The gap is closing now, but several years ago sixth-grade boys were as many as 12 points below the girls on Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment reading tests. The gap continued into seventh grade. By the time both groups got to 10th grade, there was no difference.
I wondered why. I talked to several literacy coaches for this age group and did some research.
To determine whether I was on the right track, I took my findings to Sean Duncanson, a fifth-grade teacher at Grey Cloud Elementary School, who let me borrow his reading class last week to talk about why some boys their age don't like reading.
All the boys in this class are readers. Some of them read anytime they get a minute or two to themselves. Sean said he's got a few boys who read during math class.
Educational research shows that good readers do well academically, I told the class, so they already have a head start.
Boys don't want to be forced to read books, I suggested. Boys in the class were nodding their heads in agreement. "Girls will read anything," I said, and they agreed.
At the time reading scores were dipping for boys, most literacy and media specialists were women who wrote suggested reading lists boys found "pointless and boring." I read one book list and would rather drink motor oil than read any of them, but I feel the same way about Oprah's reading lists.
Sean's students emphatically told me they want to choose the books they read.
That can't always be the case, but as soon as the research showed boys want to choose their books, teachers looked at what kind of books were in school libraries.
Most of the books were being marketed to girls, even at the first- and second-grade level, so the problem was twofold. Boys wanted to choose and were not interested in most of the books for their age.
Since educators realized this, there's been a flood of books for boys, which is good news.
There's also another problem with reading for both sexes. Grown-ups, I maintain, want kids to read "important" books. Although "Treasure Island" is a great classic for kids, "Ethan Frome" and "Silas Marner" are not on anyone's reading list.
The lesson here is that kids will have to read plenty of books they might not enjoy in high school and college because they are required. Don't force elementary and middle school kids to read classics unless they want to.
If you want your kids to enjoy reading, there are two other factors that will influence them. Taking them to a public library is one and having parents who read is the other.
With the help of Sean's class, we made a list of the kinds of books they like to read for fun. They like science fiction and books about medieval times. They like books where kids are heroes, do the right thing and are smarter than adults.
Subjects not on their list include books about romance, wars, adult relationships and social issues, even those that affect them such as bullying.
Thank you, fifth-grade readers, for helping us adults learn.