Boys and reading — mind the bias

National Library Services to Schools held a workshop to explore the reading interests and reading lives of boys in years 6–9 from 5 Auckland schools. Here's what we found.

3 boys selecting books to read
What books do boys select?

Why do tweens lose interest in reading?

As children transition into adolescence and from primary to intermediate and intermediate to secondary school, they undergo a raft of physical, emotional, and social changes. Hormones, new peers and pressures, opportunities and expectations, digital and other distractions, and a growing independence can be a challenge for even the most secure and loved young human.

With so much going on, it’s not entirely surprising that studies show a decline in reading enjoyment at this stage.

Why does this matter?

Because the more children and teens enjoy reading, the more they read. The more they read, the greater the improvements in literacy, knowledge of self, others and the world, critical thinking, educational and life outcomes, and well-being.

New Zealand’s longitudinal research study Growing independence: Competent learners at 14 states: 'Enjoyment of reading —which turns out to be a key indicator for learning engagement as well as competency levels — had declined since age 12'. The Competent learners @20 report reiterates, 'the period from age 10 to age 14 appears to be a time when it is particularly important for teachers and parents to watch for signs that children are turning away from school and learning. This applies as much to high performers at school as low performers'.

With this in mind, the National Library Services to Schools held a workshop earlier this year to explore the reading interests and reading lives of 25 boys in years 6–9 from 5 Auckland schools. The workshop was the second held as part of a broader collaborative project with NZ Book Council, Duffy Books in Homes, Auckland Writers Festival, and Colenso to try and engage more 10 to 15-year-olds, particularly boys, with books and reading. Another strand of the project saw the development of the book trailers currently screening ahead of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, created by Kiwi production house Assembly, under the guidance of Colenso BBDO, with the backing of Bloomsbury.

Being mindful of implicit bias

A key message for the adults involved in the day was to be mindful of our stereotypes and assumptions about the types of books boys might be interested in and to encourage them to follow their interests.

Members of the Duffy Books in Homes Theatre Team facilitated the day, which included a session with David Riley, who chatted about reading and gave the boys a survey to complete about their reading and other interests (20 boys said they played video games, of these 7 specified ‘Fortnite’). They also had 2 opportunities to select freely from the Services to School’s collection.

The first selection was anonymous in that the boys didn’t chat to one another or see what one another chose (that was the theory anyway!). The second followed a 'Speed Date a Genre' session where Services to Schools staff talked about various genres, formats, and favourites. This was a social selection and the boys were encouraged to chat about their choices and interests with staff, facilitators, and each other. We were curious to see if there were any differences in the boys’ selections after they had been exposed to the speed date session.

What did the boys select?

In both selections, graphic novels and humour were favourites. Fiction (fantasy and science fiction, action, mystery, and horror) was more popular than non-fiction (wildlife, world records, superheroes, Star Wars, and maths books). There were 18 non-fiction titles in both selections and 23 fiction titles in the first and 30 in the second selection.

Following the speed date session, the range and diversity of the books chosen increased. Boys chose the unexpected — the new. They explored and took risks. For example, none of the boys ventured near the picture books section of the library in the first selection, yet a couple of boys chose sophisticated picture books in the second. One chose Small Things, which deals with bullying, its sombre black and white cover a stark contrast to the other graphic novels and humorous books the boy had selected.

In the survey, graphic novels and myths and legends were also a favourite. But not all of the reading preferences noted in the survey were reflected in the selections. For example, a number of boys rated picture books, romance, and poetry as favourites in the survey, with history the second most popular type of non-fiction book.

Access to books

Most boys said they found books to read from either the school or public library. The classroom was also an important source of books.

Asked about the number of books at home, 7 said they had more than 100, and 8 thought they had fewer than 50.

The paper Scholarly culture: How books in adolescence enhance adult literacy, numeracy, and technology skills in 31 societies found literacy levels began to climb with 80 books, with gains up to 350 books. It stated that teenagers with only lower levels of secondary education, who lived in homes full of books, 'become as literate, numerate and technologically apt in adulthood as university graduates who grew up with only a few books'.

Who helps students choose books?

