Reading is for the boys (and girls)!
This WebQuest for teachers looks at the difficult issue of how to get — and keep — boys interested in reading. It guides you through the research, then looks at text selection and pedagogy and helps you find specific strategies for narrowing the adolescent "literacy gap."
“The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who cannot read them.”
— Mark Twain
“In my third period English Language Arts class, I have 18 boys and 8 girls.” Heard in the office or teacher’s lounge, this comment brings many responses — most often along the lines of “Bless your heart.” Why is that? And why does it seem so much more difficult to get boys “turned on” to reading than it is for girls? Why is it that boys have a harder time than girls in English Language Arts (ELA) classes? Why do boys as a group perform significantly lower than girls on state and national reading and ELA assessments? Why do teachers (even our rare male teachers) have more difficulty engaging boys in the texts we typically explore? And, most importantly from the teacher’s point of view, what can we do about it?
While the issue of boys and reading is obviously complex and multi-faceted, classroom teachers can address aspects of instruction and text selection to encourage boys to read — and to enjoy it. In You Got to Be the Book, Jeffrey Wilhelm found that students had to engage with the text responsively before they could move to critical analysis. This confirmation of the need to comprehend and relate to a work in order to own it for understanding supports response-based teaching and underscores the need for texts that engage boys. Both the selection of text and the instructional activities that teachers use with students can strengthen this engagement.
“There are three principal means of acquiring knowledge… observation of nature, reflection, and experimentation. Observation collects facts; reflection combines them; experimentation verifies the result of that combination.”
— Denis Diderot
Working through the activities in this WebQuest, you will continue this exploration of adolescent reading gender gap. You will have a chance to
- Read some of the recent research on boys and reading (see Research Background).
- Discover resources that help boys (and girls) make informed decisions in self-selecting texts.
- Learn about strategies that strengthen boys’ engagement with text and improve reading comprehension.
- Create a new activity for your class incorporating a text selection and/or strategy designed to engage boys with reading.
- Try out new text(s) and/or activities with your students.
- Reflect on the efficacy of the activity for engaging boys (and girls) with the text.
“The data from our study of boys and reading in fact, challenge us to rethink our answers to the most fundamental questions we ask as teachers: Why do we teach? What do we teach? How do we teach?”
— Michael W. Smith and Jeffrey D. Wilhelm, Reading Don’t Fix No Chevys
What teachers need to know
- A real literacy gender gap does exist.
- Understanding boys and their interests should influence text selection and curriculum development.
- A literacy program should encourage and support self-selected reading in addition to teacher-assigned reading.
- Helping boys make connections with text through activities such as front-loading, drama, inquiry, and small group discussions can support their reading comprehension and analysis skills.
If you are interested in some of the research that underscores this problem and shapes the possible solutions suggested in the Task and Process and Resources sections, read below.
One of the first questions we have to ask, aside from the matter of teacher perception, is “Does a real problem exist?” After all, every teacher knows boys who love to read, who perform well in English class, who might even consider majoring in English and perhaps teaching it one day. While we must always be wary of statistics and generalizations, evidence of a problem does exist. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, teen females have outperformed teen males on reading assessments at a relatively constant rate from 1971 to 1999. The reading scores for 19 year-old males (and females) have stayed “about the same” during these years, while the scores of minority and other groups have risen, making the gender gap the most immovable discrepancy in literacy proficiency. (See “Trends in the Reading Performance of 9-, 13-, and 17-Year-Olds.”)
A similar gap appears in North Carolina state assessments. “A higher percentage of females than males, in their respective ethnic categories, performed at Achievement Level III or above in reading and mathematics” on the High School Comprehensive Test in 2000-2001. In reading, the gap in 2000-2001 grew slightly from the year before, with 66.8 % of females performing at or above Achievement Level III both years, while the percent of males performing at or above Achievement Level III decreased from 56.6 in 1999-2000 to 56.3 in 2000-2001. The gap in the English I End-of-Course Test (given in grade 9) scores reflects approximately the same discrepancy as the Comprehensive Test (given in grade 10), with 73.2% of females and 63.5% of males performing at or above Achievement Level III in 2000-2001. Furthermore, while female students performed better on End of Course Tests across the five core courses (English I , Algebra I, Biology, Economics, Legal and Political Systems, and U.S. History), the combined scores gap is much smaller, moving from one point in 1998-1999 to 0.2 points in 2000-2001. (See the North Carolina state testing results for 2000-2001.)
