How to get boys excited about reading
Decades of data show girls outscoring boys on a range of language skills. Four ELA teachers share their best practices for closing the gap.
A guest post by Dr. Jackie Arnold
“Girls are better readers than boys” is an educational generalization that happens to be backed up by decades of data. According to the 2015 “Brown Center Report on American Education” from The Brookings Institution:
Girls outscore boys on practically every reading test given to a large population. And they have for a long time. A 1942 Iowa study found girls performing better than boys on tests of reading comprehension, vocabulary, and basic language skills. Girls have outscored boys on every reading test ever given by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)—the first long-term trend test was administered in 1971—at ages nine, 13, and 17.
Given this reality, our task as educators is to do our best to spark boys’ interest in reading and keep them at it. For some advice on how to make this idea a reality in the classroom, I asked teachers from Salem Community Schools in Indiana to share their best practices.
Find Out What They’re Interested In
According to fifth-grade teacher Bev Sweeney, “The boys especially like the sports and vehicle stories and the gross and silly, plus mysteries.” Fourth-grade teacher Melissa Nicholson said that, when her boys are allowed to choose what they read, “the ‘gross and scary’ books are some of their favorites.”
Boys are also engaged by stories that they are familiar with, said Amy Collins. “As a fourth-grade teacher, I find it easy to find reading lessons that interest boys in my classroom, due to the fact that we study Indiana history and we focus on Native Americans, the Civil War, and the American Revolution. My students love to tie our Social Studies and reading together.”
Fifth-grade Language Arts teacher Susan L. Shields relies on the power of great characters. “It is important to ‘hook’ young readers by offering them interesting characters to which they can relate,” she said. “The students in my classroom love the characters developed by Gertrude Chandler Warner in The Boxcar Children series, as well as the characters brought to life by Beverly Cleary in the Henry and Beezus books. The students come to view these characters as their ‘book friends’ and are truly sorry when the book ends because they have to tell their ‘friends’ goodbye.” And, she added, “Offering boys characters of similar age and gender will usually increase the amount of independent reading boys are willing to do.”
All ELA teachers at Salem use the personalized learning environment myON, which helps students find books they’ll like by having them complete an “interest inventory.” The system then delivers a selection of books geared to the individual student. Of course, finding an engaging book is one thing, but getting boys to read the whole thing is another.
Keep Them Motivated
Sweeney said that her secret to making boys want to keep reading is to “read a portion of a book to them and stop when they want to hear more.”
Once a boy starts reading a book, Shields monitors whether it too hard for him by giving benchmark assessments from time to time. And, she said, “Because myON offers a quiz at the end of each book along with quick results, students earn tickets from our classroom economy for each correct answer. This also serves as motivation.”
During reading groups, Nicholson motivates students by having them listen to or read books with a friend. “The boys especially like this,” she said, “due to getting to work with a buddy. Also, the different voices used in the stories really pull in my readers to engage them in the plot.”
Shields also gives the students in her Language Arts class 10 to 15 minutes a day for silent, sustained reading. She uses the website Book Adventure daily to assess boys’ comprehension of the chapter books they choose.
Giving boys a choice of reading material and the support they need to get through it has paid off for Shields. In her class, she said, “boys are reading as much as or more than the girls. The average number of tests passed on Book Adventure for the boys in my class is 5.9 for the year. The average number of books for the girls is 5.0.”
Dr. Jackie Arnold is the Director of Assessment and Program Improvement at Salem Community Schools (IN).