Techniques to get your boys reading

Written by: HTU | Published:

Boys’ underachievement in reading is a perennial problem for our schools and teachers. The NFER’s Liz Twist and Rebecca Clarkson examine recent test results and look at what the evidence tells us about the kind of literacy activities which boys – and gir

It was no surprise that in last summer’s extensive trial of NFER’s new reading tests for years 3, 4 and 5, involving more than 3,800 pupils, the average score of girls was higher than that of boys on all three tests.

This is also seen at the end of key stage 2 national curriculum tests in England: in 2012 there was a difference of six percentage points between the proportions of boys and girls achieving at least Level 4 on the reading test, and seven percentage points on the basis of teacher assessment.

The results of the new national phonics screening check in year 1 in England also show a difference of eight percentage points between the proportion of boys who met the standard (54 per cent) compared to girls (62 per cent).

Having a large dataset from the summer’s standardisation of the new reading tests enables us to look beyond those fairly bald statements about boys’ and girls’ achievement and explore whether there are certain texts and questions for which the difference is reduced, or where boys actually perform better than girls.

We undertook a type of analysis called “differential item functioning” to explore this. What this does is identify any questions where the difference between the average performance of boys and girls is greater or smaller than would be expected, given their overall performances on the test.

This last point is important because there are actually very few questions on which boys do better than girls in absolute terms. But when overall performance is taken into account, there are questions on which boys do better than we would expect.

When boys do better

In total, there were seven questions in the new year 5 reading test where boys did better than expected when their overall performance was taken into account. Of these questions, four are based on an information text about tornadoes, two on an extract from a story, and one on a chronologically organised magazine article about the escapades of a family’s pet dog.

In terms of types of question design, six of the seven items require a closed response, i.e. pupils had a restricted set of options from which to select an answer. In its simplest terms a closed response is multiple-choice, but it can also be a matching question, such as that seen below, or a response that requires ticking specific options such as whether statements are true or false.

An example question might be: "Match the type of tornado to the maximum level of damage it can cause." With options on one side of "moderately-devastating", "light", "strong", "super" and on the other of "walls damaged", "houses airborne", "litter blown around", "damage to electricity supply".

A majority of pupils got this matching item correct, 58 per cent of boys and 56 per cent of girls. Given that girls gained, on average, just over three marks more than boys on the whole 44 mark test (24 marks compared to 21 marks), boys were much more successful with this question than might have been expected.

Of course, the level of challenge offered by a reading test question cannot be ascertained solely by scrutinising the question: it is determined by the interaction between the question and the text. In this case, the question is based on a table showing the different strengths of tornadoes and the level of damage that can be expected.

Of all the questions in the test, two are sequencing questions and it is interesting that both of these were in the subset of questions on which boys did better than expected.

When girls do better

In contrast to the questions outlined above, there are five questions in which girls did better than expected. All of these are open response, in that pupils have to construct their own answers. Two of them involve locating and copying phrases from the reading booklet, and the other three require pupils to produce a more extended response. Four of the five questions expect pupils to show some understanding of the characters in either the story extract or the magazine article, such as "Why was Toto important to Dorothy?"

This two-mark question requires pupils to show their understanding of Toto’s significance to Dorothy, given her isolated circumstances. This can include references to that fact that Toto cheers her up or is her constant companion. The average score of boys was 0.99 on this question, and that of girls was significantly higher at 1.19. Clearly, this is based on average performance: some boys scored maximum marks and some girls failed to gain any marks.

Two main patterns of performance emerged from the trial, and echo trends seen in other reading test developments. One of these is related to question format: boys tend to do better, relative to their overall performance, when responding to questions that require no writing.

The response may take the form of ticking, or matching statements, for example. The other is related to question content: girls tend to do better when the questions require some understanding of the characters they have been reading about.

The better performance by girls on questions related to character can be related to their reading preferences. Girls are generally more motivated to read than boys – this is a consistent finding internationally, including within the 2011 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study.

They are also more likely to read narratives than boys, and to enjoy them. When we asked the children in the trial whether they had enjoyed reading the extracts, we found that 73 per cent of girls had enjoyed the extract from The Wizard of Oz, compared to 61 per cent of boys.

In contrast, the information piece about how tornadoes are classified according to their strength was, perhaps unsurprisingly, significantly more popular with boys: more than three-quarters of boys said that they had enjoyed reading it compared to less than 70 per cent of girls.

Of course, we are describing averages here: many teachers will be able to identify boys whose preferred reading is narrative of some sort, and girls who gravitate towards information texts.

Literacy strategies

One of the valuable elements of the dataset that the NFER has is that it enables us to generalise in a way that class teachers are unable to do. Identifying such patterns of performance and, crucially, preference when it comes to reading can be used to inform schools’ strategies to engage boys more effectively with reading. These strategies might include:

Leading them to the library: The link between motivation to read and reading achievement is well established and strong. Persuading boys to take opportunities to read – for example, by ensuring visits to the library and that the library prominently displays books which might be expected to engage reluctant readers. Providing pupils with books to take home can serve to increase motivation and subsequently achievement.

Starting a book club: We know that children are influenced by the behaviours around them. Schools could offer to host a book club for parents – perhaps in the mornings when children are dropped off at school – and encourage fathers as well as mothers.

Choosing books with boy appeal: One major publisher of children’s reading schemes has recently developed a series of books specifically intended to engage boys. These are focused on developing reading skills but there are a number of recently popular series that have deliberately capitalised on their “boy appeal” rather than their reading level – the Alex Rider books for example, or Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl. Providing a decent selection of these kinds of books in school is more likely to capture boys’ interest.

Set a good example: As a teacher, especially if you are a male teacher, be seen reading by pupils!


As with many issues influencing achievement, solutions that effect positive change for some can also effect positive change for many, as the Boys’ Reading Commission points out. In its report the commission – jointly convened by the All-Party Parliamentary Literacy Group and the National Literacy Trust – argues that by adopting strategies that effectively support boys in their reading, schools can also help girls who struggle with reading, and therefore such approaches should be thought of as quality teaching methods that can impact positively not just on boys but on other groups frequently identified as underachieving.

Further informationReport of the Boys’ Reading Commission:

• Liz Twist is head of the NFER’s Centre for Assessment and Rebecca Clarkson is a research manager with the NFER.

• For more primary education Research Insights with NFER – offering best practice and research across a range of key areas – click here.

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