a significant issue:

Research consistently shows that reading aloud to children is one of the most important ways of developing literacy and a love of reading among children of all ages. It would appear that once students have developed the skill of reading, many parents and teachers let slide (or no longer prioritise) developing the will to read.

What can we do to improve boys’ reading?

Given the range of issues involved, it’s important to note that there is no ‘silver bullet’ solution. However, the following strategies are to be recommended.

Finally, we recommend you look at what Ziptales has to offer. No less than seven of our genre categories are ‘boy-friendly’: graphic novels (at lower and upper literacy levels), humour, fantasy, science fiction, adventure, mystery and horror. And we added one in specially – ‘yucky’ stories – the sort of thing many children love. Also, our professional voiceovers provide that dynamic extra – the ‘read aloud’ function – something few teachers have the time to do.


  1. The Atlantic,
  2. Psychology Today,
  3. Brown Center Report,
  4. Christina Hoff Sommers, The War against boys: How misguided feminism is harming our young men (2000)
  5. Margaret Merga, Curtin University,
  6. Prof Michael Irwin, Massey University, quoted in
  7. “For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away.”  Matthew 25:29
  8. Jo Buchan, Boys and Reading (NLS, New Zealand)
  9. K12 Reader,

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