Helping Underachieving Boys Read Well and Often.
by Schwartz, Wendy
The ability to read well is the most important skill children can acquire.
Reading ability and the desire to read vary significantly among groups
of children, however. This was demonstrated, for example, by the findings
of the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Kindergarten Class of 1998-99
(ECLS-K), a national study on school readiness that measured children's
ability to identify by name uppercase and lowercase letters of the alphabet,
associate letters with sounds at the beginning and ending of words, recognize
common words by sight, and read words in context. ECLS-K found that on
all these measures girls were more proficient than boys, whites more proficient
than non-Asian students of color and Latinos, and children from higher
socioeconomic (SES) backgrounds more proficient than lower SES children
(reported in Coley, 2002). Moreover, the reading gap between whites and
students of color frequently widens with age (Coley, 2001).
There are many reasons why some children do not read well and do not
like to read, some of which are related to biological and cognitive factors.
Other impediments to reading achievement include the use of ineffective
teaching strategies and materials; the lack of sufficient and enticing
reading resources in schools, communities, and homes; and family habits
that do not include reading. This digest provides information on how schools
and families can improve the reading skills of native English speaking
children, particularly poor elementary school level boys of color. It focuses
on ways to increase the time they spend reading and the enjoyment they
get from doing so; it does not cover strategies for teaching reading. The
recommendations presented below, based on the analysis and experience of
experts, have proven to be particularly useful with boys who are most at
risk of underachievement but least likely to view reading as an important
HOW BOYS VIEW READING
Boys tend to learn to read at an older age than girls, take longer to
learn, and comprehend narrative texts less easily. Boys also value reading
less, and see reading as a way to get information rather than as a recreational
activity (Simpson, 1996; Smith & Wilhelm, 2002). While researchers
differ on whether boys of color see reading as "acting white," and, thus,
something to be avoided (Smith & Wilhelm, 2002), one study of African
American boys found that they resented activities they defined as schoolwork,
believing that they will never benefit from an education (Tanksley, 1995).
READING MATERIALS THAT BOYS LIKE
Boys tend to read a "wider number of genres over a broader range of
topics" than girls (Simpson, 1996, p. 272). They are usually most interested
in books and periodicals about hobbies, sports, and activities they might
engage in, and in informational resources. They like escapism (science
fiction, adventure, and fantasy) and humor more than fiction and poetry,
and they like to collect series of books (Simpson, 1996; Smith & Wilhelm,
Reading choices made for boys frequently do not reflect their preferences,
since girls are clearer and more vocal about what books they want, elementary
school teachers are predominantly women, and mothers rather than fathers
select reading materials for their children. Obviously, then, involving
boys in the selection process will increase their attentiveness (Simpson,
1996). Further, boys, like all children, want to see characters like themselves
sometimes. Therefore, materials should feature people of different ethnicities,
races, and backgrounds who live in a variety of types of homes and communities.
(One resource for materials of particular interest to African American
children is a bibliography produced by the National Association for the
Education of Young Children [Brown & Oates, 2001]).
CLASSROOM STRATEGIES FOR INCREASING BOYS' READING
Reading aloud by teachers, guest readers, and students is a valuable
classroom activity to which substantial amounts of time should be allotted.
It is especially beneficial for boys who may not be reading at other times
and need to be introduced to the pleasure that reading provides. Teachers
can capture boys' interest by associating the material to be read with
their existing knowledge. When they read aloud to boys, teachers can help
them to associate sounds with symbols by letting them follow along with
the text. Rotating reading materials of different genres allows boys to
see the many types of reading materials available--not just novels and
textbooks, but also newspapers and magazines, how-to guides, comics, and
computer programs--and their multiple uses (Simpson, 1996).
Boys gain confidence in their reading ability when they read aloud in
class. Frequent interruptions or corrections undermine this confidence,
however. Since teachers correct boys' reading more than girls', they need
to be sensitive to the effects of their criticism (McCarthy, Nicastro,
Spiros, & Staley, 2001; Smith & Wilhelm, 2002). Additional time
for silent reading promotes the independent development of skills and the
enjoyment of reading.
