First the good news: boys are reading as much as girls. Now the bad: the books they choose are far less challenging and easier to comprehend than those selected by girls, and this gets worse as they grow older.
The findings of a major study of 100,000 children's reading habits coincide with national curriculum test results which show that – at all ages – girls score more highly on reading tests. "Boys are clearly reading nearly as much as girls, a finding that may surprise some onlookers," said Professor Keith Topping, of the University of Dundee's school of education, who headed the study. "But boys are tending to read easier books than girls. The general picture was of girls reading books of a consistently more difficult level than boys in the same year."
The gap in the standard of their reading habits becomes most marked between the ages of 13 and 16, the report says. The favourite girl's book in this age group is Twilight, by Stephanie Meyer, the first in the vampire romance series that has sold 85 million copies worldwide. This was ranked far more difficult to read than the boys' favourite, The Dark Never Hides, from the British novelist Peter Lancett's Dark Man series, illustrated fantasy novels aimed at reluctant teens and young adults struggling to read.
The study notes that both sexes tend to choose books that are easier to read once they reach the age of 11 and transfer to secondary school. Compared with a similar study two years ago, the Harry Potter author JK Rowling has tumbled down the top 10 most popular children's authors, from second to ninth place.
Boys, in particular, chose not to read her books, which are considered more challenging than many other children's titles. "Perhaps the lapse in popularity of the Harry Potter books ... has left boys with few high difficulty books they have the urge to attack," Professor Topping added.
One author to shoot into the top 10 for the first time - at number two - is Roderick Hunt, whose 300 The Magic Key books, following the lives of three children and their dog, Floppy, are used in 80 per cent of British schools to teach people how to read. Roald Dahl still tops the chart.
The report, commissioned by Renaissance Learning, which pioneers online reading tests widely in use in US schools to determine the reading age of children, recommends that teachers should closely monitor the reading habits of their pupils, particularly the boys. "As with adult reading, kids will not always read to the limit of their ability," Professor Topping said. "Even high-achieving readers do not challenge themselves enough as they grow older."
The report recommends an expansion of the school library service, with schools encouraged to stock every book which appears in the top 10 favourites for each age group. The children's reading habits were confirmed by taking online quizzes on the books they had read.
The findings reverse the conclusions of a similar survey two years ago when boys were found to be opting for harder-to-read books than girls.