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.

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.

Differing sensibilities

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.

"We found that boys were more interested in the text" with such an approach, Johnson reports. Minus the "baby stuff," he recommends the same techniques in the upper grades.

At Haverford, Mr. Peck tells parents who ask what their sons should read, "Any kind of reading is good."

But he also notes that boys today may not be able to tackle the harder material their fathers picked up at the same age.

Today's student tends to be a less sophisticated reader, he says.

"We just can't assign as much reading as we could 25 years ago. There aren't many boys who do much reading," says Peck. "There will always be that one-third who can handle long and complex titles." But the rest of the class falters. So he tends to opt for shorter books, short stories, poetry, and plays.

Typically, ninth- and tenth-grade reading succeeds when it hooks the students in on a personal level. In "The Catcher in the Rye," J.D. Salinger's phony adults, messed-up teachers, and cynical, emotionally chaotic Holden Caulfield continue to engage students. "What's not to like for a teenager?" Peck asks. They also see themselves in the rivalries in John Knowles's classic "A Separate Peace," and, often, in the father-son conflict in Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman."

For older students, he says, he chooses from a variety of "the powerless fight back" titles, aiming to provoke a more sophisticated response.

"What always matters most is - is this a book that touches me?" he says. "How do [the characters] respond when they are under great emotional pressure by the demands life places on them?"

What college men like to read

Such is the case even for male college students, says Robert Wilkinson, professor of English at Villanova University. "Red Badge of Courage," Stephen Crane's classic story of testing, failure, and opportunity for redemption in battle, is a favorite of the men in his American literature classes, prompting the classic response, "What would I do under the same circumstances?" he explains.

Faculty at Haverford School have cut back on some classic authors whose ideas are important but whose style is difficult, according to Peck. "We do less Emerson, less Thoreau - these are very demanding texts," he says, adding that a semester's reading now moves more quickly through shorter books. Sometimes a title once assigned in an earlier grade is now taught in a later grade, when today's students are more ready for it.

Boys do well when they choose what they read, says Ms. Milliken. "I'd suggest the teachers not say 'Read these three books,' but 'Here are five books, choose three." And a so-so reader should start with simple, interesting material, saving the complex until he has gained confidence, she adds.

What elements will make for a sure-fire boys' beach book this summer?

"Is there an exciting physical challenge?" Peck asks. "Is the character responding with courage? With male competence?"

In other words, he says, think Robert Ludlum - not Danielle Steel.

Summer books for boys

High school boys looking for a good summer read might consider the following titles, recommended by seniors at the all-boys Haverford School.

For an overall enjoyable read:

Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, by Ken Kesey

Fifth Business, by Robertson Davies

Lord of the Flies, by William Gerald Golding

The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

This Boy's Life, by Tobias Wolff

Harry Potter books, by J.K. Rowling

Friday Night Lights, by H.G. Bissinger

I Am Charlotte Simmons, by Tom Wolfe

This Side of Paradise, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, by Mark Twain

Feeling lazy?

Try John Grisham's Rainmaker, Dan Brown's DaVinci Code, novels by Stephen King and Agatha Christie, and autobiographies of athletes.

Feeling ambitious?

Haverford literary favorites include some of Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, or John Milton's Paradise Lost.

Other individual favorites:

Travel books by Paul Theroux

The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence, by Ray Kurzweil

E=MC2: a Biography of the World's Most Famous Equation, by David Bodanis,

The Lexus and the Olive Tree, by Thomas Friedman, on globalization

Darwin's Radio, by Greg Bear, a popular summer reading assignment from the science department

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