When the National Endowment for the Arts last summer released "Reading at Risk: a Survey of Literary Reading in America," journalists and commentators were quick to seize on the findings as a troubling index of the state of literary culture. The survey showed a serious decline in both literary reading and book reading in general by adults of all ages, races, incomes, education levels and regions.
But in all the discussion, one of the more worrisome trends went largely unnoticed. From 1992 to 2002, the gender gap in reading by young adults widened considerably. In overall book reading, young women slipped from 63 percent to 59 percent, while young men plummeted from 55 percent to 43 percent.
Placed in historical perspective, these findings fit with a gap that has existed in the United States since the spread of mass publishing in the mid-19th century. But for the gap to have grown so much in so short a time suggests that what was formerly a moderate difference is fast becoming a decided marker of gender identity: Girls read; boys don't.
The significance of the gender gap is echoed in two other recent studies. In September the Bureau of Labor Statistics issued the "American Time Use Survey," a report on how Americans spend their hours, including work, school, sleep and leisure. The survey found that in their leisure time young men and women both read only eight minutes per day. But the equality is misleading, because young men enjoy a full 56 minutes more leisure than young women -- approximately six hours for men and five for women.
The other report, "Trends in Educational Equity of Girls and Women: 2004," is from the Education Department. Between 1992 and 2002, among high school seniors, girls lost two points in reading scores and boys six points, leaving a 16-point differential in their averages on tests given by the National Assessment of Educational Progress. In the fall semester of kindergarten in 1998, on a different test, girls outperformed boys by 0.9 points. By the spring semester, the difference had nearly doubled, to 1.6 points.
Although one might expect the schools to be trying hard to make reading appealing to boys, the K-12 literature curriculum may in fact be contributing to the problem. It has long been known that there are strong differences between boys and girls in their literary preferences. According to reading interest surveys, both boys and girls are unlikely to choose books based on an "issues" approach, and children are not interested in reading about ways to reform society -- or themselves. But boys prefer adventure tales, war, sports and historical nonfiction, while girls prefer stories about personal relationships and fantasy. Moreover, when given choices, boys do not choose stories that feature girls, while girls frequently select stories that appeal to boys.
Unfortunately, the textbooks and literature assigned in the elementary grades do not reflect the dispositions of male students. Few strong and active male role models can be found as lead characters. Gone are the inspiring biographies of the most important American presidents, inventors, scientists and entrepreneurs. No military valor, no high adventure. On the other hand, stories about adventurous and brave women abound. Publishers seem to be more interested in avoiding "masculine" perspectives or "stereotypes" than in getting boys to like what they are assigned to read.
At the middle school level, the kind of quality literature that might appeal to boys has been replaced by Young Adult Literature, that is, easy-to-read, short novels about teenagers and problems such as drug addiction, teenage pregnancy, alcoholism, domestic violence, divorced parents and bullying. Older literary fare has also been replaced by something called "culturally relevant" literature -- texts that appeal to students' ethnic group identification on the assumption that sharing the leading character's ethnicity will motivate them to read.
There is no evidence whatsoever that either of these types of reading fare has turned boys into lifelong readers or learners. On the contrary, the evidence is accumulating that by the time they go on to high school, boys have lost their interest in reading about the fictional lives, thoughts and feelings of mature individuals in works written in high-quality prose, and they are no longer motivated by an exciting plot to persist in the struggle they will have with the vocabulary that goes with it.
Last year the National Assessment Governing Board approved a special study of gender differences in reading as part of its research agenda over the next five years. The study will examine how differences in theme, the leading character's gender, and genre, among other factors, bear upon the relative reading performance of boys and girls. With its focus on the content of reading rather than process, this study will, one hopes, give us some ideas on what needs to be done to get boys reading again.
Mark Bauerlein is director of research at the National Endowment for the Arts. Sandra Stotsky is a research scholar at Northeastern University and served on the steering committee for the new reading assessment framework of the National Assessment of Educational Progress.