Why are boys from low-income families more likely to disengage with reading?

by Dr Amelia Hempel-Jorgensen

1 Mar 2018

The answer to this question has been debated in the media and explored in research for some time as the ‘gender reading gap’ has been persistent in England and internationally. Yet the approach taken has often looked at ‘boys’ as a uniform group and ignores the differences between sub-groups of boys in terms of their ethnicity and social class. These aspects of identity can be just as important as gender when it comes to reading.

Unconscious stereotypes affect how teachers see children as learners and readers at school

A teacher with primary school students

One of the ways in which social identities impact on children’s education is through their teachers’ perceptions of them. Many of us hold unconscious preconceptions of other people on the basis of their ethnicity, gender and social class which are part of social fabric. Like other people, teachers may have stereotypes of certain social groups.

Research has shown that some teachers see certain children – for example White middle class girls - as ‘good’ learners or Black boys as failing to be ‘good’ learners. Together with colleagues, I sought to find new answers to the question about boys’ disengagement by focussing on how teachers perceived ‘struggling’ boy readers and the effect of these perceptions on the boys’ experiences of reading at school.

Teachers’ stereotypes about boys’ multiple social identities can affect engagement with reading

It turned out that some of the teachers in our study felt that girls were inherently better readers than boys. There was also a tendency to see boys from working class backgrounds and those from minority ethnic backgrounds as particularly deficient readers. Some teachers assumed that parents in such homes did not value reading and failed to support their children’s education by reading with them. This was despite teachers having little contact with parents. 

A boy and a girl reading together

One teacher related the reason for a boy reader – Kamal - being a ‘struggling’ reader to his single mother having multiple children and not providing a ‘traditional British home’ (the father was not from a White background). Boy readers like Kamal, were effectively trapped as ‘struggling’ boy readers by not only being less proficient in reading but also by teachers’ deficit perceptions of their multiple social identities. The boys were seen by teachers to lack the capacity to improve their positions as ‘struggling’ readers due to their multiple social identities.  

Teaching reading skill at the expense of internal motivation and reading for pleasure

Another factor which affected these boys’ engagement with reading was the strong focus on reading proficiency. This had a significant impact on the way reading was taught and supported in their schools, for example by focussing mostly on spelling, grammar and comprehension. Children from low-income families are more likely to go to school where there is a high proportion of other children also from low-income households. Children from such backgrounds are more likely to start school with low literacy outcomes and to continue their schooling with low attainment in reading.

Because of the importance of test scores in the English education system, these schools are therefore under particularly strong pressure to raise attainment in order to meet national benchmarks scores. This can cause teachers to focus on reading proficiency – which is what is tested – at the expense of supporting children’s engagement with the deeper meaning of texts and developing volition to read and pleasure in reading.

Reading (for pleasure) helps children improve educational achievement across the curriculum

A boy reading a book in bed

We know from research that reading extensively and for pleasure helps children to become better readers and also improve their achievement in other areas of the curriculum such as maths. So it is crucial that boys – as well as girls – who disengage from reading are supported to re-engage. Schools in England are now obliged by the National Curriculum to support children’s reading for pleasure. Yet in the participating schools, little focus was placed on encouraging children to engage successfully with reading for pleasure, despite their self-proclaimed intention to do so.

For teachers to more successfully engage boys with reading more extensively (and for pleasure) in low-income contexts, they need to be supported to reconceptualise reading beyond proficiency to also include children’s individual interests and volition as readers. In addition, they could be enabled to reflect on their unconscious perceptions of different boys’ social identities (i.e. different sub-groups of boys) and how these impact on their perceptions of them as readers.

Previous research into reading for pleasure has identified effective teaching methods. Research Rich Pedagogies is a wonderful resource that provides practical advice for teachers.

Dr. Amelia Hempel-Jorgensen is a Research Fellow at the Open University where she researches pedagogy and social justice with a particular focus on developing more socially just forms of pedagogy. Her research project, ‘Understanding boys’ (dis)engagement with reading for pleasure', was funded by a British Academy/Leverhulme Small Research Grant.

Image credits:


Sign up to our email newsletters