Why we need to stop telling boys they don't like reading
“I love to read,” says Jack, a year four boy at a primary school in an economically marginalised town in regional Australia. “My best friends love reading … Matthew loves reading, Alex loves reading, Johnny loves reading, Jason loves reading. Most of my friends that are friends love reading.”
Jack and his friends are perhaps typical of boys their age, in that they read for pleasure and are often drawn to storybooks: Roald Dahl and Jeff Kinney and the Treehouse series by Andy and Terry.
This is a key age for young readers. It’s a time in their schooling before a set of narrow stereotypes – that boys don’t like reading, and if they do, tend to prefer non-fiction – become ingrained.
“When children are moving from learning to read, to reading to learn, there’s a window of opportunity where many boys are very open to reading different genres as they develop specific interests,” says Australian Catholic University’s (ACU) Laura Scholes, Associate Professor at the Institute for Learning Sciences and Teacher Education. “They’re starting to develop their reading identities, and many are still reading for pleasure and enjoyment.”
As boys approach high school age, however, things begin to change.
“You start to get this idea that boys only like to read about things like sports, world records and war, and they’re told that over and over and given more of the type of reading material they’re presumed to like,” says Scholes, whose research explores gender stereotypes and schooling.
“I think we need to be mindful of that window of opportunity where many boys are actually saying, ‘We love reading, and we love reading storybooks.’ They’re very enthusiastic about books, talking about their favourite authors, their favourite series and very specific preferences. And I think that’s maybe not so visible in wider society, and particularly in the media.”
In a study titled, ‘Disrupting the ‘boys don’t read’ discourse’, Scholes and her co-authors Dr Nerida Spina and Professor Barbara Comber ask boys from six Queensland schools a series of questions about reading and books.
Their findings indicate that most year four boys they interviewed read voluntarily for pleasure and relaxation – provided they have access to the books they like.
“I read every day now,” says Connor, who goes to a government school in an urban area, “because there’s new books that have come out and I just love them. They’re new and they’re way better than the ones that I used to have.”
The article, published in the British Educational Research Journal, disrupts the dominant view – prevalent in popular media – that young males are “reluctant, disengaged and, at times, adversarial readers”.
Stereotypes at school
What happens when this negative stereotype makes it to the classroom? When the trope of boys as reluctant readers is reinforced by teachers and peers?
Scholes and her co-authors contend that these clichés, which essentially brand reading as a feminine domain, tend to affect boy’s self‐concept as readers, stifling their development and working against opportunities for them to expand their reading repertoire.
“By the time they transition into high school, you start to see a lot of peer pressure where boys are expected to fit in with some of the dominant masculine stereotypes,” she says. “Boys who read storybooks might be seen as ‘nerdy’ or ‘geeky’.”
Scholes adds that these perceptions around young males and reading are particularly visible in economically marginalised schools, where resistance to anything coded as feminine— including reading—can provide working‐class boys with a means of affirming their place in society.
“Some kids in disadvantaged school communities, they’re still talking much more about physicality, so there are fights in the playground and there’s a need for a stronger, more physical sense of being a boy to fit into that community,” she says.
“This might also be the case in some regional communities, where boys may be working on farms, riding motorbikes and growing up with different role models, where some of these masculine traits are highly valued.”
In many schools, those who continue to enjoy books often feel compelled to conceal their reading endeavours.
Associate Professor Scholes investigated the tensions associated with anti-reading peer pressure in her 2015 article, Clandestine Readers: Boys and girls going ‘undercover’ in school spaces.
She recalls her own son, a keen reader, clearing the bookshelves in his bedroom when a new school friend came to visit.
“It must have been around year eight, and he says to me, ‘I’ve got to move all my books,’ because his friend was into skateboarding. And so I say, ‘You don’t have to hide your books!’, and he goes, ‘Oh yes, I do, because ...’,” Scholes says.
“You can see how it becomes harder to read openly once these stereotypes are entrenched, because boys of that age don’t always feel that reading is a positive part of their identity. There wouldn’t be many boys hanging around in the schoolyard talking about books when they’re in grade nine.”
Where does the stereotype come from?
You don’t have to look very far to find mainstream articles proclaiming that girls are better at reading, that boys don’t read enough, and that they tend to have an aversion to novels.
It would be easy to contend that there’s a kernel of truth in the stereotype – after all, according to surveys, around 80 per cent of novels are purchased by women.
The writer Ian McEwan once declared: “When women stop reading, the novel will be dead.”
When he and his son took piles of old books to a London park to give away, every woman they approached took them willingly and enthusiastically. The guys were a different proposition.
“They frowned in suspicion, or distaste,” McEwan writes. “When they were assured they would not have to part with their money, they still could not be persuaded. ‘Nah, nah. Not for me. Thanks mate, but no.’”
Of course, it would be imprudent to pigeonhole boys and young men as reluctant readers of fiction based on such fleeting anecdotes. It’s also important to note that many surveys on reading habits relate to adults or teenagers – not primary school-aged girls and boys.
These sweeping statements about male reading habits and preferences aren’t confined to popular media, says Laura Scholes. She argues that empirical research commonly oversimplifies complex data about boys’ and girls’ attitudes towards reading.
“A lot of the international research draws from the PISA data, the Programme for International Student Assessment, done by the OECD, and they’re looking at 15-year-old students,” Scholes says.
“They do assess things like reading preferences, level of enjoyment and student engagement, and they find there’s a tendency for girls to outperform boys in reading and to enjoy reading more often—but this is a very broad general trend for students of that age.
“We’re doing kids a disservice to take these poor generalisations and to say, ‘Boys in my year four class are going to underperform and probably not enjoy fiction’. If they don’t like reading, well, that’s one thing. But we should give them a chance before we start reducing their experiences.”
Smashing the stereotype
So, what can we do to smash these stereotypes? To encourage readers – boy and girls – to continue to pursue their love of books; to feel free to relish in the joy of reading a good novel?
Scholes and her co-authors conclude that “students need time, space and a literacy‐rich environment to make their own reading choices, along with support by teachers who have an interest in them as readers”.
“I guess the start would be to make a space for it in schools, and give kids a bit more volition in their reading choices, especially in terms of quality fiction,” says Scholes, who points to research highlighting the importance of fiction in the development of reading skills.
“By opening up these safe spaces and encouraging communities of readers, where they can read books and share books and recommend books, it becomes more of a valued norm. It’s about having that space in the class and in the school where reading is well resourced, recognised and supported.”
That way, boys like Jack, who declare with pride that they “love to read” as year four students, will be better supported to continue to pursue that passion in high school and beyond.
“We’ve got to give readers the space to be comfortable with the image of themselves as readers,” Associate Professor Scholes says. “It requires cultural change, so that reading is something that boys can aspire to in a positive way, all through their schooling years and into adulthood.”
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