Having access to a diverse range of reading material, whether physical or digital, is crucial and it’s also important students have help in choosing books they’ll enjoy. The US 2016 Scholastic Report found 93% of kids aged 9–14 said their favourite books were ones they chose themselves, although 73% of boys and girls said they’d read more if they could find more books they like.

In our survey, just over half of the boys said teachers helped them choose what to read, followed closely by friends while:

  • 9 said they relied on parents or themselves
  • 12 mentioned a sibling or other family member, and
  • 6 mentioned the school librarian.

Reading aloud

A rather worrying finding in the survey was that nearly half of the students said they are never read aloud to at home or at school. 2 specified that ‘mum’ read to them and none of the boys said ‘dad’. Although this workshop was with a statistically small number of students, the results are in keeping with the National Monitoring Study of Student Achievement (NMSSA) English: Reading 2014, which found students are read aloud to less frequently in year 8 than in year 4.

Research consistently shows that reading aloud to children is one of the most important ways of developing literacy and a love of reading among children of all ages. It would appear that once students have developed the skill of reading, many parents and teachers let slide (or no longer prioritise) developing the will to read.

Yet with so many competing activities and distractions, reading aloud to tweens and teens is a vital way (and, for some young people, the only way) to enter the doors of stories and books.

Interest in reading

In the survey, nearly a third of the boys said they didn’t like reading, but all said they were more interested in reading after the workshop, with over half either much more interested or more interested. Comments included:

  • 'I like to read in rainy nights before I go to sleep and in cool windy days (my mum says I'm not allowed to read (due to my maths) but under my bed is more than 200 books (my dad helps me buy books)).'
  • 'I like reading at school and when it’s nice and quiet.'
  • 'I like reading at school cause with illustration and not words.'
  • 'I like to read in my own time at home.'

The need to develop reader identity

One of the survey questions asked the children why they think people read. Answers to this question were mostly about learning more or gaining knowledge — to 'get smart' or 'to help them understand big words' or 'to help with life'.

None of the boys mentioned for enjoyment or pleasure or similar, although one wrote 'because they find it funny'. A few wrote 'I don’t know'.

In the NMSSA English: Reading 2014 contextual report, students identified ‘learning benefits’ and being ‘helpful in the future’ as the main reasons for being a good reader. Relatively few responded that being a good reader was important for personal enjoyment, with students in lower decile schools in years 4 and 8 less likely than those in higher decile schools to mention ‘personal enjoyment’.

The view children and young people have of reading, along with their perception of their own ability as readers, play an important role in determining how likely it is they will be readers. As the NMSSA reading overview states:

Students with a positive view of their own ability as readers, and of reading in general, tended to score more highly on the Knowledge and Application of Reading in English (KARE) assessment than those who expressed a negative view of reading.

If children only associate reading with work, ‘worthy’, and academic reasons, it is unlikely they will choose this as a pleasure activity over and above all of their other options.

Reading should not be presented to children as a chore or duty. It should be offered to them as a precious gift.
— Kate DiCamillo.

Diversity, choice, and reading role models

The Speed Date a Genre session surrounded the boys with a diverse, attractive range of reading material and adults knowledgeable and passionate about the books and reading. The facilitators also chatted to the boys about their interests and helped guide them to books they might enjoy. It is through this kind of interaction and reflection that students grow their identities as readers.

The boys really enjoyed themselves at the workshop and it was wonderful to see supposed ‘reluctant’ readers RACE to find books after the speed date session.

The workshop was a reminder of the importance of access to diverse and enticing resources, free choice, and reading role models — in other words ‘a library’.

Read the workshop report and more about engaging students with reading

Boys and reading workshop report (pdf, 758KB)

Strategies to engage students as readers

By Jo Buchan

Jo is the Senior Specialist (Developing Readers) for Services to Schools.

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Ethel Colohan November 15th at 3:55PM

This is interesting research into the reading for boys 6- 9-year groups. Is there any research going to be done for High School boys? As a High School Librarian, I have found that the focus for our boys is graphic novels. It is the most visited part of the library and quite a substantial part of our budget went on these boys.
I would like to know if other High Schools are experiencing the same uptake in Graphic Novels.

Jo Buchan November 26th at 2:49PM

Hi Ethel
This might be a good question for other school librarians on the Schoollib list serv schoollib-request@lists.canterbury.ac.nz
Jo