It has long been known that boys and girls tend to choose different books to read. But a new study suggests that the way they read differs as well.

UK-based newspaper The Guardian recently reported on two studies conducted by Keith Topping, professor of educational and social research at the University of Dundee. In one, the professor analysed the reading habits of nearly three quarters of a million students (725,369) in 3,306 schools across the UK.

In his other study, Topping looked at whether what the children were reading (fiction or non-fiction) had any bearing on the results.

Both studies used data collected by Accelerated Reader, a school computer program which tracks a pupils’ reading progress as well as their thoughts on the book. When pupils read a book, either at school or at home, they then answer questions which assess how well they have understood the contents of the book.

Professor Topping concluded that the reading habits of boys aged five to 18 was: “not particularly good – and they are lagging behind.”

Of the first study, Topping told The Guardian that: “The males were significantly worse on the outcome measures, didn’t gain as much in performance on reading tests and their average percentage correct in the tests was low.” He went on to suggest that this was because boys of all ages tended to miss sections out of pages or skipped some completely when reading, a trait less pronounced in girls.

Fiction or non-fiction?

His second, smaller, study, looked at whether it made any difference whether the children read fiction or non-fiction, and found that this didn’t make any difference to the way the books were read:

“A lot of people will argue that boys are much less likely to read story books – fiction – than girls and that’s one reason why girls are better than boys.

“But we looked at fiction and non-fiction reading and we found that, although it was true that boys tended to choose non-fiction more than girls, particularly at secondary level, they still didn’t read it better than girls. They were choosing non-fiction but they were not reading it as thoroughly and correctly as girls reading non-fiction,” he explained to the newspaper.

Macroeconomic effects

Interestingly, his studies did not find a correlation between the socioeconomic status of the child and his or her reading patterns. That’s despite other studies, including this one, which suggest the opposite, that a lack of books in the home is one of the most powerful predictors of educational failure.

“There is a need to feed back to boys what is going on here. Boys may be assuming, ‘Oh, I like to read non-fiction. Oh, I like to read magazines. Oh, I like websites or the instructions to video games’. But this study shows that they aren’t any better at that than they are at reading fiction,” he told The Guardian.

According to children’s author Chris Bradford, one of the contributors to the larger study, the difficult part in getting boys to read is finding the right book.

“First and foremost, it’s about finding a topic that engages boys and that they can interact with on a real-life level,” he said.

“If all they ever play is an Xbox, perhaps start them on Game Boy by Alan Durrant. If they’re into sports, challenge them with Tom Palmer’s Football Academy series or his award-winning Ghost Stadium. If they’re interested in technology or science, connect them with Dot Robot by Jason Bradbury or Itch by Simon Mayo. And if they train in martial arts or love Jackie Chan movies, throw Young Samurai: The Way of the Warrior at them or sneak ninja-like the superbly illustrated Shadow Warriors into their hands.

“The key element here is to plug into their everyday interests and let them live the book both in their minds and in their lives. Remember, every boy wants to be the hero!”

Top books and authors

In addition to completing quizzes on books to assess their understanding, children also have the opportunity to vote for books in terms of whether they enjoyed the book or not. These are their top five favourite authors. You can view the full list of favourite books and authors, by age group, in the report.

 The 5 most popular children's authors