Reading into what students love

Not too long ago, debates about gender equity in the classroom centered almost exclusively on girls. The push is still on to encourage girls to stick with math and science as they grow up, but in recent years it's been the boys' turn in the spotlight. How to get them to read and write as much and as well as the girls - that's what teachers often puzzle over now.

A good first step is to clear away any notion that boys just don't like to read. A new study in Canada (where boys' scores on reading tests also tend to lag girls') tracked several dozen third- to sixth-grade boys and found that they read and memorized vast amounts of material. Much of it was related to games, sports, and personal interests such as music-swapping websites - subjects that don't have much place in their curriculum.

Boys might not pick up novels as much as girls do, but boys read avidly to gather information, say authors Kathy Sanford (University of Victoria) and Heather Blair (University of Alberta). They suggest that teachers should be more aware of how boys use computer technology, and include boys' interests in lessons and class discussions.

For many teachers, it's instinctive to tap into what students love. In Park City, Utah, one middle school teacher set up a screenwriting contest more than a decade ago to squeeze better writing skills out of her students. Alumni have since become professional writers, and one made a documentary that was screened last week at the Sundance Film Festival (see story).

That teacher was fortunate to be on hand to receive the filmmaker's thanks. Most will never know how well their experiments succeeded in grabbing the imagination of their students, whether boys or girls.

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