Educators Differ on Why Boys Lag in Reading

Valerie Strauss
March 15, 2005

Jerilynn Hoffman couldn't get her young son to read much until she found a book that wasn't her cup of tea but definitely was his: "The Day My Butt Went Psycho."

Sharon Grover had a different problem: Her son loved books early in elementary school but mysteriously lost interest at about third grade, declaring: "My mother is a librarian, but I hate to read." He did, however, start reading again for pleasure -- in his twenties.

James Berlin, 7, of Arlington reads the Nathaniel Benchley book "George the Drummer Boy" in the children's section of the Arlington Public Library. (Preston Keres -- The Washington Post)

| Transcript: Sharon Grover of Arlington Public Library discussed how educators and parents can choose books suitable for boys and girls.

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Enticing boys to read -- and to keep reading -- is the flip side of the sometimes fierce debate about girls and their math and science abilities, and both issues are receiving new attention as educators focus on how boys and girls learn differently.

The controversy about gender and learning was stoked anew when Harvard University President Larry Summers recently questioned girls' intrinsic abilities in math and science. Then first lady Laura Bush spoke about her new effort to help boys, who she said are falling dangerously behind girls in such areas as literacy.

Some educators have said that the concern over boys is exaggerated and that boys end up doing just fine, holding top jobs and being paid higher average salaries than women. Others, however, have said boys face an unprecedented literary crisis that limits their opportunities, citing studies showing that the gap between the sexes -- dating back to the 19th century -- has increased markedly.

"Part of it is biological and part of it is sociological, but boys are definitely drifting down," said Jon Scieszka, author of the "The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales," and founder of the Web site, which is aimed at helping interest boys in reading. "We've been testing kids in America for the last 25 years and finding out that boys are doing worse than girls," he said. "But we don't do enough to change that."

Exactly what should be done, however, is unclear, because there is no consensus on how much genetics, environment and culture are responsible for the gap. And it is not strictly a U.S. phenomenon: Stephen Gorard, education professor at the University of York in England, reviewed scores for 22 countries and discovered gaps in every one, despite differences in school setups and curricula.

What is known is that boys generally take longer to learn to read than girls; they read less and are less enthusiastic about it; and they have more trouble understanding narrative texts yet are better at absorbing informational texts. Those findings are from a literacy study done in 2002, "Reading Don't Fix No Chevys," by Michael W. Smith, a Temple University professor, and Jeffrey D. Wilhelm, Boise State University English education professor.

Scientists have said that boys are born with smaller language centers in their brains -- and larger spatial centers -- than girls and that boys develop language abilities at a slower rate, though eventually they catch up.

Girls generally learn to read and understand language sooner than boys, which helps to explain why early remedial reading classes are most often heavily populated with boys, teachers say.

The new push to have children learn key skills earlier -- reading in kindergarten and first grade, for instance -- works against boys, some educators say.

"It goes totally against the brain research showing how young boys and girls develop," said JoAnn Deak, a school psychologist and co-author of "Girls Will Be Girls: Raising Confident and Courageous Daughters."

Most teachers are not schooled in dealing with children's biological differences, experts say, and many teachers beyond the third-grade level do not understand that they can do a lot to build up students' reading skills and confidence.

"If we don't teach reading and writing to boys in a boy-friendly way, they will continue to fall behind," said Michael Gurian, author and co-founder of the Spokane, Wash.-based Gurian Institute, which trains educators in gender differences in learning.

The notion of confidence in reading is central to the issue, said Smith, the Temple professor. He said that people like to do what they are good at and that when boys stumble early in learning to read, it is often a skill they never warm to.

Another factor, said Hoffman, a reading specialist at Pattie Elementary School in Prince William County, is that it is more difficult for many boys to sit still for classes, much less to "cuddle up with a book."

"They are just more active," she said.

Many schools have made an effort to incorporate into their curricula more books thought to appeal to boys, but Smith said he doubts that book choice will make the difference without changing the context in which boys are taught.

Meanwhile, a growing number of experts have said that what constitutes "good reading" might need redefining -- much of what boys often like to read is not highly respected by the English teachers trying to get their students to love "King Lear." Perhaps, Hoffman and other educators said, the very definition of literacy needs to be rewritten.

"A lot of teachers think of reading as reading stories," said Lee Galda, professor of children's literature at the University of Minnesota. "And in fact, a lot of boys, and not just boys, like nonfiction. But we keep concentrating on novels or short stories and sometimes don't think of reading nonfiction as reading. But in fact it is, and it is extremely important."

Teachers and parents have said boys generally prefer stories with adventure, suspense and fantasy and tend toward reading nonfiction stories and non-narrative informational books, as well as magazines and newspapers.

Young boys revel in what Hoffman calls "potty humor," material many parents don't think is appropriate but that helped get her son interested in books. Boys like graphic novels, too, but not stories about relationships.

In a middle-school reading group that Grover runs at the Arlington Public Library, where she is youth services selections specialist, boys and girls challenged each other to read outside their preferred genres. "One of the boys read 'The Princess Diaries,' and he just couldn't understand what anybody would see to like in that."

Aaron Katz, 12, a sixth-grader in Montgomery County, said he "never liked reading books -- and I still don't." But he does devour car magazines and likes the sports pages of newspapers. Somehow, though, he doesn't consider that reading.