TCS Daily

America's Reading Gender Gap

By Bill Costello - May 1, 2009 12:00 AM

The good news is that reading scores for 9 and 13-year-olds are the highest ever according to results released this week from the 2008 National Assessment of Educational Progress.

The bad news is that boys trail girls in reading performance at all age levels. The gap at age 9 is 8 points, at age 13 is 8 points, and at age 17 is 11 points. This is not a new trend—boys have been scoring lower than girls on U.S. Department of Education reading tests for more than 30 years.

The reading gender gap spans every racial and ethnic group, and categorically finds boys underperforming girls regardless of income, disability, or English-speaking ability.

The research is clear: greater reading skills equates to greater success in school. Increasingly, it also equates to greater success in the workforce as blue-collar jobs move to low-wage countries. If we don't start to help boost our boys out of their reading slump, many of them will become unemployed adults.

Men are already taking the lead at the unemployment line. The March 2009 unemployment rate was 9.5 percent for men and 7.5 percent for women. The 2 percent male-female jobless rate gap represents a historical high.

Many boys with reading problems experience the "domino effect": They often become disinterested students, who often become behavioral problems, who often become school dropouts, who often become unemployed workers, who often become incarcerated criminals. Over 90 percent of the prisoners in America are male.

Teachers can help by understanding that boys and girls have different reading tastes. Teachers often handicap their efforts to get boys to read when they assign reading material that fails to tap into the natural interests and inclinations of boys.

One of the best ways to get boys reading is to offer them reading material that motivates them to want to read. Boys enjoy reading: nonfiction; stories with action and adventure; stories with male protagonists; and a wide variety of reading materials, including books, magazines, newspapers, how-to manuals, Web sites, comic books, and graphic novels.

Many teachers do not offer boy-friendly reading material because they view it as substandard. They believe it's better to require boys to read books that meet high literary standards, even if boys find those books unappealing. The fallacy of this line of reasoning lies in the results:many boys are poor readers.

The consequences of creating future generations of boys who hate to read are far worse than the consequences of succumbing to the natural reading interests of boys. The first priority should be to get boys excited about reading so they will become lifelong readers. Broadening their literary palates comes second.

When boys like what they read in school, they're more likely to continue reading and transition to increasingly sophisticated material. When they don't like what they read in school, they're more likely to discontinue reading and miss out on a primary resource for lifelong learning.

Bill Costello, training director of Making Minds Matter, teaches parents and teachers the best strategies for educating boys. He can be reached at or

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