Aliteracy: How to Spot It & Bust It So Boys Will Read

I’m sure you’re thinking, “Huh, aliteracy? Don’t you mean illiteracy? Not a problem in my community. I don’t need this article.”

Wait! Stop! Please keep reading.


Most people are unaware of illiteracy’s equally harmful relative, aliteracy, but it’s a real problem, especially for 9- to 14-year-old boys.

None are immune.

Aliteracy strikes all races, ethnicities, and religions.

Addresses and zip codes can’t protect them. High IQ scores can’t protect them. Traveling, visiting museums, playing sports or a musical instrument can’t protect them either. Nor can a parent’s college degree.

Why? Because aliteracy is what I call the non-reading mindset: the state of being able to read, knowing how to read, but intentionally choosing not to read.

Recent national reading surveys show that 75% of 9- to 14-year-old boys self-reported they only sometimes or rarely read for pleasure. In other words, when four boys are left to their own devices, only one will choose to read and the other three won't.

My 20+ years as a literacy educator supports this data, and that’s why busting boys’ aliteracy and re-shaping reading so all boys choose to read, has been, and continues to be, my passion and mission.

Right now you might be thinking, “I know a lot of adults with the non-reading mindset, and they’re successful. What’s the big deal that boys today don’t read but do other things instead? As long as they get good grades, pass standardized reading tests and do well on the SATs, they’ll do just fine in life.”

Yes, that may be true, but it’s critical to keep in mind that living, working and thriving (not just surviving) in the 21st century requires a different skill-set than ever before: a strong literacy-based skill-set.

By not reading every day, boys are unintentionally putting themselves (and their future selves) at a distinct competitive disadvantage in the global, knowledge-based and information-driven world they live today and will work in the future.

Here are a few reasons why:

• Research shows that the best way to develop, grow and strengthen literacy, reading and verbal cognitive skills/stamina, plus build vocabulary, general knowledge and intellectual curiosity is by reading for pleasure 30 minutes every day.

• Accumulation of pages/words is what’s key to gaining reading’s amazing benefits, especially vocabulary development. Reading for pleasure must happen consistently and frequently over time or boys miss out on its cumulative effect, leaving them far behind their reading counterparts when they take the SAT, head off to college and into the labor force. ​

​• Practice makes permanent. When boys choose not to exercise their reading muscle during this critical period of their brain development, they run the risk of losing it, thereby making it less likely they’ll choose to read when they’re older.

Reading for pleasure is the great equalizer.

Think about it: The daily reading habit is accessible to rich and poor alike. It doesn’t cost very much money (free if you take books out of the library!), but its return on investment pays big dividends for those who develop the habit when they’re young!

That’s why when I taught middle school, I approached aliteracy like the insidious disease it is. After years of hypothesizing, research and trial and error, I finally discovered three telltale signs the non-reading habit had taken hold, and most importantly, the antidote to cure it (it’s not what you expect).

Below I share what I learned so you, too, have the awareness, knowledge and tools to bust boys’ aliteracy and re-shape reading so they will read!

3 Signs of Aliteracy

Sign #1: Significant Gender Performance Gap in Reading Test Data

As a former sixth, seventh and eighth grade literacy teacher, it was imperative I ‘caught’ aliteracy at the start of sixth grade so boys didn’t miss out on even more reading time. Prior to meeting my new students, I found the quickest and most reliable information came from analyzing the standardized reading test data to see if a significant gender performance gap existed.

Historically, test data shows girls outperforming boys in reading and boys outperforming girls in math. However, over the last 10-15 years, people started to stand up for girls and their involvement in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM).

Changes happened at both the national and local level that shifted girls’ confidence around STEM areas, and the test data shows it's working. The gender performance gap on standardized math tests is finally closing (check out my article about girls outperforming boys and why it's worrisome).  

Unfortunately, the reverse hasn’t happened (yet!) for boys. Their significant reading underperformance gap persists on both national and local standardized tests.

When I taught, my goal was to buck the trend and close each cohorts' gap by the time they graduated 8th grade. Knowing that research shows students who frequently read for pleasure score better on tests than those who don't, I was determined to bust aliteracy by re-shaping reading so my boys would read. And it worked!

Each cohort of boys not only caught up to the girls, but the percentage of students scoring at the advanced level increased profoundly for both genders.

