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

By AmyReiter |

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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About AmyReiter



Amy Reiter is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in print publications including The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, and Marie Claire. On the web, along with Babble, Amy has contributed to The Daily Beast, AOL/Huffington Post,, and Salon. Catch up with the latest from Amy on her website

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

  1. TJDestry says:

    I note that Spence Publishing doesn’t publish anything, and appears to specialize in publicizing very conservative work. Fair enough, but let’s put the cards on the table, folks.

    I agree with him that it is possible to elevate, not simply amuse, kids. I’m in the middle of reading a Rick Riordan, and the simple-minded plotting and cardboard characters set my teeth on edge. But I also see some cultural literacy in his work, and I can also see that his work lays the groundwork for young readers to move forward into more challenging work. And that is really the difference between what he does and the fart books Spence declines.

    You don’t have to reach back to the 19th century to find good books for young readers. But you do have to look around a little.

  2. TJDestry says:

    “decries,” not “declines.”

  3. max Elliot Anderson says:

    I grew up hating to read and now write action-adventures & mysteries for readers 8 adn up, especially boys. Books For Boys Blog

  4. Laura says:

    As an aspiring YA novelist, I read a ton of current kid and teen fiction. Most of it isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on. But you can find good modern fiction for boys beyond gross-out junk reading. Ender’s Game anyone?
    I like to think of reading the same way one thinks of eating: consume the junk in moderation, alternate between heavy and light fare, and strive for balance and variety.

  5. Karen says:

    We do allow video games, but we do limit the gross-out books. My kids would mostly rather read than watch TV. If they think Wii is an option, they are all in, but if not (and it quite often not) cozying in with a book is a favorite activity. Gross out books don’t impress me much. It seems like we expect to little of boys so very soon. I find that disheartening. I am a mother of three boys, 4, 6 and 11. They are all readers. Trips to the library include mom choices, kid choices and teacher choices for each kid. I will often choose poetry or fairy tales for the younger two. My oldest son always picks out graphic novels, which I think is great, but I also help him choose a solid chapter book. I will say my kids are lucky enough to see their father (not only their mother) reading. He enjoys readings – reads for his own soul as well as to and with the children. My boys read in the car, at the table, in bed their books fall on their little noses. I don’t claim we perhaps didn’t just get lucky – some people seem to get good sleepers or kids who are never picky eaters – maybe this is just the lucky break our family got.

  6. jenny tries too hard says:

    You know, I agree with Spence’s basic premise. It’s true; if you keep meeting boys where they are, they won’t go far. But in all his hand-wringing about video games and RL Stine (who really wasn’t that bad when I devoured the Goosebumps books back in third grade) he neglects to mention what young boys actually love to read. He mentions Treasure Island in the same sentence as SweetFarts, as though most second-and-third-graders are anywhere close to ready for that, or would be if they didn’t have ipods. They’re not, just like most 7-year-old girls are reading Sweet Valley Kids or Cam Jansen and not anywhere near ready for Jane Austen.

    In my experience boys like mysteries, sci fi, ghost stories (which don’t have to be gross) and non-fiction. The only non-fiction Spence even mentions is The Encyclopedia of Gross Things which he claims is part of the problem. Whatever, dude…my boys like it, and it’s not a gross-out book but a book of answers to real, legitimate questions kids have about their bodies and their world. Kids are going to ask what purpose snot serves, why puss is different colors sometimes, what would happen if you microwaved maggots, etc and “gross” non-fiction like this gives them an easy, engaging way to find out the answer on their own.

  7. Mike DeSanto says:

    Anyone who blames video games for lack of reading skills has not looked at very many video games. If you can’t read, you can’t play the majority of video games. Play any child-appropriate RPG or strategy game, and you will find yourself spending a lot of time reading.

    Spend an hour on one of the following games: Pokemon (primary titles available: Heart Gold, Soul Silver, Platinum, Diamond or Pearl), Infinite Space, Final Fantasy III or IV, Ghost Trick, Professor Layton (3 of these available). You will spend 20-30 minutes of that first hour reading.

    For a whole brain workout, give them a Fire Emblem game (2 available for the Wii). Tons of written story interspersed with resource management and area-control tactics. Plus a story with a very good discussion of the destructiveness of racism.

    Saying that video games promote illiteracy is like saying that dancing promotes sitting down. You can’t dance without standing. You can’t play video games (in most cases) without reading.

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