Closing the Literacy Gender Gap: Top Tips for Motivating Boys to Read

Closing the Literacy Gender Gap: Top Tips for Motivating Boys to Read
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Project-based learning is a popular teaching practice built around student-driven projects, done either independently or collaboratively, that are often shared with one or more groups of students. This way, students are encouraged to learn by doing, which may lead to more interest, excitement, and energy in the classroom.

Concerned literacy educators work tirelessly to close achievement gaps caused by socioeconomic status, race, disability, and English-language proficiency. However, there’s one more education gap that needs to be addressed: gender. Educators have noted that girls consistently outperform boys in reading skills, and research bears this out. Studies reveal that the literacy gap between male and female students is both longstanding and worldwide.  

Tom Loveless, author of the 2015 Brown Center Report on American Education, noted that in one of the earliest research studies on gender and reading (conducted in Iowa in 1942), both elementary and high-school girls outperformed their male peers in reading comprehension. The most recent data available when the Brown Center report was published showed that girls taking National Assessment of Educational Progress reading tests were rating higher than boys at every age and grade level. Moreover, these findings weren’t confined to the United States. Loveless pointed out that reading tests conducted by the Program for International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) and the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) both found evidence of worldwide gender gaps in 2011 and 2012, respectively.  

So, what causes this achievement gap, and what can literacy educators do about it? In his report, Loveless stated, "The universality of the gap certainly supports the argument that it originates in biological or developmental differences between the two sexes." In her 2016 article Why Boys Don’t Read, Linda Jacobson suggested that the impact may be more cultural: Less support for boys who struggle with reading, combined with a lack of male role models who read, may be discouraging boys from picking up books for enjoyment. Offering yet another perspective, sources such as ASCD and Psychology Today posit that the gap may be due to the way literacy is taught—perhaps educational strategies that are more mindful of the way male brains develop would help close the gap.  

Whether the gap is due to biology, culture, or teaching strategies, there are many ways literacy educators can change up reading instruction to meet the needs of their male students. Here are some tips for educators looking to close the gap.


Meet diverse learning needs 

Michael Gurian and Kathy Stevens, co-authors of the Educational Leadership article With Boys and Girls in Mind, state that "Research on gender and education reveals a disconnect between teaching practice and the needs of male and female brains." Using information from PET and MRI scans of developing brains, researchers have suggested ways that boys and girls may learn differently. For example, boys' brains had more areas devoted to spatial-mechanical functioning and fewer areas devoted to verbal-emotional functioning compared to girls. In light of this finding, providing opportunities for movement may help boys learn and process information they have read. Here are some tips for integrating physical activity with reading time:  

  • Offer reading instruction in bursts. Give shorter, highly focused reading instruction and tasks throughout the day, rather than scheduling a large block of reading time.   

  • Weave in time for reading for pleasure, and allow students to walk around as they read—as long as they aren't disturbing other students. Consider letting students talk to each other during reading time, which will give them the opportunity to share things from their reading that interest them, amaze them, or make them laugh.

  • Pair books with activities. For example, ask boys to illustrate scenes from a book as they read, or perform the story with puppets and action figures. Alternatively, follow the reading of a book with an activity based on the story.

  • Expand what a reading response looks like. After reading a how-to book, the reading response could be to build what was described in the book. Alternatively, a student could film a trailer for a book they'd like to see turned into a movie, or create a book-based video game using a free coding program like Scratch or ScratchJr.

Create a culture of reading

In her article Why Boys Don’t Read, Jacobson refers to multiple cultural factors that may discourage male students from reading. As noted earlier, if women read more than men—as stated in this Pew Research study—then boys likely have fewer male role models who encourage them to read. Additionally, students may lose interest in trying to read if they initially find it difficult: According to Jacobson, students "need to feel a sense of competence or developing competence, and if reading doesn't contribute to that then they won't see much point in it." Here are a few tips for educators to help create a culture that promotes reading, with a focus on boys:

  • Start a book club for boys. Let the members choose books they will all read, and encourage them to share their favorite books with the group. Plan to have food, discussion time, and a related activity at each meeting.

  • Make boys reading experts. Putting them in the role of "expert reader" will give them confidence in their own reading ability, and will also provide role models for the younger boys. Invite boys to work in the library by shelving books, helping other students find books, or researching new books that the library might like to acquire.  

  • Host monthly reading programs that appeal to a variety of interests. Some ideas include a stand-up comedy show during which a local comedian does a brief act and is followed by boys telling the best jokes they found in a joke book. Alternatively, themed workshops or "ask an expert" events could make good monthly programs. Related books should be available before, at, and after each event. In addition to providing an incentive to read, these events may inspire boys to look to books for more information.

  • Reach out to fathers and other male family members. Encourage these male role models to let their sons "catch" them reading at home. Male family members can also read to young boys or read the same book as older boys. Provide guidelines to help families engage boys while reading aloud with them, as well as ideas for talking about shared books.

  • Recruit coaches and other popular faculty and staff to come into your classroom and give brief talks, promoting books that could be of interest to students. High-school or local university students could also come to your class to promote their favorite books or read to younger students.  

  • Reach out to community organizations. Men in retirement groups, churches, and civic organizations may be willing to visit the classroom to read with students or suggest books.

Teach with boys in mind

It’s possible that boys lag behind girls in reading skills because educators and parents subconsciously give them fewer positive reading opportunities. Dr. Elaine Reese, author of "Tell Me a Story: Sharing Stories to Enrich Your Child’s World," notes that a study by economists Michael Baker and Kevin Milligan showed that parents in the U.S., U.K., and Canada spend more time reading and doing early literacy activities with their preschool-aged daughters than their sons. Dr. Reese suggests that this may be due to evidence that young girls are able to sit still and focus for longer periods than same-aged boys, making it easier to spend time reading together. Regardless, putting extra effort into creating enjoyable reading time with boys could help close the reading achievement gap. For instance:

  • Make a variety of genres available, including magazines, how-to books, graphic novels, and nonfiction.  

  • Provide fiction that will appeal to a variety of interests. Take a look at Guys Read, a website started by author and educator Jon Scieszka, and investigate the library of titles organized into categories such as "sports," "scales and tails," and "outer space, but with aliens."  

  • Ask your students what they want to read. Pass out a questionnaire at the beginning of the year asking about their passions and hobbies, or create a reading suggestion box where students can leave topics they would like to read about. Enlist your librarian to help find books that match students' interests.  

  • Let them obsess. Once boys find a subject that interests them, allow them to really dig in. It’s OK if they read 10 books about frogs, or spend some of their reading time finding information about frogs online. You could even help them out by bringing in or Skyping with a frog expert who can answer their questions or recommend additional books. 

  • Reinforce students' efforts and time spent reading. Ask questions about the material to demonstrate your curiosity and interest.

All students deserve an equal shot at the best education possible, and strong reading skills are a crucial component. If you have boys who are struggling with reading, try a few of these easy-to-implement suggestions in your classroom. The results may surprise you!

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