Why Won’t Boys Read (And How Can We Get Them To)?

Book signing

Why won’t boys read?

If you have a son who is a reluctant reader, despite the fact that his sister will sit for hours paging through the books on her shelf, you’re apparently in good company. Considerably more boys than girls aren’t meeting proficiency level standards on the annual National Assessment of Educational Progress reading report, according to a recent Center on Education Policy report.

“This disparity goes back to 1992, and in some states the percentage of boys proficient in reading is now more than ten points below that of girls,” Thomas Spence noted in the Wall Street Journal last week. “The male-female reading gap is found in every socio-economic and ethnic category, including the children of white, college-educated parents.”

Spence, the president of Spence Publishing Company, thinks he knows why boys aren’t reading enough to get their skills up to proficiency level. It’s not that we’re not giving them books that they’re interested. After all, the publishing industry is now meeting boys “where they are” with a whole gross-out genre of books aiming to appeal to elementary- and middle-school boys predilection for body humor, he argues.

Spence names this trend, charmingly, the “SweetFarts philosophy of education,” after a book, “SweetFarts” written by a self-published author who goes by the nom de plume Raymond Bean. “One obvious problem with the SweetFarts philosophy of education is that it is more suited to producing a generation of barbarians and morons than to raising the sort of men who make good husbands, fathers and professionals,” Spence asserts. “If you keep meeting a boy where he is, he doesn’t go very far.”

So if it’s not the reading material itself, why are so many fewer boys reading books and mastering reading proficiency than girls?

Spence points the finger at video games. “The secret to raising boys who read, I submit, is pretty simple — keep electronic media, especially video games and recreational Internet, under control (that is to say, almost completely absent). Then fill your shelves with good books.” And by good books he doesn’t mean boy hits “Goosebumps” and “Captain Underpants” but rather “Treasure Island” and other literary masterpieces.

“A boy raised on great literature is more likely to grow up to think, to speak, and to write like a civilized man. Whom would you prefer to have shaped the boyhood imagination of your daughter’s husband — Raymond Bean or Robert Louis Stevenson?”

As someone who recently spent a breakthrough weekend afternoon with my non-video-game-playing, only marginally computer-savvy and generally frustratingly disinterested in reading 7-year-old son and watched him devour “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” (no literary masterpiece, that) in one sitting and then declare it the best day of his life, I really can’t agree with Spence. Would I prefer that my son read something nobler and, to my mind, higher quality (I also bought him Roald Dahl’s fantastic “Danny the Champion of the World,” but he ditched it after only a few pages)? Sure, but if he’s super-excited to read Sports Illustrated for Kids every month, whatever. Who am I to discount his taste? I don’t think it will ruin him for life. (Do you?)

I also think the video-game argument smacks of “blame the parents.” We don’t have video games in our house (no one’s asked; no one’s offered), but I’m not prepared to allege that all evil stems from them. (In fact, a survey just released by Scholastic has found that a majority of children say they’d like to read books on digital devices like e-readers and would read for fun more often if they had access to e-books.)

What do you think? Why are more girls than boys reaching proficiency level in reading? Do you, like Spence, blame video games and disdain gross-out books that aim to get boys reading about whatever their interested in? And do you parents have any tips that have worked for you to get your boys to read and be excited about it?

Photo: pjern

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