Boys do not believe that reading is a masculine activity. They read substantially less than girls both in school and at home, with potentially devastating results for their future education, according to new research from Sheffield University.
The findings, based on a three-year study, contradict recent claims that boys and girls are both continuing to read as much as they ever did, and provide further evidence of the widening gender gap in educational performance.
Last week, chief inspector Chris Woodhead pointed to the failure of boys, particularly working-class boys, as "one of the most disturbing problems we face within the whole education system".
Also last week, a study by Nottingham University suggested there was no decline in reading. This was based on pupils' own accounts of what they read.
But this is disputed by Elaine Millard, a lecturer in education at Sheffield University, whose research has found widespread over-reporting. She says that some pupils in her sample claimed to be reading the same Roald Dahl book three years' running.
"My own work suggests there is a tendency to over-report books they have in fact accessed through media other than print, such as television, film and audio tape," she said.
"My research revealed a decline across the board in sustained periods of reading outside school, but most significantly revealed large differences in girls' and boys' commitment to reading, particularly in the home."
Ms Millard found that almost three times more girls than boys see themselves as readers. Both sexes saw their mother as the heaviest reader in their family, followed by their sisters. A large number of boys report that no one in their family reads. "It can't just be that more non-reading parents have boys. Rather it is of so little importance to them that they do not notice if anyone else is reading round them."
She concludes that boys and their fathers need targeting in home- school action plans to boost the status of reading out of school.
"Boys don't read in school because they do not for the most part choose to read continuous prose fiction at home and because they do not see men reading at home. Because of this they don't actually value reading as an activity. It's not something like sport or computer wizardry that confirms their masculine identity for them."
Girls share their books with friends and relatives and see reading as a sociable activity. More than half of girls shared books but only a quarter of boys did so. Girls also talk about books among themselves.
In earlier research, Ms Millard found that boys found their preferred choices of reading (computer magazines or Ninja Turtle stories for example) were judged unsuitable by schools which concentrated on narrative fiction.
Boys were not attracted by novels of what she describes as "authentic realism" - books that relate directly to the young readers' lives in dealing with problems such as bullying. They preferred ghost, horror and adventure stories.
Ms Millard also believes that girls could eventually find themselves at a disadvantage because of their lack of interest in technical and computer literature.
She recommends that schools monitor time spent on reading. The National Book Trust has estimated that a child needs to spend 30 minutes on continuous reading tasks in a day in order to progress in the middle years.