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Boys Aren’t Reading As Much As Girls, And It’s A Major Problem

Parents and teachers must celebrate masculinity with the right books, believing in boys’ potential to be strong readers and strong men.


Besides the rise in leftist politics in the classroom and the learning loss caused by the Covid lockdowns, one major issue K-12 teachers have observed in recent years is the widening learning gap between boys and girls. Girls earn higher grades than boys and and do better on standardized tests like the SAT and ACT, all of which results in them significantly outnumbering boys in college enrollment. Already, this educational disparity between the sexes is leading to a crisis in marriage and family formation, to say nothing of political polarization, since most men and women struggle to find intellectual equals who can understand and complement them.

Last month, Tom Sarrouf addressed this issue in an essay for the Institute for Family Studies. After laying out the problem of boys falling behind, he centers on the fundamental activity that accounts for this: reading. In short, boys read far less than girls, and this inevitably hinders their intellectual growth and maturity.

Sarrouf argues that this could be remedied with assigned reading that is more boy-oriented: “I propose a rebalancing of reading material in schools specifically targeted at boys.” In practice, this would include more nonfiction, particularly in history and science classes, and fewer texts with female protagonists and less fiction in general.

Russian-American writer Katya Sedgwick counters Sarrouf’s insistence on teaching more nonfiction by noting that this is already written into many courses’ curriculum and arguing that boys would actually profit from reading more fiction, not less. She agrees that male protagonists are important, which is why she suggests assigning more classics, which often feature compelling male characters. For younger readers, she strongly recommends The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which is apparently much beloved in Russia.

Having made similar arguments to those of both Sarrouf and Sedgwick, I believe they’re both right. However, I would go further in my prognosis. In my experience as a high school English teacher as well as a father of young children who are learning to read, I see three major factors that discourage literacy among boys: (1) a widespread bias against boys coupled with mediocre early reading instruction; (2) the proliferation of graphic novels in school and classroom libraries; and (3) the great lack of conflict and action in assigned texts.

The first factor, the bias against boys, is what sets the stage for the other two factors. Because boys tend to mature later than girls in verbal ability, many of them are left behind when reading instruction begins in kindergarten and first grade. These are those critical years when teachers introduce phonics and basic vocabulary to enable children to decode words on the page. Being more cognitively advanced in this regard, girls can learn and apply these skills much more easily than boys who still need a couple more years for their brains to work this way.

Eventually, these reading skills will click for the boys, and they will catch up with the girls — but only if teachers and parents continue working with them. All too often, parents and teachers will conclude prematurely that their boys are weak readers, better suited to math and science, and probably have a reading disability or ADHD. Meanwhile, they will redouble their attention to the girls, giving them texts they might like and encouraging them to grow as readers.

This effect compounds over time. Much like the professional hockey players who were born in the right month and eligible for the best hockey camps early in life, students who are the “right” sex receive better instruction and more opportunities to practice reading and learn much more over time. Moreover, as the girls become better readers, they enjoy doing it more, thus compounding the difference between the sexes. Once the kids enter high school, it’s fairly common to see girls who are multiple grade levels ahead of their male classmates in reading and actually like reading for fun.

This dynamic has led to the sudden ubiquity of graphic novels in school and classroom libraries, which are intended to serve as a gateway to non-illustrated novels. However, because graphic novels are primarily image-based rather than text-based, many of the comprehension skills that come with normal reading are never developed. Instead of using words to recreate characters, events, settings, tones, arguments, and themes in their minds, they can look at the pictures that already do this work for them. As much as I love the Wimpy Kid series, which tops so many reading lists for kids in elementary and middle school, I recognize that it has more in common with an animated cartoon for kids than it does with a comparable YA novel.

Naturally, these two factors usher in the final factor, which is largely feminized reading selections for kids. Because girls are the main audience at nearly all grade levels, the books that are assigned or recommended to students tend to feature more female characters and extended treatments of the feminine condition along with a greater emphasis on relationships, identity, and feelings. As for action and suspense, such elements are usually present in the most popular books for young adults, but always within a greater feminine context, as with The Hunger Games, Twilight, Divergent, or the Harry Potter series.

That said, just pushing books with male protagonists or written by male authors isn’t enough. The books need to be more masculine in style as well as content. This means having a greater focus on action, conflict, and even violence, and a reduced focus on feelings and relationships. These books will appeal to boys while fostering those much-needed reading comprehension skills.

Not too long ago, this genre of books used to be popular, and many count as classics today. Writer Michael Warren Davis once wrote an excellent overview on adventure novels that should serve as required reading for educators looking to revise their reading lists to help their boys.

Of course, the modern parent and teacher might object that such literature, besides being too white and too male for “modern audiences,” might encourage violence, aggression, and male chauvinism. However, the reality is precisely the opposite: Such literature empowers boys and models constructive ways of channeling one’s masculine energy. 

As comic book author Gerard Jones explains in his essay “Violent Media Is Good For Kids,” stories about good guys pummeling bad guys in a fantastical setting is empowering and indeed necessary for healthy emotional development: “Through immersion in imaginary combat and identification with a violent protagonist, children engage the rage they’ve stifled, come to fear it less, and become more capable of utilizing it against life’s challenges.”

Such an exhibition of power, male virtue, and self-control is simply not going to be present in books by Sandra Cisneros, Maya Angelou, or Amy Tan.

Even though the reading gap between boys and girls continues to worsen and manifest itself in a multitude of ways in today’s culture, it should give all of us hope that fixing this problem isn’t impossible. Every parent and teacher can do more to help boys read more and do so without jeopardizing the progress made by girls — on the contrary, women would be likely much happier if there were more men who read and were better educated.

Parents and teachers need to celebrate that masculinity with the right kinds of books, avoid the cheap fix of promoting graphic novels, and, above all, believe in the potential of their boys to be strong readers and stronger men overall.

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