Wednesday, February 24, 2010

the why chromosome (part one)

As Nick either promised or threatened, I am "back on that kick again."
You know, the one about boys and reading; about what we're doing to boys in schools, and what we can do about it.

It's interesting to consider the nature/nurture perspective about boys and reading -- and why girls are more verbally inclined at an earlier age. A recent study showed that boys are more likely to have their own bedrooms and their own DVD players and computers, compared to girls. I think that's kind of telling in a number of ways.

In this decade, boys have been referred to as "the new disadvantaged," (Foster, Kimmel, & Skelton, 2001) for a number of reasons: First, in a study that spanned 31 countries, we see that boys' reading and writing scores have increasingly declined relative to those of girls. Boys, compared to girls, are much more likely to be labeled as "Learning Disabeled," disciplinary problems (and significantly higher rates of suicide, too).

If boys' achievement scores are declining, and they are reporting less time spent on reading and higher rates of discouragement, what can we do to help bring boys back as readers? I'm going to offer some suggestions and observations (which are backed up by empirical studies). Here are three findings to get the ball rolling:

1. The male reader role-model. Studies reported in The Australian Journal of Education (April 2008) showed that boys' perception that reading is a feminine pursuit has a great deal to do with the over-representation of female reading role-models in schools and at home, particularly -- for American boys -- during grade school years, when boys are developing their sense of gender role identity.

Bottom line: we don't have enough guys teaching, especially teaching reading to kids under the age of 13. And we don't have enough DADS reading at home. A 2006 study went on to show that boys at this age also perform and achieve better for same-sex teachers.

Be warned, too, as we see the American economy transforming before our eyes, it is shifting away from a labor force that emphasizes brawn, to a smaller, more educated labor force that emphasizes brain. There's nothing we can do about this shift, it happens in economies throughout history as resources and specialization -- the human division of labor -- become geographically confined. Dads, schools, teachers, mentors: we have a responsibility to our sons.

2. The use of technology. This is a perfect time for this. Remember the finding that showed that boys are more likely than girls to have their own computer? In schools, boys identify computers as "their" technology.

Michael Grant, want to chime in on this? Dads with teenage sons and daughters (like me) know this is true.

Here's what studies regarding technology have shown:

  • Boys have a more positive attitude toward computers than girls, and their comprehension scores improve when reading stories from a computer as compared to reading stories from a book. (okay, that one kind of scares me).
  • Boys' are three times more likely than girls to attend summer computer camps, and they view computers as being innately "male." Some educational theorists suggest that the consistent findings that boys' literacy scores improve with the use of technology makes boys "differently literate" from girls.

Okay, go get your kid an iPad and download Macmillan books for your son to read.

(Poof! There go my "buy buttons")

3. What boys say they like. Another interesting set of tidbits: A study in the journal The Reading Teacher (November 2009) points out the sad truths about the global crisis as far as reading and boys are concerned, but went on to look at what boys "like" when it came to books.

First of all, I'm going to re-emphasize the importance of choice when it comes to encouraging boys to read. Boys need choice. Too many schools, as one study points out, actually discourage boys from reading by doing things like limiting the number of book reports they can do on certain genres of fiction, or making them choose titles from limited lists.

Here's what the boys in the study said they liked:

  • Books that "looked good." Yep, boys liked books with cool covers. (Hmm.... you have, I take it, seen the cover of The Marbury Lens).
  • Boys like series books, or preferred to stick with a particular author (Star Wars books -- this was one of the titles mentioned where a boy was told he could only do two book reports -- so he quit reading).
  • Boys like following a character through a number of situations, even over the course of years for series books. Boys said they preferred characters who weren't depicted as perfect, but had flaws.
  • Boys respond positively to book discussions when they establish partnerships with other boy readers. Particularly, they like to respond to the question, "What do boys like to read?"

So... Boys, what do you like to read?