Encouragement for boys as readers can benefit girls as well. Rather than pitting boys’ needs against girls’ or reinforcing the very stereotypes that can discourage boys from reading traditional literature, many researchers suggest comparing this to the problem of “girls in math.” Through exploration of proficiencies and attitudes, math educators developed new approaches that serve both girls and boys in the math class. In Teenage Boys and High School English, Pirie discusses the issue as a gender continuum, examining boys’ and girls’ identification with stereotypically male and female characteristics. He cautions teachers not to treat all boys (or girls) as if they were the same and adds, “We must be prepared for the likelihood that strategies intended to help boys will also benefit many girls.” (2002, p. 19) Given the room girls also have for growth as reported in the statistics above, educators will be well advised to embrace such unintended consequences.
In their intensive study of boys literacy lives in and out of school, Smith and Wilhelm summarized gender and literacy research, including the following observations:
- Boys take longer to learn to read than girls do.
- Boys read less than girls read.
- Boys generally provide lower estimations of their reading abilities than girls do.
- Boys value reading as an activity less than girls do.
- Boys have much less interest in leisure reading and are far more likely to read for utilitarian purposes than girls are.
- Significantly more boys than girls declare themselves “nonreaders.”
- Boys spend less time reading and express less enthusiasm for reading than girls do.
- Boys increasingly consider themselves to be “nonreaders’ as they get older; very few designate themselves as such early in their schooling, but nearly 50 percent make that designation by high school.
- Boys and girls express interest in reading different things, and they do read different things.
- Boys are less likely to talk about or overtly respond to their reading than girls are.
- Boys prefer active responses to reading in which they physically act our responses, do or make something. (Smith and Wilhelm 2002, pp. 1-12)
Of course, the source of the problem is neither simple nor easy to define. Like Smith and Wilhelm, Pirie relates biological as well as social aspects to the issue. Biologically, boys develop language skills more slowly than girls, although the differences appear to fade over time. However, studies have also shown that women use more areas of the brain together, while men tend to use more focused, specific areas for tasks. Connections between language and emotion centers in the brain, as well as evolutionary developments (from roles of women as caretakers and men as hunters into our currently shifting roles) influence relative confidence in self-expression and character appreciation, both of which are aspects of reading comprehension and analysis. (Pirie, 2002; Smith and Wilhelm, 2002)
Socially, boys have few male reading role models at home or school. Most librarians and teachers are women; mothers read to children more frequently than fathers. Boys often express distaste for reading as a passive, even feminine activity. Peer pressure may discourage boys from reading as well as prevent them from responding openly to questions that reveal their interest in reading and/or emotions and characters. “If reading or other literate activities are perceived as feminized, then boys will go to great lengths to avoid them. This is particularly true if the activities involve effort and the chance of failure, for incompetence and expending effort are also seen as unmasculine.” (Smith and Wilhelm, 2002, p. 13)
For several years now, attention has been paid to finding books that appeal to boys by being more “masculine” (focusing on sports, war, competition, and so on). This approach, however, brings up questions of stereotypes and reinforcing behaviors or attitudes which may not benefit students. Just as teachers should avoid “feminizing” boys by discouraging masculine characteristics, so too should they resist “choosing books that match stereotyped views of boys’ interests and capacities that may perpetuate those stereotypes and deny alternative interests.” (Millard, as described in Smith and Wilhelm, 2002, p. 14)
Taking a simpler approach, author Jon Scieszka has created Guys Read, “a literacy program to connect boys with books they will want to read.” Based on Scieszka’s own experience as well as input from “Guys Read voters,” the program’s website recommends books that boys say they like. Implicit in the site is the notion that by reading more books that interest them, “boys become better readers, better students, better guys.” Pirie affirms the need for resources such as Guys Read by pointing out that although girls often discover good books to read by word of mouth, boys “almost never recommend books to each other.” (2002, p. 80).
