A lot of research over the years has focused on this fact that boys underperform girls on almost every measure of literacy at all age groups. My favorite book on the subject was published in 2002 and remains a fantastic exploration of the issue. "Reading Don't Fix No Chevys" is a very accessible book that truly wants to understand boys. One of my favorite things about the book, and the authors Michael W. Smith and Jeffrey D. Wilhelm, is that it recognizes that boys are not a monolithic group. They examine boys of different races, ethnicities, backgrounds and personalities and show that all of these very different youth make up what it is to be a boy. They do not generalize them down to an essential idea of "boyness" that likes girls, sports and cars, or whatever the stereotype of a teenage boy may be. The book is interested in seeing what motivates boys to read, what they like to read, how they approach reading, and what are the barriers between these things and success at reading, both by objective measures like the NAEP results, and in their own beliefs about themselves.
These explorations of boys as readers hit close to home for me, because I am not only interested in the reading lives of my students, but I am also raising three boys. I have always enjoyed reading and want my children to experience that same joy. My husband has a PhD in English Literature, so from the time they were born, we both assumed we would raise readers. We both read often in front of our children, our house is full of books, we still get a Sunday paper and actual print magazines. When our oldest son was born someone gifted us with the wonderful book on raising readers, The Read-Aloud Handbook, and we followed that advice (and still do). We have always read out loud to our children. Even now I am reading Anne of Green Gables with my 12-year-old who is voracious reader and could just as easily read to himself. But he likes snuggling, and while I don't think he loves Anne like I did at his age, he enjoys getting to know what I liked when I was his age. This and the other things we have done have all helped him and his 10-year-old brother along the path to being successful readers.
One of the major reasons is that he just doesn't see himself as a reader, and we are not sure why. He sees himself as an artist, and a swimmer and a soccer player and all other kinds of things, but not as a reader. This is common for boys. Smith and Wilhelm explore the attitudes boys have towards reading and find that they have low estimations of themselves as readers and often declare themselves to be "nonreaders." Among the boys interviewed for Smith and Wilhelm's book, few of them identify as readers, even though for nearly all of the boys they interviewed, reading plays a part of their lives outside of school. Regardless of how much reading they do, this vision of themselves as non-readers ends up being a part of a story of them being less successful at reading.
For my own son at least, I see hope because of some excellent advice I received from a school librarian I work with. I was lamenting to her my son's unwillingness to read for pleasure. I am happy to read to him, but I want that to go along with his own reading, not replace it. She had the idea that I should write a book with him documenting his life as a reader. Since he loves art, he can be the illustrator of this book and it can include anything he wants. Favorite books, first books, first chapter book we read, books we have read in the weirdest places, anything he wants. I proposed this idea to him on Monday, and for the last two nights he has offered to read one picture book to me in the middle of my reading to him. I am under no illusion that this book project will turn him into a reader overnight, but I think it does have the possibility of helping him to see that he is on a journey as a reader and it doesn't have to look like anyone else's journey.
And while this excites me as his mom, it also excites me as a school librarian. I think this kind of project could work in a school setting to help other kids see themselves as readers. A middle school librarian I know wanted to get to know her students, and so at the beginning of the year asked them to make a list at the front of their reading journal saying who they are as readers. Some included the genres they like, others how fast or slow they read, or who they like to read with. I think this assignment works exactly the same way as my son's book project does. It alone will not solve the problem of boys' achievement in reading, but it does seem like a step towards giving boys a voice as readers, and valuing who they are, so they can value themselves as readers.