The good news: 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 reading gender performance gap. Becoming aware of the gap, puts you in the prime position to start doing for boys and reading what has been done for girls and math.

Sign #2: Boys reply with a negative/stereotypical response to the question “Do you like to read in your spare time?”

Once you know a reading performance gap exists, the next step is to actually talk to 9- to 14-year-old boys about their reading lives. Their response to the question, “Do you like to read in your spare time?” when it's just the two of you chatting, puts the reality of the gap into context.

An avid reader tends to respond in the positive about reading. Their reply typically includes the title of their current book and so much more.

Compare that to a typical negative/stereotypical response from an aliterate boy:

• 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.

•Suck their teeth and roll their eyes

•Stare at you like you have six heads

It’s tempting to take these responses at face-value, but that’s a huge mistake. Instead, think of a boy’s response as a default mechanism, not how they really feel.

By taking the time to help 350+ boys unpack their responses, I learned just how painful, confusing and tangled-up reading was for them.

The good news: Through our conversations, it began to make sense why boys don’t see reading as pleasure and choose not to do it if they don’t have to. However, when reading is re-defined and re-shaped for them, the gender gap disappears, and so will aliteracy.

Sign #3: Discouraged Parents/Adult Supports of Boys Who Won't Read

The final sign to look for is how parents/adult supports communicate their feelings about boys and their reading lives.

Do they smile and want to talk?

Or do they frown, sigh, and say things like:

• Boys will be boys

• Boys just don’t like to read

• Boys are lazy creatures

• If only boys were more like...

• I don’t like to read either

• I’ve tried everything

• I’m tired of fighting

• Isn’t that why I pay taxes/ it’s the school’s responsibility, not mine?

Responses like these stem from discouraged adults not realizing boys have unique/specific reading needs that must be met before they will read. Most adults end up initiating reading for pleasure ineffectively with preteen/early teen boys, if they’re initiating it at all, and these encounters leave them fed up and frustrated.

As an educator, I learned that I had some influence on getting my boys to frequently read for pleasure at home, but without their parent's (or a respected adult in their home/family's) help and support, it wasn't going to happen. It was up to me to show parents what boys needed and how to do it.

The good news: Even the most discouraged parents can learn how to bust aliteracy and re-shape reading at home for boys. They just need someone to show them how, and most importantly, feel supported and encouraged. Only if we work together will aliterate 9- to 14-year-old boys get the fighting chance they deserve.

Aliteracy Antidote

I can't promise a 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 because they can’t do it alone.

As I shared earlier, boys have unique/specific reading needs. Using what I discovered by talking to boys and their parents, I created what I call the 10 Building Blocks. The first five help parents develop what I call the boy-responsive reading mindset (without it boys won't read), and once the mindset is in place, the second five help create a boy-responsive reading environment.

Anyone can develop the building blocks. All you need to do is become aware of and act on them with an open mind. When you do, getting boys to want to read for pleasure at home becomes possible.

Below are the first 5 Building Blocks aliterate 9- to 14-year-old boys wish you knew:

Building Block 1, Believe: Boys need you to believe that they will read.

Building Block 2, Invest: Boys need you to have skin in the reading game.​

Building Block 3, Read: Boys need reading role models.

Building Block 4, Walk the Talk: Boys need to trust that you are walking the reading talk and doing what you say (credible commitment).​

Building Block 5, Prioritize: Boys need you to give the same priority to reading as you do for other things that you enjoy (whether you like to read or not).​

You don’t need a teaching or English degree to bust aliteracy, you just need to first believe boys will read! When you do, the rest of the blocks start to fall in place, one at a time, laying the reading foundation boys need to thrive. 

Here's to boys reading! #BustBoysAliteracy #ReshapeReadingforBoys

If you're inspired to learn more about the 10 Building Blocks, I break each of them down in a straightforward, action-oriented way in my book, Boys and Books: What You Need to Know and Do So Your 9- to 14-Year-Old Son Will Read.

I’m also available to present workshops and consult

Hillary Tubin

Hi, I’m Hillary Tubin, the straight-talking Boy-Responsive Literacy Consultant for parents ready for a different approach so that their 9-14-year-old sons WILL read books: no gimmicks, quick fixes or one size fits all.