Smith and Wilhelm (2002) also found that allowing students choice in their reading selection broadened text types read in class and encouraged boys’ interest in reading itself. However, they also caution teachers to maintain a balance of self-selected and teacher-recommended or required books so that students can nurture interests they bring to school as well as be encouraged to develop new interests. Boys’ interests not only transcend the stereotypes but also are “surprisingly rich and varied.” (p. 94) While boys might resist reading texts assigned for class, they would often read similar types of texts on topics that interested them or texts that were recommended by a respected peer or family member. “While the boys were passionate about the literate activities they pursued outside of school, they usually saw school literacy as a tool, not something to be passionate about.” (p. 94) While discouraging in some ways, the boys’ attitudes do offer an opportunity for teachers to bridge the gap by helping them make connections — even passionate connections — with literature read for class.
Wilhelm reflects in a later article, “The reason that certain text types (like nonfiction) and features of texts (visuals) tend to engage boys has much less to do with the text itself, and much more to do with the connection these features encourage readers to make to the world.” (Wilhelm 2002, p. 16) These features include length of text, visual elements, level of challenge, edginess, realism/believability, immediacy, appropriate levels of challenge, and humor (Wilhelm 2002; Smith and Wilhelm 2002). Guys Read and many book recommendation websites focus on young adult texts that meet those criteria.
Through instruction, teachers can create or reinforce connections that Wilhelm (2002) describes. Boys who see the relationship between the text read and their current lives are more likely to be engaged and to respond to the text. (Wilhelm, 2002) English teachers take for granted that by studying literature, we are studying life. However, boys are more likely than girls to connect literature with television or movies rather than with other written text or with life. (Pirie, 2002) Think-alouds, front-loading or pre-reading strategies, inquiry projects, and socializing activities are ways that teachers can encourage boys to see connections between literature and life.
Wilhelm (1997, 2002) encourages teachers to use strategies that help students “see” the text through art and drama. In symbolic story representation, for example, students create cut-outs of characters and backdrops and “walk” their peers through the story, adding their responses as they tell the plot. Drama activities give students opportunities to be physically active and to deflect their responses by taking on the persona of the character. Through this deflection, boys are more comfortable exploring characters and feelings. (Pirie, 46-48) Possible drama activities include enacting scenes from plays and other texts, forming living statues or tableaux, writing and performing vignettes for missing parts of the story or for related conflicts, and role-playing. (Wilhelm, 2002, Pirie, 2002)
North Carolina State Testing Results 2000-2001: The Green Book. (2002). North Carolina Department of Public Instruction. Raleigh, NC.
Pirie, B. (2002). Teenage boys and high school English. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Scieszka, J. Guys Read. Retrieved February 6, 2003. Website: http://us.penguingroup.com/static/packages/us/yreaders/guysread/jon.html
Smith, M. W. and Wilhelm, J. D. (2002) Reading Don’t Fix No Chevys: Literacy in the Lives of Young Men. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
“Trends in the Reading Performance of 9-, 13-, and 17-Year-Olds.” Retrieved February 28, 2003 from National Center for Education Statistics. Website: http://nce s.ed.gov//programs/coe/2001/section2/indicator10.asp
Wilhelm, J. D. (2002, October). “Getting boys to read: It’s the Context!” Scholastic Instructor, 16-18.
Wilhelm, J. D. (1997). You Got to Be the Book: Teaching Engaged and Reflective Reading with Adolescents. New York: Teacher’s College Press.
Process and Resources
Reading furnishes the mind only with materials of knowledge; it is thinking that makes what we read ours.
