Aliteracy: 3 Signs Boys Have It (and what you can do about it!)

I’m sure you’re thinking, “Huh, aliteracy? Don’t you mean illiteracy? Not a problem in my community. All the boys I know can read, they just don’t like to read, so they won’t. I don’t need this article.

Wait! Stop! Please keep reading.

Most people are unaware of illiteracy’s equally damaging relative, aliteracy, but it’s a real thing that’s afflicting many boys in different communities today. Even yours. No one is immune.

It strikes all races, ethnicities, and religions. Addresses and zip codes can’t protect them. High IQ scores can’t protect them. Traveling, visiting museums, or playing a musical instrument can’t protect them. Nor can a parent’s college degree.

Aliteracy is the state of having the skills to read, not the will to read, and this unwillingness to read puts a person at a distinct competitive disadvantage in the 21st century.

Aliteracy is the state of having the skills to read, not the will to read.

An aliterate person will have the foundational reading in place to survive, but they won’t have the advanced literacy levels necessary to thrive in a global, knowledge-based and information-driven world.

How do I know?

1. Research shows that the best (and only) way to develop, grow, apply and strengthen literacy, vocabulary, general knowledge and verbal cognitive skills is by reading for pleasure at least 30 minutes every day. If someone is aliterate, they won’t read for pleasure every day and will miss out on its life-altering benefits.

2. Over 20+ years as a literacy educator for 9- to 14-year-old boys, I saw the negative impact of aliteracy on their ability to thrive firsthand.

The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who cannot read.— Unknown (attributed to Mark Twain)

When people become sick, awareness and knowledge are critical to recovering. Understanding the signs early helps with diagnosis and ultimately the cure. The same holds true for aliteracy. The more adults know what to look for, the sooner they can re-shape reading so boys will want to read. Below are three signs of aliteracy to become aware of and look out for.

3 Signs of Aliteracy

1. Negative/Stereotyped Responses to the Question, “Do you like to read in your spare time?”

The most obvious telltale sign comes from boys themselves. Ask an aliterate boy if he likes to read and below are typical responses you may hear:

  • Reading is boring and stupid.
  • I hate reading and only do it if I’m forced to.
  • There aren’t any books that I like to read.
  • I’d rather be ________.
  • I read at school, not home.
  • We only need to read for standardized tests.
  • Nerds and girls read books, not me.

If boys and books behave like oil and water, it doesn’t matter how much shaking, stirring, hoping or wishing is taking place – they just don’t mix – it’s the first sign that there may be a problem.

2. Discouraged Adults (Parents, Teachers, Librarians…)

The next sign to look for is how the adults in the community communicate their feelings about boys and reading. Do they smile and get excited or frown and sigh? Do they want to talk on and on about it or shut down the conversation and change topics?

I taught literacy to 350+ boys and partnered with their parents. Over the course of my career, most parents frowned, sighed, or shut down conversations when asked questions about reading at home.

This happens because many adults don’t realize boys have unique/specific reading needs that aren’t intuitive or expected. Not being aware of these needs means well-intentioned adults are initiating reading with boys ineffectively. Then they become discouraged and so do the boys and the vicious aliteracy cycle begins. Until someone helps to stop it.

By talking to my boys, I was finally able to figure out how to do just that.

3. Significant Gender Gap in English/Language Arts (ELA) Test Data

We all know the stereotype: girls outperform boys in reading and boys outperform girls in math and science.


People started to stand up for girls and their involvement in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. Changes happened, and more and more girls are now excelling in these fields. Plus, national and state standardized tests show that there is no longer a gender gap in STEM subjects. Actually, in many places, girls are even doing better than boys.

Which is both good and bad news.

Good news for girls because while they are gaining confidence in math and math-related fields, they also have maintained their reading competitive edge.

How? By continuing to read more than boys every day. It’s that simple. Unfortunately, boys haven’t caught on yet that they need to read every day.

From my experience, I know once boys start reading, they will close the gap. I watched it happen year after year. Boys started with me in sixth grade with a significant gap, and because I helped their them and their parents re-shape reading at home, by the time they graduated in eighth grade, it was closed.

Last week the 2016 Common Core Smarter Balance test results from my state were made public. The 21 school districts I analyzed (a mix of large urban schools and small wealthy ones) all continue to have a significant ELA gender gap and no math gender gap.

This means that the boys where I live need to get started reading. Now! And not to worry, I’m on it. Sadly, most schools don’t break down their test results by gender and miss this important sign of aliteracy.

Test data is publicly available for all school districts, and even though you may have to search for it, you can find out if your school community has a significant ELA gender gap. If so, let’s do for boys and reading what has been done for girls and math.

Aliteracy Antidote

Power of One and the 5 Building Blocks

It takes just one person to advocate for aliterate 9- to 14-year-old boys and help them to become the best version of themselves.

I can’t promise you special magic dust or a quick fix, but I can promise, deep down, under all the layers and walls they have built against reading, boys do want to become readers. They just don’t know why they should or the return on investment if they do. They are secretly waiting for someone to explain why and show them how.

As I shared earlier, boys have unique reading needs that aren’t intuitive or expected, but once you become aware of them and act on them, reading becomes possible. Using what I discovered by talking to my boys and their parents, I created what I call the 10 Building Blocks. It’s a straightforward way to make boys’ reading needs accessible to the adults who want to understand how to best support them (no teaching or English degree required!)

Here are the first 5 Building Blocks aliterate 9- to 14-year-old boys wish you knew before asking them to read:

  • Block 1 – Believe: They need you to believe that they will read.
  • Block 2 – Invest: They need you to invest in your own reading habit before investing in theirs (skin in the reading game).
  • Block 3 – Read: They need you to be a reading role model.
  • Block 4 – Walk the Talk: They need to trust that you are walking the reading talk and doing what you say (the credibility factor).
  • Block 5 – Prioritize: They need you to give the same priority to reading as you do for other things that you enjoy doing (whether you like to read or not).

See, you don’t need a degree, you just need to first believe boys will read! When you do, the rest of the blocks start to fall in place and aliterate boys have a chance not just to survive, but thrive, today and in the future.

If you’re inspired to learn more about the 10 Building Blocks, I explain them in my book, Boys and Books: What You Need to Know and Do So Your 9- to 14-Year-Old Son Will Read.

Here’s to boys reading!


Feature image courtesy of Flickr, mehaara.

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