Boys and Reading – David Greene

boysreadIn a relatively recent New York Times article, Robert Lipsyte, a sports author, posed the following question: “Boys and Reading: Is There Any Hope?”

The U.S. Department of Education’s reading tests for the last thirty years show boys scoring worse than girls every year in every age group. Those of us who have been following the issues revolving around boys’ education are not surprised at all.

Mothers often ask why their sons can’t read. The truth is more often not that they can’t, but that most boys are simply reluctant to read for a variety of reasons.

Most elementary school and secondary school English teachers who teach reading in English Language Arts time or classes do it through works of fiction. Most also happen to be female and choose titles with which they are more likely to identify. Most studies show female students learn reading better through fiction, especially emotive works with female central characters. In fact, most of these stories, especially in the younger years are more emotive and far less action oriented.

Rather than expanding reading selections with material that will better engage boys to read, schools tend to work with books that will encounter less resistance from parents. Boys love to read about things with which many parents today might object.

For example a boy would rather read a “Hunger Games” or “Harry Potter” than a “My Cheeky Angel”. So if it is fiction, make it action oriented.

Unfortunately, studies show that boys tend to relate better to non-fiction. But what non-fiction do we offer them? Here are the top 10 sellers according to, a popular site used by teachers for book recommendations:

1. Redwoods by Jason Chin
2. Rosa by Nikki Giovanni
3. Life in the Ocean: The Story of Oceanographer Sylvia Earle by Claire A. Nivola
4. Here Come the Girl Scouts!: The Amazing All-True Story of Juliette ‘Daisy’ Gordon Low and Her Great Adventure by Shana Corey
5. Step Gently Out by Helen Frost
6. Balloons Over Broadway: The True Story of the Puppeteer of Macy’s Parade by Melissa Sweet
7. Queen of the Falls by Chris Van Allsburg
8. Pop!: The Invention of Bubble Gum by Meghan McCarthy
9. Ubiquitous: Celebrating Nature’s Survivors by Joyce Sidman
10. 14 Cows for America by Carmen Agra Deedy

How many of those titles would a 9-year-old boy pull off the shelves?

The other major reason boys reading scores have gone down, especially over the past 12 years, ironically, is the heavy emphasis on testing and test prepping. There is no time for playing or acting out roles. There is only time to sit very still, read, and fill in the practice bubble sheets to prepare for the ELA test.

The question remains then, “What do boys need to increase their reading skills?”
Simply, for higher reading success, boys need:

  • Reading lessons with clear, structured instructions with bursts of intense work.
  • Specific goals and praise for success for ACTUAL success and not false praise.
  • Hands-on learning that connects to their reading material
  • Humor. Joke books are fun to read.
  • Choice in reading material: Provide boy centered options even if they make you squeamish. These should also include periodicals, graphic novels (comics), and even technical manuals.
  • Male role models who read, regardless of the material. Any text is reading – including fathers reading the sport pages daily.

Male drop out rates, college admission rates, graduation rates, and level of employment rates all tell us a sad story. Many males are quickly becoming second-class economic citizens, and not only males of color.

As a result of new technology now used in all careers, members of both genders must be highly skilled in reading to flourish. For them to matter and have success, even at many of our new manufacturing jobs, they must be able to use the new technology.

But that technology demands the ability to read and follow the instructions on a computer or tablet. Reading is THE required skill regardless of career and gender. If only one gender is able to make use of it, woe is us.


David Greene taught Social Studies and coached in NYC, Woodlands HS, Scarsdale HS, and Ardsley HS for 38 years. He mentored Teach For America Corps Members in the Bronx for Fordham University. He presently is a staff member of WISE Services, an organization that helps high schools create and run experiential learning programs for seniors. He is also the treasurer of Save Our Schools March Committee.

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