Research into reading, the promotion of reading and literature education

Boys and girls

Boys lag behind girls as far as reading is concerned. How can they be helped to improve both their pleasure in reading and their reading proficiency? Research shows that fathers can often serve as a role model, the books that are on offer can be personalised and gender stereotypes can be changed.

Fathers as role models

Reading education is mainly carried out by women and, within families, by mothers. Much academic research relates to the advantages for the language development of children whose mother reads aloud. However, there is tentative evidence that fathers also make a contribution, more as a complement to the mother’s contribution.

Active stimulation of reading by fathers results in immediate gains. There is a positive correlation between the frequency of a father’s reading aloud and their children’s language proficiency, knowledge of books and understanding of the story (Duursma, 2014; Duursma, 2011). In addition, fathers can set a good example. Children between 7 and 15 years of age who regularly see their father with a book read books more often themselves. Precisely because fathers generally spend less time reading, it possibly makes more of an impression when they do read (Huysmans, 2013).

In addition, there is evidence that the quality of language offered within the family is higher if fathers read aloud than if mothers do so. When reading aloud, they generally ask more questions than mothers and make more explanatory and affirmative statements (Anderson, Anderson, Lynch & Shapiro, 2010). In the interaction with their child, they also use more diverse vocabulary (Pancsofar & Vernon-Feagans, 2010). They also think up new storylines of their own more often and consequently read aloud more creatively (Stichting Lezen, 2015). Finally, while reading aloud they make references more often to matters beyond the text, by means of which they stimulate the processing of the story (Korat, Ron & Klein, 2008).

These findings are not uncontested. Other studies show that mothers read aloud in ways that are more stimulating. Mothers often use different voices when reading aloud (Duursma, 2011). They also use less ‘literal’ and more ‘interpretative’ strategies for reading aloud. While fathers ask more questions which test factual knowledge, mothers more often discuss the meaning of the story. By doing so, they challenge their children, which stimulates their language and cognitive development (Schwartz, 2004).

From other research it appears that fathers and mothers have their own styles of both reading aloud and advancing reading education and that to some degree these are gender role stereotypes. In one family, for instance, the father may think up storylines more often and the mother may make use of various voices, while the opposite may be true in a different family. In yet another family both parents may take on the respective activities to a greater degree or not at all (Van Steensel & Lucassen, 2016).

It appears that stories are read aloud to boys and girls differently. While mothers use more literal strategies in relation to their sons, fathers employ more interpretative strategies in relation to their daughters (Schwartz, 2004). Fathers also give feedback, in particular, to their daughters, and help them establish links between the text and their own experience. In general, boys appear to be stimulated less. This is possibly due to the fact that parents, in particular fathers, do not attach the same importance to reading to their sons and daughters (Vandermaas-Peeler, Sassine, Price & Brilhart, 2011).

At the same time, fathers serve a specific purpose, in particular, for their sons. Boys benefit especially from a father who sets a positive example of reading. While a mother who can regularly be seen with a book mainly stimulates the reading behaviour of a daughter, a father who reads is able to encourage his son, in particular, to start reading (Mullan, 2010).

Offering tailor-made reading activities

Boys find it more difficult than girls to focus on ‘undesirable’ reading activities. The topic of the text has a considerable effect on their comprehension (Oakhill & Petrides, 2007). They are also able to summon up less perseverance when it comes to reading texts which they do not find very captivating (Ainley, Hillman & Hidi, 2002).

Motivating reading material therefore seems to be even more important for boys than for girls. In this regard, it is often stated that boys benefit from a broader offering of so-called ‘boys books’, namely exciting, adventurous stories with a lot of action and little emphasis on character development. There is tentative evidence for this idea. Research shows that boys aged seven and eight, who have stories read to them from typical ‘boys books’ (e.g. adventure stories with predominantly male protagonists), become more motivated to read than other boys of their own age who have stories read to them from the ‘typical’ offering (non-adventures with predominantly female protagonists) (Sokal, Katz, Adkins, Gladu, Jackson-Davis & Kussin, 2005).

Other opinions about gender

Reading has a feminine image. Children give expression to such views. They subscribe to the view that ‘reading is more something for girls than for boys’. This applies more strongly to boys than girls. The stronger they agree with this statement, the less they find reading enjoyable (Clark, Torsi & Strong, 2005) and the less motivated they are to read (Sokal, Katz, Adkins, Gladu, Jackson-Davis & Kussin, 2005).

Boys who regard reading as an activity for girls may start thinking that it will harm their image. A group of researchers had children aged 6 choose a number of books for themselves, for another boy and for another girl. Both boys and girls looked for storybooks  for themselves. For the other girl they chose storybooks, while they selected informative books for the other boy (Chapman, Filipenko, McTavish & Shapiro, 2007).

In general, boys allow themselves to be led more by their gender identity than girls. This is no different with regard to reading books. Boys identify less strongly, for instance, with feminine characteristics than girls do with masculine characteristics. They are less likely to choose a book typically for girls than girls are to choose a book which is typically for boys (McGeown et al., 2012).

For this reason, boys may benefit from programmes to promote reading which focus specifically on reducing opinions with regard to gender. At schools where both boys and girls read avidly and broadly, over half the boys are convinced that men and women read the same type of book (Pickering, 1997, as cited in Francis, 2001). Moreover, the gender gap with regard to reading is smaller at schools where less strict opinions with regard to gender predominate (Younger, Warrington and McLellan, 2005).