The Page Turner

November 2003
Boys and Reading

Boys Demonstrate
Literacy in Many Ways

Building on Boys'
Literacy Strengths

Boys Do Too Read
Bridging the Divide Between Boys' In-school
and Out-of-school Literacy

    by Pamela Little

Young readers are wild about Harry—Harry Potter, that is. When J. K. Rowling introduced the young wizard in 1996, she unleashed the magic of reading for boys and girls. Suddenly, parents and educators found themselves in the midst of a reading phenomenon, looking hard at the power of literacy both in and out of the classroom—especially for boys.

But boys' interest in reading is nothing new to literacy professors Michael Smith and Jeffrey Wilhelm, who have long been concerned over media reports and public perception generalizing boys' social and academic shortcomings. In their book Reading Don't Fix No Chevy's: The Role of Literacy in the Lives of Young Men, they found that there's more to boys' literacy than the widening gap between boys' and girls' reading test scores.

Boys Demonstrate Literacy in Many Ways

Smith and Wilhelm followed a diverse group of adolescent boys, examining their favorite activities and their attitudes toward reading. The yearlong study involved 49 boys in the 6th through 12th grades at four diverse sites: an urban high school comprised almost entirely of African-American and Puerto Rican students; a comprehensive suburban high school; a rural school with a large Native American population; and a private all-boys school. What the researchers found was a total lack of connection between in-school and out-of-school literacy.

The boys ranged from "Mick," a "non-reader" who subscribed to magazines about cars and mechanics, to "Zach," an honors student whose literacy activity outside school focused on an elaborate role-playing game with friends. Boys in the study who were considered problem or reluctant readers in the classroom nevertheless used various forms of literacy to pursue their interests and goals outside school. They enjoyed popular culture texts, including comics and cartoons. They knew and talked about music. Many read sections of daily newspapers to keep up on their areas of interests, subscribed to specialty magazines, searched the Internet, and communicated electronically with friends. In essence, none of the boys in the study rejected literacy.

What they did almost universally reject was school literacy. For example, "Rev," an 11th grader, maintained that he hated school so much that it depressed him to attend; and he dismissed English as being about "nothing." Yet he watched the Discovery and History channels and wrote music in different styles for the three bands in which he played. "Literacy construed broadly had an important place in the lives of all the boys in the study," says Smith. "Unfortunately, the ways schools use literacy don't align with the ways boys use it." Most of the boys expressed a dramatic contrast between school reading and life reading. School reading was assigned, unconnected to their interests, too long and hard, and involved mostly literature; life reading was freely chosen, built on their interests, and usually consisted of short texts that they felt competent to read.

Building on Boys' Literacy Strengths

Smith and Wilhelm worry that the focus on boys' problems overlooks individual strengths that schools and communities could build on. While emphasizing their belief in the importance of literacy and literature, they advocate teaching literacy in a framework of inquiry—question-oriented instruction designed to motivate, engage, and sustain student interest. They offer recommendations that in many ways seem designed for afterschool literacy programs, suggesting that we:

  • Expand our view of what counts as worthwhile reading
  • Offer choices in what students read
  • Get to know students as individuals and connect literacy instruction to the interests boys value
  • Create lessons that are active, social, and visual
  • Teach before students read the text, rather than after, to give students a sense of competence going into the reading

Those of us who work with boys need to examine our ideas about literacy in order to help boys recognize their strengths and move beyond their sometimes narrow interests to a broader, more global literacy. We should remind ourselves that there are multiple definitions of literacy and multiple paths to becoming literate. Here are some ways to encourage boys' literacy achievement.

  • Find out what kinds of texts boys value: Magazines? Websites? Lyrics? Read what the boys read, and use these texts as a jumping-off point to guide them toward longer or more challenging texts.
  • Both boys and girls, with their demanding schedules, often do not have time for novels—but a magazine article may be just the right length. Consider ordering a few subscriptions for your program library. The Boston Public Library recommends almost a dozen magazines for kids. Anthologies of short stories and poetry also offer a choice of quick reads.
  • An afterschool book club can draw some boys into reading, particularly if they choose the topic or author. Tips from reading group expert Rachel Jacobsohn can help you start a book group.
  • Seeing a film or stage version of a book can turn lukewarm reader into a red-hot fan of original literature. A great book might seem flat when read silently, but a good actor can make the language come alive. Students 13-18 years of age can purchase affordable tickets to hundreds of New York's best theater, film, museum, and spoken-word events at High 5 Tickets to the Arts.
  • Listening to a book can also be a great learning experience. Recorded Books has a good selection of books on tape; your local public library probably does too.

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