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Boys: Report to the Library

Janet Howe was confident that her son Dusty would become an enthusiastic reader. After all, Howe, currently the media specialist at Carmel Elementary School, was an elementary school teacher throughout Dusty's childhood. She knows all the tricks for getting kids to read, from the mechanics of phonics to finding the right subject that will spur a child's interest. She and her husband Jim, both avid readers themselves, read to Dusty every night when he was a child. Even so Dusty, now 18, was never much of a reader.

And Dusty is not alone. While preschool boys often have all of the excitement for books that girls do, by the time they get to elementary school, boys' interest in reading is all too frequently starting to flag. In many cases that lack of interest can set boys up for a future behind the literary eight ball. Studies conducted by the U.S. Department of Education show that starting as early as first grade, boys recognize fewer words than girls do. Girls do better in reading throughout their school years and consistently score higher than boys on reading aptitude tests. And it isn't getting any better for boys. The Nation's Report Card, which compiles the results of standardized testing in schools across the country, found that in 2000, fourth grade girls' reading scores improved significantly from previous years, while boys' scores stayed the same.

Why don't boys read?

In the U.S., nearly twice as many boys as girls have such learning disabilities as dyslexia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). It's easy to see how a kid with ADHD is going to have a hard time sitting down to read and concentrating on the content of the reading. And the very definition of dyslexia is an impairment of the ability to read.

But when asked why boys struggle with reading, few people who study kids implicate learning disorders as the main culprit. Instead, experts cite a constellation of obstacles that can conspire to obstruct boys' relationships with literature.

Like Carrie Hoffman, many feel that boys are simply physiologically less suited to the task of reading. Hoffman, Secondary Literacy Educator at IUPUI, observes: "We tend to look at boys as outside playing football rather than inside reading." Many boys seem innately drawn to activities that require more action than reading does.

Even if they aren't outside running around, many boys are otherwise distracted from books. Dr. Michael Thompson, author of Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Lives of Boys, sees media as a drain on boys' attention. "There is so much competition for their eyeballs. Sitting down and watching TV is much less effort for boys, and lots of boys are souped up with the computer."

"By contrast," says Thompson, "reading a book can be a boring alternative." He goes on to say that parents might unwittingly impede their sons' reading by keeping them busy with extracurricular activities. "We are so anxious to totally over-schedule our kids," he says, "because we are afraid that if we don't they'll get into trouble." But boys simply don't have the chance to read if they never have any downtime.

For her part, Dr. Carolyn Walker is sensitive to the different developmental timelines that children have. "I think a lot of times children are asked to do reading-related tasks before they are ready for it," she says. Walker, Professor of Literacy Education at Ball State Teacher's College in Muncie, tries not to stereotype children, but she suggests that some boys may develop their reading skills later than when schools would like them to. While she acknowledges that in a classroom of 25 students there is a practical need for each child to be at minimum benchmarks for reading, Walker nonetheless wishes that boys were left to learn to read at their own pace.

"Children who start later score better and exhibit less gender differences," she says. In other words, although boys might not start reading until second or third grade, their success might be considerably better than if they had been forced to start when they were younger.

Still others look to society and suggest that boys might read more if they weren't socialized not to. They at once note the narrow definition of masculinity that popular culture presents and what Walker calls the "feminization" of reading-pointing out that most teachers, librarians and heads of households are women. By and large, boys look to sports and media stars as role models, and few of them promote the merits of reading.

Regardless of who boys emulate, most are loath to do anything that might brand them as feminine. Kathleen Odean, author of Great Books For Boys, puts it this way: "(Say) you are a boy and you want to be a man. You see that reading books is what girls do." An observant boy might get the message not to read any more than he has to.

Some even point to books themselves as the problem with boys' reading, citing a lack of the nonfiction, humor and fantasy titles that boys often love.

Shirley Mullin, owner of Kids Ink Children's Bookstores in Indianapolis, thinks there is more variety of books for kids than ever before. Even so, Mullin says that a lot of our literature is more geared to girls. Howe muses that boys are attracted to books about bugs and reptiles and that they "flock to Captain Underpants." But Howe agrees that there are fewer such books available, perhaps because they are not valued as quality literature.

What if boys don't read?