— John Locke
Step 1: Exploring text selection
Librarians, media specialists, English teachers, parents — all can be found on adolescent reading discussion forums asking, “What are good books for boys?” Of course, some might say this question has as many different answers as there are boys. However, Jeff Wilhelm has identified some common aspects to boys reading interests.”The reason that certain text types (like nonfiction) and features of texts (visuals) tend to engage boys,” he writes, “has much less to do with the text itself, and much more to do with the connection these features encourage readers to make to the world.” (Wilhelm, 2002, p. 16)
These features include
- length of text
- visual elements
- level of challenge
- appropriate levels of challenge
Several websites have been designed to help boys (and their reading “cheerleaders”) find books. Because young adult literature often meets several of the criteria stated above, several of the sites focus on YA books; however, others include more traditional and even classic titles. Explore these sites and consider how you can include books “for boys” in you classroom. In your notes, jot down a few titles that you know or that you want to explore further, along with a brief explanation of your interest in those particular works.
Web resources on selecting books for boys:
- “Ideas for getting Boys to Read.” An excerpt from James Maloney’s Boys and Books (ABC Books, 2000).
- “Cool Books for Tough Guys: 50 Books Out of the Mainstream of Adolescent Literature That Will Appeal to Males Who Do Not Enjoy Reading.” Article (and list) from NCTE ALAN Review, Fall 1994.
- Getting Boys to Read Blog with tips to encourage reading.
Lists of books recommended for boys:
- Guys Read. Literacy initiative designed to encourage boys to read and to help boys find books they want to read.
- Reading Rants: Out of the Ordinary Teen Booklists. A series of topical lists of reviewed books (including Boy Meets Book, Closet Club, Graphic Fantastic, Hip History, and more).
Step 2: Exploring instructional strategies
The next step involves investigating research-based instructional strategies recommended for engaging boys in reading and response activities. Some of these may be strategies you already use in your classroom; others may be familiar yet less frequently used, and some may even be entirely new to you. For each type of strategy, explore the general information resources and then take a look at specific lesson plans by NC and other state’s educators to “see” how some teachers have incorporated them into their classrooms. (”In the Right Direction” is a NCDPI high school English Language Arts publication designed to support teachers with understanding and implementing the NC ELA Standard Course of Study.) Take some notes to record your reflections about the strategies themselves and about how they may relate to the research on boys and reading. (Some of the sample lessons incorporate more than one strategy, as does much great instruction!)
General strategies for boys and reading:
- “Boys and literacy: Ignite your son’s imagination with reading and writing.” A parent “tip sheet” created by Pirie.
- “Guidelines and Student Handouts for Implementing Read-Aloud Strategies in Your Class.” Article from Scholastic Best Practices website devoted to Teaching Comprehension with Jeff Wilhelm.
- “Lesson Builder: Think Aloud.” Article from Annenburg/CPB website devoted to the Making Meaning in Literature series.
- “Pre-Reading Discussion” “In the Right Direction” activity plan from NCDPI.”
- “Creating Conceptual Frameworks” “In the Right Direction” activity plan from NCDPI.
- “Read Aloud Reminiscence” “In the Right Direction” activity plan from NCDPI.
- “Introduction to Animal Farm.” LEARN NC lesson plan.
- “The Hero Connection: From Beowulf to Batman. LEARN NC lesson plan.
Making reading social
- “Literature Circles: Reading by Choice.” “In the Right Direction” unit plan from NCDPI.
- “Seminar on John Donnes’ Meditation 17 a>.” “In the Right Direction” activity plan from NCDPI.
- “To Kill A Mockingbird Role Play: A Maycomb Pig Pickin’.” LEARN NC lesson plan.
Approaching reading through inquiry
- “A Study of Night and the Holocaust.” “In the Right Direction” unit plan from NCDPI.
- “Banned Books Research Project.” “In the Right Direction” unit plan from NCDPI.
- “Controversial Issue Seminar.” “In the Right Direction” activity plan from NCDPI.
- “Dimensions of the American Dream.” “In the Right Direction” unit plan from NCDPI.
- “Allen Ginsberg: Poetry and Politics.” From PBS.