Teachers can help boys comprehend reading materials and promote analytical
thinking by involving them in class or group discussions. Students can
review the content, purpose, and presentation of particular types of books,
and how they differ. They can "talk about stories as constructions of the
world, not as reflections of it," and can consider whether they empathize
with the characters. They can use their imaginations to recast a story
using characters of a different sex or ethnicity. Because girls tend to
dominate discussions of books, teachers need to take care that boys participate
(Simpson, 1996, p. 278).
A library in the classroom stocked with attractive age- and ability-appropriate
books encourages boys to pick up one when they have a free moment. Inviting
all children to design the library area, and to choose and organize the
books, promotes use. Regular visits to the school library show boys a much
wider range of reading materials and foster their desire to improve their
skills so they can read the more sophisticated material there. Outings
to the public library serve the same purpose. Also, getting children library
cards encourages future visits with their families (Calkins, 1996).
JOINT STRATEGIES FOR THE SCHOOL, COMMUNITY, AND HOME
Schools, libraries, and community groups can join with families to improve
boys' reading. Adults can talk about how reading alone and with friends,
looking for books in stores, libraries, and flea markets, giving books
as gifts, and sharing what they have learned, makes them happy and helps
them relate to others (Calkins, 1997).
More formally, organizations can implement reading programs. They can
provide male reading role models of color to help boys develop the habit
of reading. Such role models are especially important for boys living in
homes without men, and including them in a supplementary education program
can help compensate for families that do not read at home. Men can model
reading by doing so themselves and reading aloud to children, and by telling
children why reading enriches their own lives (Tanksley, 1995). A tutoring
program can also employ adult role models. Alternatively, it can pair less
proficient readers with more accomplished students who can instinctively
select appealing books, articles, and manuals providing instructions for
engaging in an activity or constructing a model. Of course, all tutors
can use school texts (Tanksley, 1995).
ACTIVITIES FOR PARENTS
Schools can help parents promote their children's reading by communicating
that it is important to read to sons (every day, if possible), that they
do not have to be well educated to do so effectively, and that schools
cannot be solely responsible for their children's education. Schools can
direct parents to free sources of reading materials (such as the school
itself, libraries, and community organizations) and manage book swaps.
They can also encourage parents to allow their children time for reading
and provide an inviting place for it. Parents can also be helped to integrate
reading with their children naturally into their schedules (Coley, 2002;
McCarthy et al., 2001; North Carolina, 1999; Tanksley, 1995).
Parents can model reading, sharing what they have learned, recommending
good books, and mentioning what they want to learn from reading in the
future. Parents and sons can read together, selecting increasingly difficult
materials to help boys improve their skills and promoting positive interactions
as they predict what will happen in a story and then discuss what did happen
and why. Parents and sons can look up information together both to show
the value of reading and to help boys develop problem-solving skills. Parents
can take books along on long trips or to places where waiting is anticipated
to help boys appreciate the value of reading as recreation. Finally, parents
can maintain a reading log with their sons that indicates what, when, and
how much the boys are reading. The log keeps parents informed, supports
their sons' efforts, and encourages reading together (Calkins, 1996; McCarthy
et al., 2001; North Carolina, 1999; Tanksley, 1995).
Many enticements compete for children's time, television most especially.
For boys, the desire to be physically active can further impede their interest
in reading. Therefore it is necessary to help boys select and use reading
materials that are as entertaining as television, tap into their special
interests and answer their unique questions about the world, and provide
information that facilitates their participation in sports and other group
Finally, the reading that boys do should not be dismissed as inconsequential
even though it often does not include the novels and other traditional
materials usually read by girls. The genres preferred by boys can be equally
helpful in their development of reading, thinking, and problem solving
skills, and should be considered key resources in their education.
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