Readin’ and writin,’ but not for boys

They’re fall­ing into a gen­der gap with long-range con­se­quences

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - By Suzanne Fields

Read­ing is not for sissies, as the front page of the news­pa­per demon­strates ev­ery morn­ing in the home­stretch of a rau­cous pres­i­den­tial cam­paign. But there’s a deeper prob­lem that ci­vil­ity and good man­ners won’t cure. The re­ally bad news is that boys are fall­ing into a gen­der gap far re­moved from mere pol­i­tics. Great num­bers of boys won’t read, even when they can, and when they do crack a book or pick up a news­pa­per or mag­a­zine, they don’t stay with it very long. The con­cerns in a com­pet­i­tive tech­no­log­i­cal age are ob­vi­ous.

Boys skip pages to avoid the hard stuff, and un­der­stand less. Ex­ten­sive stud­ies in both the United States and Bri­tain, where the lan­guage and lit­er­a­ture should be most cher­ished, show this clearly. “Boys of ev­ery age,” the sur­vey­ors found, “no mat­ter the na­ture of the lit­er­a­ture be­fore them, typ­i­cally read less thor­oughly than girls.” They take less time to process the words, lazily skip­ping parts with aban­don. They choose books too easy for them and fail to move on to tougher ma­te­rial.”

This has cul­tural and po­lit­i­cal im­pli­ca­tions be­yond the con­cerns of po­lit­i­cal can­di­dates, au­thors and news­pa­per ed­i­tors, and a lot of peo­ple, in and out of news­rooms and fac­ulty lounges, are deeply con­cerned. A sur­vey by the Cen­ter for Ed­u­ca­tion Pol­icy found that “in ev­ery state and in ev­ery grade, boys are trail­ing be­hind girls in read­ing, [and it’s] the most press­ing gen­der gap fac­ing our schools.” The prob­lem is only worse now, as a new study in Bri­tain shows.

The read­ing and com­pre­hen­sion gap be­tween boys and girls, teach­ers spec­u­late, is re­spon­si­ble for an­other dis­turb­ing phe­nom­e­non. Over the past quar­ter-cen­tury grad­u­a­tion rates have steadily in­creased among young women, but not for young men. Barely 40 per­cent of the col­lege grad­u­ates in one re­cent year in the United States were male, ac­cord­ing to the Cen­ter for Ed­u­ca­tion Pol­icy. Many teach­ers and ad­min­is­tra­tors think this is di­rectly re­lated to the habits of read­ing that boys de­velop in the early grades, and con­tinue through high school.

Since the Na­tional As­sess­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion Progress be­gan mea­sur­ing this gap in the late 1960s, with mea­sure­ments taken at ages 9, 13 and 17, the gap has fluc­tu­ated. In 2004, the gap in the fourth grade nar­rowed to 5 points, but had ex­panded by 3 points four years later. The gap in high school was a stun­ning 11 points.

The phe­nom­e­non is not al­to­gether new, though the dis­trac­tions are. Three cen­turies ago, writes Peg Tyne in her book “The Trou­ble With Boys,” the English philoso­pher John Locke lamented that “male stu­dents were not able to write as well as fe­male stu­dents, and he mar­veled at how much more eas­ily girls picked up for­eign lan­guages.” A li­brar­ian in Santa Clara County, Cal­i­for­nia, says she has al­ways found it more chal­leng­ing to find books, par­tic­u­larly books of fic­tion, to hold the in­ter­est of boys.

There’s no ap­petite among boys, for ex­am­ple, like that for the works of Jane Austen that en­thrall so many women, both young and old. Not so long ago boys ea­gerly read Mark Twain’s ex­ploits of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn and his own ad­ven­tures on the Mis­sis­sippi River, or the boys’ base­ball nov­els of John R. Tunis. But now, not so much. Per­haps they could be in­tro­duced to “True Grit,” by Charles Por­tis, a ro­bust ad­ven­ture on the 19th cen­tury Amer­i­can fron­tier, full of out­laws, gun fights, deadly rat­tlesnakes and saloon brawls, all things that ought to keep boys in­ter­ested.

But the re­search in Bri­tain shows lit­tle dif­fer­ence in how fic­tion and non­fic­tion books at­tract and hold the at­ten­tion of young men. Boys of­ten choose non­fic­tion but don’t read or com­pre­hend it any bet­ter than fic­tion. Girls do bet­ter than boys on both.

Keith Top­ping, a pro­fes­sor of so­cial re­search at the Univer­sity of Dundee in Scot­land, who led the Bri­tish study, says, “a lot of peo­ple will ar­gue that boys are much less likely to read ‘story book,’ or fic­tion, than girls and that’s one rea­son why girls are bet­ter [at it] than boys . . . . Boys tended to choose non­fic­tion but were not read­ing it any bet­ter than girls.

“What you need,” he says, “is teach­ers, class­room as­sis­tants and li­brar­i­ans spend­ing time with a child to talk about choices.”

Good teach­ers are cre­ative. Anna Konig, an English teacher for both boys and girls with emo­tional and so­cial dif­fi­cul­ties, in­vited a “ther­apy dog” into her class, think­ing to get boys in­volved. She per­suaded eight boys in the class to read to “Perdy the Labrador,” “who of­fers a non-judg­men­tal ear.” Dur­ing the week, the kids be­gan dis­cussing what book they thought Perdy would en­joy. The grades of the boys have risen two lev­els. “There’s a real buzz around read­ing now,” Ms. Konig says. “The only draw­back is a slightly hairy class­room at the end of each ses­sion.” A good trade in a class­room gone to the dogs. Suzanne Fields is a colum­nist for The Wash­ing­ton Times and is na­tion­ally syn­di­cated.

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