Many of the same studies that sound the alarm for boys' reading report that boys' math and science scores are competitive and sometimes even better than girls. But regardless of how well boys are doing in other subjects, without strong reading skills they are at significant disadvantage. That is why elementary curriculums focus up to two-thirds of their time on language arts. Brian Scott, a third grade teacher at Carmel Elementary, points out that in the process of teaching "you go from learning to read to reading to learn." Kids need reading skills for all other subjects, from math and science to music and phys ed.

But it goes far beyond academics. Books can introduce boys to experiences and perspectives they might never encounter otherwise. In finding diverse characters and circumstances in literature, boys can find more options on how to define themselves and more empathy for the people around them. Jon Scieszka, the author of such boy-friendly books as The Stinky Cheese Man and The Time Warp Trio series, is so concerned about the lack of support for boys' literacy that he became the spokesman for the literary initiative "Guys Read." Through Guys Read, Scieska wants to help boys explore the possibilities of a wider emotional range and connection to feelings through reading.

Perhaps the most compelling argument for the focus on boys' reading is an economical one. Hoffman is concerned with boys' options. "The implication is that we limit their potential if we don't help boys develop strong reading skills." Boys who don't read well are more likely to drop out of school and be stuck in a lifetime of dead-end jobs. Even if they graduate, as boys go into a workforce that increasingly values a well-rounded education, and where they will likely change careers a number of times, their stunted exposure to literature might minimize boys' opportunities.

How to help boys

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Nothing improves reading performance as well as the practice of reading itself. Yet by fourth grade, only 36 percent of boys read for fun on a daily basis, compared to more than half of girls the same age. So how do the adults in boys' lives foster a love for reading?

Scieska's Guys Read addresses boys' grownup counterparts. "Men: get off your. . . busy schedule. . . and read with your boys" is the call to action of Guys Read. Guys Read calls on men, in particular, to model reading to boys, but it also calls on educators, librarians and booksellers to support boys' interests and reading styles.

It is a familiar theme in the discussion on boys and reading. Thompson echoes Scieska, noting that the majority of elementary school teachers are women and wonders aloud, "Where are all the men in elementary education?" Thompson lashes out at "nit-wit" dads who aren't present in their sons' lives as role models for anything, much less reading.

Patty Boch, principle of Wheeler Elementary in Speedway, makes a commitment to expose her boy students to male role models. "I make sure that every child has at least one male teacher at one point in his time at the school." Like all administrators, she struggles to find male teachers but is determined to spread the masculine perspective evenly among her students.

Even if you convince boys that real men do read, they often approach reading far differently than girls. Many educators have responded by building reading programs to meet boys' unique needs. For instance, Dr. Diane Blackburn, principle of Cincinnati Hills Christian Academy, encourages her teachers to let boys choose what they read whenever they can.

"The important thing is that children have a choice of what they read," she says, repeating the chorus of so many literacy advocates who believe if boys are allowed to pick the subjects of their books they are much more likely to be excited about reading. Scott tries to do the same in his classroom. "I always set aside time for individual reading of their choice."

What's more, while many girls require little incentive to read for school and for pleasure, boys tend to be more inclined to read when there are competitions and rewards to spur their interest. The Hoosier Book Awards program offers kids the opportunity to vote on their favorite books if they read a minimum of five books from the previous year's list, and top readers are invited to meet the authors at the yearly kickoff dinner.

Meanwhile school librarians and booksellers have increased the availability of the nonfiction and fantasy titles that appeal to boys. While some are not exactly literary classics, Tina Moore, owner of The Blue Marble bookstore in Ft. Thomas, Kentucky, is more than willing to stock such books if they can get boys reading. She's confident that once kids get hooked on reading she can steer them to books that will broaden their experience and skills.

For all that schools, libraries, book stores and communities can do to promote boys' reading, Thompson is convinced that what happens in a boy's bedroom at home may be what impacts his reading the most. "If you've read to a boy in bed and he's had a special relationship with reading every day, he is going to want to read."

In fact, Janet Howe might have had more impact on her son Dusty than she thinks. Recently she caught Dusty reading a book simply for pleasure. For her, that's what it's all about.

Andrea Grazzini Walstrom is a free-lance writer from Burnsville, Minn. To contact Walstrom, e-mail her at grazzini@frontiernet.net

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