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

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

Zachary Smith works on an assignment at Antelope Elementary. Reluctant readers can be motivated by subjects that interest them.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Janae and Joseph Wise's Washington state home is a shrine to their passion for reading.

"We have books everywhere," said Janae, a professional blogger, fitness instructor and mother of four young children. As young parents, the Wises built up an impressive home library. Exposing children to books, they assumed, would naturally lead them to love reading. It hasn't quite worked out that way.

"My boys just aren't that interested in reading," Janae Wise said. Her 7-year-old son Hyrum in particular has a difficult time sitting still long enough to finish a story. "I kept asking myself, 'Why doesn't he love reading?' I have to fight this urge I have to force him to read."

The Wises' experience is more than just an anecdotal narrative.

"Parents come into the library every day concerned that their boys aren't reading," said Linda Brilz, youth services supervisor at Boise Public Library in Idaho. But the problem is bigger than "not reading." Across the country and around the world studies show that young men lag behind their female peers in literacy skills by significant margins.

"There is a huge disparity in performance," said William Brozo, professor of literacy at George Mason University's Graduate School of Education.

How serious is the problem? Some of the most compelling data on the topic comes from the results of the Programme for International Student Assessment, an exam given to 15-year olds in 65 countries. On the 2000 PISA exam, girls outperformed boys in reading by an average of 32 points. By 2009, the gap had increased to 39 points.

"To put those numbers in perspective," said Brozo "a 32-point difference means that boys are a year and a half behind girls in reading skills."

The gaps are especially pronounced in some of the highest performing countries, Brozo said. Girls in Finland, for example, outscored their male counterparts by 55 points on the reading section of PISA, he said. In the United States girls outscored boys by about 25 points, he said.

Subpar literacy skills may account for growing gaps in men's and women's educational attainment. In every demographic group women are significantly more likely to earn college degrees, according to the 2011 U.S. Census and the National Longitudinal Surveys of Youth.

Gender imbalances in educational attainment trigger unhealthy and expensive social trends, said Richard Whitmire, author of the book "Why Boys Fail: Saving Our Sons from an Educational System That's Leaving Them Behind." For example, he links soaring out-of-wedlock birthrates to the fact that college-educated women are having difficulty finding "marriageable mates."

While the scope of the problem is considerable, public policy concern over these gaps is limited. The U.S. Department of Education has yet to conduct a study on gendered reading gaps, according to Whitmire.

"The issue needs immediate attention given the dramatic consequences gender gaps have for men's earning potential, marital possibilities, the share of children raised in single-parent families and the fiscal outlook for the nation," said Andrew Sum, director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University.

Explaining the Gap

While no one disputes the existence of the gender gap in reading, scholars hotly debate its cause. One set of explanations hinges on biology. Brain-imaging studies show that women have more connections between their left and right brain. These extra connections may allow them to process language better. Body chemistry may also be a factor. Boys have a need for activity and movement that is fed by the testosterone in their bodies. This can make it hard to master reading, which requires longer periods of concentration than elementary mathematics.

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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