Rewriting the book on boys and reading

By Dan Lander

Boy reading a book on a bed

New research suggests the widely held view that primary school boys are reluctant readers may be wrong – and possibly doing more harm than good.

It is a common assumption that young boys don’t like books and find reading boring.

This idea is not just familiar in a casual, everyday sense, it has had a heavy influence on education practices, shaping the way primary schools approach literacy among boys, including the sorts of books they provide for them and the way reading proficiency is measured.

Despite the wide influence of this idea, a new study by researchers at UniSA, Australian Catholic University and Queensland University of Technology suggests the “boys don’t read” hypothesis may not only be misguided but could be holding many students back.

UniSA Research Professor Barbara Comber, and colleagues Associate Professor Laura Scholes (ACU) and Dr Nerida Spina (QUT), have been working with data from boys aged 8 and 9 about their feelings on books and reading, with some surprising results.

“If we actually talk to children and find out what their perspectives are on reading and their preferences in reading, that can give us a more informed view, not just the views of parents and teachers,” Prof Comber says.

“So Laura interviewed the boys themselves and they told her, not only do they generally love reading, they love reading a wide range of books, and often search out and read books that are more difficult or complex than the ones they are asked to read in school.

“This raises big issues about equity, about what kind of books are provided to which kinds of students, and how much difference this can make.

“If you’ve got a child who, outside of school, is reading whole series of books that might be quite sophisticated, and then in the classroom they’re back on a variety of simple episodic books, there’s not really any reason for that child to go to those books, and then that child might look like a reluctant reader.”

Significantly, the research, which was published in the British Educational Research Journal, not only indicates that boys love to read, it also found they love to read fiction, which runs counter to the common assumption in educational contexts that boys prefer non-fiction books.

Prof Comber says this insight is particularly important, because misassumptions about what books children will enjoy can have a strong influence on how they come to feel about reading in general. 

“The danger of those kinds of binary comparisons, boys versus girls, is that children get lumped into a category and that can then influence teachers’ and parents’ expectations on what children’s preferences might be.

“So, we can make the mistake of assuming, for example, that all boys prefer to read about spiders or sport – factual books – and that all girls prefer a particular type of fiction.

“And that sort of generalisation is dangerous, because it can lead to children being directed to read certain things, it can lead to school libraries having certain resources available for students, and if these are not the right resources that actually meet children’s needs, this disadvantages everyone.”

While Prof Comber recognises there are some large-scale population studies suggesting girls perform better in certain areas such as reading and comprehension, she says such generalised studies obscure crucial details.

“Those studies are talking about percentages of children, and what happens then is you get from, ‘a certain percentage of girls prefer this and can do this really well’ to an assumption that at the other end of the scale, boys will be the opposite – it assumes the category of gender is the only thing that makes a difference, and that’s not the case.

“In terms of literacy development, we need to look at which boys and which girls need support, not just think ‘girls read better than boys, or boys are better at maths than girls’ – we need a much more nuanced analysis of what’s going on.”

Prof Comber says there are simple steps that could be taken to help improve the current literacy situation in Australia, the most important of which is ensuring children of all backgrounds have access to a diverse range of reading material at school.

“The resources that are made available to children at school are critical,” Prof Comber says. “We can’t assume that children will have access to a variety of genres or variety of texts in their homes or the extended community, so the quality of school libraries and the quality of classroom libraries, is something we need to attend to, and we need to do that in terms of equity – we need to make sure all schools have excellent resources for children to borrow and browse.

“Saying that, parents and family can make a big contribution to children’s literacy, just by taking them to the public library, letting them experience that and understand it, and encouraging them to explore a wide range of books.”