Why Boys Won’t Read

I came across this piece by Chris Lloyd, author of the brilliant What on Earth wallbooks about the continuing problem of encouraging young boys to read. Is he on the money? If so what books do you think we should be putting in front of these reluctant readers?

BOYS are so-called ‘reluctant readers’. Ask most primary school teachers and they will confirm that, generally speaking, we have a problem when it comes to persuading the less fair sex to get stuck into a good book.

Why should this be?

Are boys generally programmed to resist reading? In part I suspect so. Millions of years of gene flow have honed hunting instincts into the male line – the theory being that over the last 3 million years or so (since our apish ancestor adapted to walk on two feet) the most successful hunters will have fathered more children. So the instinct to get outdoors and play, fight or climb trees is expressed best through the male line. And charging around outside in a pack (playing football, for example) is far less conducive to sitting down with a good book. Conversely, the feminine ‘nesting’ instinct to feather the home would seem far more aligned to sitting down in one place and reading a good book…¦So girls are instinctively better wired for learning to read.

Generalisations, especially when it comes to gender, are dangerous goods these days. But zooming out to try to work out the connections between things necessitates a degree of generalisation for the sake of trying to paint a big picture. It is no greater a crime, surely, than specialising so much that there is no big picture to be seen at all.

But the gender issue – particularly with regards to boys reluctance to read – seems to go a great deal further than evolutionary instinct, so I have recently begun to realize.

Last weekend I was fortunate enough to be asked to speak at The Federation of Children’s Books Groups Conference, at Bradfield College near Reading. It is an august organisation with a conference now in its twentieth year. The auditorium was packed with teachers, book lovers and educationalists (many from Norfolk for some reason, well, why not?)

The topic of literacy in young people is absolutely the bulls eye of discussion amongst such a group.

‘How wonderfully refreshing to have a non-fiction author speaking’ said one happy delegate after I had given my 60 minutes romp through the history of the world, with a giant Wallbook as a backdrop.

Why, I wondered, should ‘non fiction’ be such a big deal? Surely stories about the real world are so much more amazing than any number of fantasies you can dream up in your mind – as I try to demonstrate in my talks. If you love truly amazing stories then non-fiction’s the place for you…

At least that’s how it seems, if you’re a boy.

Facts, how things work, encyclopaedias, maps, books about nature, superheros from the past – this is the stuff that sets off fireworks in the minds of most boys. The tallest man, the bloodiest war, the biggest skyscraper… these are incredible stories.

But I suspect (in fact I am sure) for girls, generally speaking, it is different. Fiction rules – fantastic non-real worlds are constructed for whatever reason – Escape? Romance? I don’t know…

Then, as I looked around the room, a penny dropped. Almost everyone there was female. The same is true whenever I visit a primary school – almost all the teachers are female.

So what type of books would these teachers generally encourage their pupils to pick up when they are being encouraged to read? The most natural choice would be to feed them whatever it is the teacher thinks is most appealing to a young mind – which, because they are female, will generally speaking be fiction not non-fiction! Hence the novelty of having a non-fiction author visit a school, or indeed give a talk at a conference on children books.

Now I am wondering if the problem with boys being reluctant readers isn’t so much nature but nurture. Perhaps it’s because they are being fed a diet of books chosen by females that are really inappropriate to the male psyche. If so, then hurrah! We really ought to be able to do something about it.

5 comments

  1. I work with boys who are reluctant readers and writers and I agree that many of them are more interested by non-fiction than fiction although if you find the right sort of book they’ll be keen – examples include The Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Mr Gum. Perhaps the problem also lies in the lack of male role models who read. As you say, primary school teachers are on the whole female – some men in the profession might help address a few more issues than reading. And of course seeing their parents read at home encourages children perhaps more than what happens at school. If more men read for pleasure at home – anything: newspapers, magazines, etc – we’d have more male readers? What is interesting is that though fewer boys read for pleasure than girls, it tends to be men who dominate the best-seller charts and who are respected by the literary establishment.

    1. And not just in schools – it is a large majority of women who work as Children’s publishers and booksellers. Would love to work with you (and others) on a list of thumping great reads for boys that we could promote in the shop and to schools…

      1. It would be a pleasure. An event might be good too – some well-known male role models/celebrities doing readings or other literacy things. Do get in touch if you want to do this. I know of some others who write blogs for children who also know others…

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