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Why boys' literacy skills lag behind girls' and how to bridge the reading gap

Published: Saturday, July 28 2012 1:00 p.m. MDT

Janae Wise has noticed this dynamic with her children. Whether it is biology or personality she can't be sure. But she has noticed her sons have a need to run and climb that her daughters do not. Her 4-year-old-daughter Mali, who doesn't read on her own yet, pulls out books and can sit for hours looking at pictures and making up stories.

Other scholars reject the notion that biology is destiny. They argue sociological factors better explain the reading gap. Reading is portrayed as feminine both in the home and at school, according to Nola Alloway, a professor at James Cook University in Australia.

"Something like 94 percent of elementary school teachers are female," said Brozo. "For a lot of boys, the people they see trying to get them to read are women."

In the home, children are more likely to see their mothers reading for pleasure. Alloway found that fathers tend to identify themselves as non-readers. She suggests that young boys may come to see this as part of a masculine identity, "Not reading comes to be a way some boys demonstrate their understanding of what it is to be a male," she noted in a report prepared for the Australian Council on Excellence in Education.

It may also be true that boys don't read because they have fewer options available to them. There is a gap in the book market, said Chris Shoemaker, a librarian with New York City Public Library. At a presentation of soon-to-be-released titles by a well-known publishing house, he noticed the majority of books featured storylines that appeal more to girls: stories of "frenemies," vampire romance and first love. The average boy just doesn't want to read a story about "bullying between female best friends," he said.

Why are publishers catering to girls? Because girls buy books. "Sales statistics show that it is girls and women who buy books," said Brozo. "Even when creating books for a specifically male audience, publishers try to appeal to the sensibilities of the mother because it is likely going to be the mother who buys the book."

Bridging the Gap

Focusing on the reasons for the gendered reading gap, while important, can actually hurt boys, said Brozo. "We can use some of these explanations as cop outs," he said, "to set lower expectations for boys as readers and learners."

For his part Brozo prefers to focus on solutions: practical ways for parents, teachers and mentors to encourage the young men in their lives to engage with books.

One of the best things a parent can to do encourage their son to read is to just have books in the house, Brozo said. He notes a study of third- and fourth-grade students which showed that loss of reading skills over the summer — called summer slide in academic literature — can actually be stopped and in some cases reversed just by having books in the home. "It drives home the point that good material in the home makes a difference," he said.

Brozo emphasizes the importance of finding books that match boys' interests. "You've got to find out what they like to do," he said. Brozo uses a technique he calls "My Bag" to get a sense of students interests.

"I give each of the kids a paper bag and tell them to take it home and put items in it that are emblematic of who they are and what they do," he said. "The kids bring the bags to school and share the contents in a show-and-tell format. When teachers know what kids are into they are in a better position to find them books that are congruent with their interests," he said.

Brozo recalled learning of one male student's fascination with World Wrestling Entertainment.

"It's something I find very distasteful," Brozo said. But since the student was interested Brozo found him a book on professional wrestling. The boy, who had been classified as a reluctant reader, devoured the book. He came back wanting more. As the boy became more knowledgeable about the WWE his interests expanded to include books on the steroid use behind the physique of many of the athletes he admired. "He developed a pretty nuanced understanding of the issues," said Brozo.

The experience reminded Brozo that when it comes to reluctant readers, "having experiences with print should trump any other concern," he said. Books that parents might consider unsavory or one dimensional can be jumping off points for deeper engagement. "We've got to nurture boys' love of reading in anyway we can." he said.

For older boys who are reluctant to read, Shoemaker suggests "graphic novels." A graphic novel is a long form comic book. "They are an outstanding way to get teens into literature," he said. "They are stories that deal with complex characters and themes," he said. "I think graphic novels are appealing to teens in part because of the visual culture they grow up in. The combination of words and pictures with a complex narrative really speaks to teens today."

The argument can also be made that graphic novels teach emotional intelligence better than traditional novels. "The authors have to find ways to express emotions, a tear or a sly glance through pictures," he said. "The reader picks up on those visual cues and can transfer that learning into their life. Traditional novels can do this too — but graphic novels do it in more obvious ways," he said.

Reading with and to boys is Brozo's final piece of advice. Boys need to have positive role models for reading. Countless studies show the positive impact of male mentorship. Dads, grandpas, uncles and older brothers can have a huge impact on boys by reading with them. Through positive examples, "they'll see that being a man and being an active reader are not incompatible," he said.

email:mwhite@desnews.com

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