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Tackling the Challenge of Boys’ Literacy Gap (The Council Chronicle, Sept. 05)

Educators Call for an Expanded Definition of Literacy

When Doug Pusey prepares his Earth Systems students at Canyon View Jr. High School in Orem, Utah, for a study of “the genetic relationships between lizards,” he starts with something his students know well: The Simpsons.

As he describes in a commentary for The Science Teacher (December 2002), Pusey asks students for the first names of Bart Simpson’s immediate family and grandparents to create a family tree that will later serve as a model for lining out lizard relationships.

Next he shows students a species of lizard that inhabits the Canary Islands before posing this question: “How could lizards travel from one island to another if they can’t swim?” Creativity increases as the answers pour forth.

Finally, Pusey passes out the lesson’s reading and an assignment. The approach is called “frontloading,” which he explains as the teacher’s conscious effort “to lay the foundation for the lesson at hand.” He’s found it successful in reaching students, both boys and girls, and capable of unlocking something in boys.

“My junior high boys seem to be particularly in need of getting the right mind-set or frame-of-reference before they can make connections in a mental way. It seems that boys are particularly resistant to learning if they are missing frontloading, or the ‘painted scenery of the educational pathway.’”

An Urgent Problem

Finding ways to reach boys in school has taken on increased urgency in light of reports that show they are falling behind. For example, girls bested boys in reading in the 22 countries that took the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), according to research by Stephen Gorard of Cardiff University, who also found this gap has existed since the mid-1970s when testing began (Education Daily, March 17, 2005). And according to the U.S. Department of Education’s Trends in Educational Equity of Girls & Women: 2004, “early childhood education experiences are similar for girls and boys. In elementary and secondary education, however, girls consistently outpace boys in reading and writing in all grades” (School Reform News, The Heartland Institute, March 1, 2005).

Jeffrey Wilhelm, a well-known researcher on boys’ literacy and an associate professor at Boise State University, Idaho, says he’s worked with many teachers, including Pusey, who are hungry for ideas about an inquiry approach to teaching.

Describing his work as director of a national demonstration site in adolescent literacy, Wilhelm explains: “We ask teachers to bring in a unit that kids have trouble with and we have them reframe it as inquiry. So instead of teaching Romeo and Juliet, you teach what makes a good relationship. . . . You start with where kids are and [with] a problem they have that is also a problem in the culture that you don’t know the answer to and use the text as a way to interrogate that issue. Shakespeare didn’t write Romeo and Juliet to torture ninth or tenth graders, he wrote it to explore a human problem. The reason that we still read that play, make movies of it, and perform it, is that problem is still alive.”

Wilhelm has found that this form of connecting, or making literacy more like life, is a way to hook boys into reading and writing. Wilhelm and Michael Smith wrote about their research shadowing 52 students for a year in “Reading Don’t Fix No Chevys”: Literacy in the Lives of Young Men and in a follow-up study being published this fall, Going with the Flow: Making School Literacy More Like Life.

Wilhelm says that all the boys in the study could find literacy that appealed to them—literacy that had a clear purpose, provided immediate feedback, imparted a sense of competence or control, instilled a feeling of improvement, and allowed them to be in the moment and be part of a social network.

School literacy, he says, usually didn’t hold this appeal. Wilhelm says the boys often felt that teachers broke a “social contract to care. They felt teachers assigned stuff and evaluated them but never helped them. They wanted teachers to be passionate about what they were teaching. One kid said, ‘the teacher doesn’t even bring her game to school; the teacher wouldn’t even do this crap.’ We heard this over and over again.”

Wilhelm thinks changing teaching to reach more students is both simple and complex. “I think it’s simple because all you have to do is reframe what is already in the curriculum. [However], it goes against the salience of American education and the pressure to teach how you were taught.

“I would argue that we need a wider view of literacy and literate practices, and to find ways to bridge the literacies from boys’ lives with the literacies we would like them to practice, valuing both equally.”

Article Offers Insight

Jane Braunger, chair of NCTE’s Commission on Reading, echoes this perspective. “I think the issue of choice is very important; boys and girls both need to know that the literacy practices and interests they pursue outside of school—for example, computers, the Internet—are valued and can be built on in school literacy.”

To consider the issue of a boys’ literacy gap, she turns to Donna Lester Taylor’s “‘Not Just Boring Stories’: Reconsidering the Gender Gap for Boys” (Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, December 04/January 05), which rounds up recent research about boys and literacy.

Braunger summarizes some of the article’s recommendations as honoring preferences for informational texts; teaching ways to read and discuss narrative such as engaging students in think-alouds; and offering support for challenging texts so readers can expect to be successful.

“Don’t Give Up on Boys”

Expanding the definition of “what counts” as literacy and encountering teachers who don’t give up on boys are two things that Thomas Newkirk, English professor at the University of New Hampshire, thinks would go a long way toward helping boys with reading and writing.

The author of “Misreading Masculinity: Speculations on the Great Gender Gap in Writing” (Language Arts, March 2000), Newkirk believes there are enduring cultural messages about novel reading as something for women. “To the extent schools define ‘reading’ with novel reading, I think boys can check out.

“I think teachers need to be more open to forms of popular culture that boys love—humor, parody, adventure, amazing facts, suspense, sports. It’s hard for some teachers because these cultural attractions may not have been part of their childhood or their literacy. I think boys resist some slow-moving plots that focus on character development—as one boy put it ‘fifty pages about the next five minutes of your life.’

“I also think that teachers need to be careful that they don’t give up on boys. Boys may say, ‘I hate reading,’ but that may just mean they don’t feel successful at it. I’m particularly worried at half-baked ‘brain research’ claims about this difficulty coming from boys’ hardwiring. I think that’s just as pernicious as people claiming that girls are not ‘naturally’ good at math—because girls are certainly disproving that.

“I think that boys may disengage from the kind of novel reading stressed in schools. But I suspect that other kinds of reading continue outside of school—magazines, newspapers, news on the Internet, instant messaging. Sometimes I meet men who say they are not ‘readers.’ I ask them, “Do you read the paper?”


“Do you read for your job?”


“Do you have hobbies you read about?”


“Then I want to ask: ‘Then who the hell convinced you you weren’t a reader?’”

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