In Australia, boys on average read less than girls, and are increasingly falling behind in literacy skills. The good news is, there’s plenty we can do about it!

Reading as a hobby is often attributed to girls, and according to The Financial Review, education is also becoming increasingly a girl’s domain. The two might seem unrelated, but they’re not – boys’ literacy skills are leading to learning difficulties further down the line. The solution seems simple: boys should read more. But what challenges do they face, and how can we encourage them to pick up books of their own accord? 

The importance of children’s literature cannot be understated, and reading is a crucial skill for school and life beyond it. Reading has an endless number of benefits: it builds language, literacy, and social-emotional skills, aids the development of empathy and critical thinking, and improves cognitive abilities. It is important to encourage kids to read from a young age, but once they’re in school, there are more and more influential factors at play – and in general, boys seem to lose a love of reading. 

According to an international assessment of reading literacy in Year 4 students conducted as part of a Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) test, Australian girls in Year 4 scored on average 17 points higher than Australian boys in the same year.

There was also a gap in terms of attitudes to reading. While more than a third of Australian girls “very much like reading” according to the PIRLS study, less than a quarter of boys feel the same.

Storyfest Patron Jacqueline Harvey, a former teacher with decades of experience and now a successful children’s author, suggests that children – and especially boys – across Australia may struggle to see reading as entertainment for a variety of reasons. 

As a teacher, she spent many years reading aloud to her classes, thereby involving more children in the act of reading, and sparking a lasting interest in many of them. Her own love of reading was absolutely fostered via shared stories at primary school. Based on her experience, she says that getting kids to read for pleasure these days is difficult as there are so many other competing forms of entertainment – screen time being one of the biggest. 

Nonetheless, she believes that year 4 is an especially critical time as at that stage “children should be transitioning from learning to read to reading to learn.”

A love of reading starts at home

Of course, the discrepancy does not start in year 4, but rather much earlier, in some cases even before school. The examples boys see at home, the experiences they have with reading within their family, and the encouragement they receive from their parents heavily influence their attitude towards reading. 

A 2016 study of Canadian, US and UK parents found they spend more time reading with pre-school daughters than sons, and once children are in school, boys also receive less parental encouragement to read than girls. This suggests that while we teach young girls to see themselves as lifelong readers, many boys miss out, read less often, or are encouraged less by family. 

On top of that, they have less chance of seeing a role model read for fun. While 49% of teens felt their mother encouraged them to read, only 25% of fathers were playing this role, suggesting that fathers and male influences need to play a greater role in encouraging boys to read.

How to encourage boys to read more

Luckily, there are things we as parents, teachers, and role models can do to encourage reading in boys. 

Don’t be afraid to introduce boys to complex books

Harvey believes that one of the biggest problems is that boys in particular get to a certain reading level and baulk at reading anything more challenging or complex. 

“It’s really important to encourage children to move on to more complex texts as their reading comprehension develops. We can’t expect boys in high school to understand and enjoy bigger stories with deeper themes, let alone the likes of Shakespeare, if they’ve never read anything more difficult than The Treehouse or The Bad Guys. Of course these books are great and play an important role in getting kids interested in stories, but we have to encourage boys to read wider and harder over time.”

“From experience, when we set high expectations for children, they tend to rise to them. Based on the books that are currently available and popular with young boys, we probably don’t have high enough expectations of what they are capable of reading – and that needs to change.”

Make reading an enjoyable family affair

As research suggests, those whose parents model the behaviour – aka reading – from a young age tend to become book lovers themselves, and so one way of ensuring that your boys enjoy reading is by modelling the enjoyment of reading yourself. This gets even more fun as kids enter school and start to read a bigger variety of books, and you can begin to read books as a family, then discuss them together. Especially with the beginning of school, some children begin to see reading as something purely done for testing, making reading seem like a chore – creating fun family rituals around reading can help combat this. 

If for some reason you don’t have the time to read with or to your little ones audiobooks complement physical books especially well. 

“Having the physical book so the child can follow along is a great idea – it can lead to them reading alongside the audio too,” suggests Harvey. 

Seek help from librarians and teachers 

Sometimes the hardest thing is finding books that pique boys’ interest. While allowing your kids to choose their own books is important, so can asking for the help of knowledgeable librarians, booksellers, or teachers. They are experts at connecting struggling and disengaged readers with books that meet their interest and ability levels and can help them to expand their reading as they get older – not to mention family trips to the library have an abundance of positive benefits too!

How Storyfest helps foster a love of reading

As communities, there are things we can do to facilitate and encourage a love of reading – both in girls and boys, and both in urban and regional spaces. 

As Storyfest’s Patron, Harvey believes that literary organisations have a big role to play.

“Events like those organised by Somerset Storyfest inspire children on an elemental level. At author sessions, writing workshops, or one of the many events at the annual Storyfest Writers’ Festival, kids get to meet the people who write the books, and in turn be inspired to read more. These events also help them realise that reading and writing is aspirational – it has purpose, it’s fun, and it is accessible to them personally.”

The work of children’s literary organisations such as Storyfest is critical – they provide children, boys and girls, with both access and opportunity, which in turn promotes a love of reading. 

Finally, it is also abundantly clear that access is key to everything – children in cities perform better than children in rural areas, while those with ready access to books at home outperform those without. Other influential factors such as First Nations background, geographic location, and socioeconomic status all play a role in children’s literacy skills – which is why Storyfest is going Out West, in the hopes of taking this access to literature to more regional locations. If you’d like to support these essential endeavours, you can find out more here.

Not sure what books to get for reluctant readers? Check out our favourite middle grade books!

Need even more tips for encouraging kids to read more? Follow our tips and ideas for raising young readers here!