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Try to focus on what boys do read

Boys have been reading less than girls for the past 25 years. Frank Whitehead's 1971 survey of 8,000 children's voluntary reading habits showed that the amount children read declines as they grow older, and that at ages 10, 12 and 14 girls were more likely than boys to read.

Two decades later we have replicated Whitehead's survey and have found very similar reading patterns.

Boys still read less than girls, but boys of 10 report reading more than they were in 1971. At 12 there is no significant difference in comparison with the 1971 findings, but at 14 there is a decline in boys' reading. By comparison, girls of 10 and 12 are reading more than in 1971, and at 14 there is no significant difference.

There are many important questions embedded in these bald figures - about how to develop and sustain children's reading in secondary school, about changing patterns of literacy, about the adult reading patterns which older children are acquiring. It is too simplistic, though, to see "potentially devastating" effects ensuing from boys' preferences not to read prose fiction ("Boys read less than girls", TES, March 15). Boys' underachievement in school relates to a complex of factors of which reading patterns might well be one - but a careful analysis of the successes in improving voluntary reading among younger boys and girls seems to us more profitable than a deficit model which focuses on what boys don't do. Good teaching of reading has had much to do with the popularity of reading as a pastime - 65 per cent of the children reported reading for pleasure on the evening before the survey. The challenge now is to develop and adapt current good practice.

CHRISTINE HALL and MARTIN COLES W H Smith Children's Reading Choices Project School of Education University of Nottingham

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