- “Acting Up across the Curriculum: Using Creative Dramatics To Explore Adolescent Literature.” article from NCTE ALAN review, Spring 1997.
- “Dramatic Tableaux.” Description of a classroom activity from Annenburg/CPB Making Meaning in Literature series.
- “Defining Through Verbal Charades.” “In the Right Direction” activity plan from NCDPI.
- “If I Were in the Crowd: Reaction to ‘I Have a Dream’.” “In the Right Direction” activity plan from NCDPI.
- “The Rest of the Story.” “In the Right Direction” activity plan from NCDPI.
- “Oedipus the King Reader’s Theatre.” LEARN NC lesson plan.
- “Tableaux Tour of Texts.” LEARN NC lesson plan.
- “Novel Review Project.” “In the Right Direction” activity plan from NCDPI.
- “Literature Circles: Reading by Choice.” “In the Right Direction” unit plan from NCDPI.
- “Replica of a Period Newspaper/World Literature.” LEARN NC lesson plan.
Step 3: Trying something new
Now that you’ve found resources for helping boys find books and reviewed instructional strategies to engage boys in reading, it’s time to get to work. Decide whether you want to try a new text, a choice of text and/or a new strategy to encourage the boys in your class to become more engaged with the work. Design a lesson with your new text or strategy to support students’ reading.
Try the lesson out in your class. Observe ways in which your students (boys and girls) react to the text and/or activity. If you aren’t currently working with students, try the lesson yourself and produce the products you’ve asked of the students. Are there places where you reached a roadblock? If so, look for ways to smooth the way for your students.
Step 4: Reflecting
For learning to be internalized, there must be an opportunity to synthesize what we learn. We often give students the opportunity to do this synthesis and evaluation on a test. The final test of your learning happens in your classroom, but taking some time to reflect will make it easier to use what you’ve encountered in this WebQuest.
Write out your reflection in word processing software such as Microsoft Word. After creating your reflection, post it at the BoysRead discussion forum. By posting your reflection here, you will also be sharing your experience with other teachers interested in supporting boys in reading.
When you write your reflection, be sure to consider these questions:
- What evidence do you have from personal experience and/or research to support the concerns about the adolescent literacy gender gap?
- What text(s) do you currently use that might engage boys?
- What texts would you like to try with the boys in your classes?
- What strategies have you tried? What would you like to try?
- What “new thing” (text and/or strategy) did you try for this webquest?
- How did it go?
- What might you do differently in the future?
“I suggest that the only books that influence us are those for which we are ready, and which have gone a little further down our particular path that we have gone ourselves.”
— E. M. Forster
Of course, all of you made straight A’s, but exactly where on the A continuum do you fall? This rubric should help you think about ways you want to grow as a teacher.
Understanding the research and issues about boys and reading
Boys will be boys; so what if girls do better at reading and boys do better at math?
I guess there really is a problem here. With NCLB and AYP hanging over our heads, I know we’ll have to do something about it.
Now I see why some boys and girls have struggled with ELA classes.
This issue is complex, but not impossible to address. Now that I’m more aware of the problems and possible ways to deal with them, I’m going to keep my eyes open for new approaches and information to support boys and reading.
Hmm… now why would I want to do that? We already have enough that we have to read.
Wow, who knew there was so much out there?
I have found a few books to read and see how boys will like them.
With all of these resources to help boys find books, I know my students and I will find good choices to include as part of our literacy program.
I have had plenty of students do fine with the way I have taught before.
I know they need help and I might try some of the ideas.
I’ve gotten some ideas that I’ll try to get students engaged in texts.
I think some of these ideas will work better for some texts than others. I’ll use them and figure out ways to support student reading and keep them engaged with the text.
Conclusion and Credits
Teachers open the door. You enter by yourself.
— Chinese Proverb
Thanks to Shayne Goodrum, Durham Public Schools, for assistance with formatting, some of the phrasing, and the All A’s rubric concept. Thanks also to Cris Crissman of NCDPI and North Carolina State University, who encouraged and supported this project.