Matching boys with books
If you want to get boys to read, assign F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby." So say students at the all-boys Haverford School in suburban Philadelphia.Skip to next paragraph
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The reasons the boys give the novel high marks? It's short. Its characters and scenes move fast. The prose is terse, the style vivid and lively. Several male characters are "at sea," so to speak, despite lives which at first glance appear glamorous and successful. What's more, it's a tale that sparks questions about values and meaning at an age when boys themselves are searching.
"Everybody loves 'The Great Gatsby,' " says Robert Peck, who since 1973 has taught English at the 1,000-student K-12 private school.
But the vast majority of assigned-reading novels are not such a slam-dunk with boy readers. Getting boys to read is an exercise that stumps many an educator.
Not only do boys consistently test lower than girls on reading, but they are well known to be reluctant readers. Some teachers suggest that the problem is only getting worse - that boys today have more distractions, particularly electronic ones - and are even less likely to come to class ready to get excited about a book.
Researchers and educators blame the gap between books and boys on everything from a built-in fidgetiness to low expectations to a lifelong association of reading with their mothers, teachers, librarians - all female role models.
But now more are suggesting that the problem may not lie entirely within the boys themselves. Some educators believe that the way schools teach reading tends to favor girls, both in terms of teaching style and reading materials chosen. It's a concern that has pushed teachers to work harder to both find materials that boys like to read, and to find more "boy-friendly" ways to present that material.
"Boys have a more tactile, 'hands-on' learning style," and they favor subject matter which reflects that, says Linda Milliken, reading specialist at Chester County Intermediate Unit near Philadelphia. "They like lots of nature topics - bugs, dinosaurs, how things work," she explains. "They like to identify with a character who has his life in control."
What they may not like is the problem-focused reading popular with many teachers today - stories about divorce, abuse, single-parenthood, addiction, and such.
Girl readers are generally drawn to narratives that focus on relationships between people, while boys tend to prefer adventure, science fiction, war stories, history, and, of course, sports. Research also suggests that, given the choice, boys will often prefer non-fiction, magazines and newspapers, how-to reading, and biographies - reading material that some teachers say is not serious enough for class assignments.
The question of innate learning differences between boys and girls is a sensitive one, as Harvard University President Lawrence Summers learned when he touched off a firestorm by speculating that girls may have less natural affinity for math and science than do boys.
But differing sensibilities are evident even in art class, says Christopher Wadsworth, executive director of the International Boys' Schools Coalition. When left to their own devices, he says, girls tend to draw "nouns" (people and faces), while boys are drawn to "verbs" (action shots and bombs going off).
Boys may actually read more than people think they do, says Mr. Wadsworth - but it's not material assigned in school. For boys, he recommends topics like "baseball, butterflies, collecting stamps."
To jump-start boy readers he suggests nonfiction. "Biographies of people whose lives would excite boys - adventures, anyone who's done something with a sense of challenge - would be a good start."
But it's not just the books, some insist. The classroom experience needs to be far more interactive, says Ray Johnson, a consultant who previously worked as a teacher and principal in the Detroit public schools. Boys are naturally drawn to action and movement, he points out, and teachers need to find ways of integrating their energy into the reading process.
When he works with early readers, Mr. Johnson shortens the material and sets up give-and-take question-and-answer sessions both before and after the kids do their reading. He also encourages them to move around the classroom physically, taking a break at the end of the chapter.