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February / March 2002 Cover

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Reading Boys

Reading Boys
Leading educators find disconnect between boys' literacy in and out of the classroom

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Young readers are wild about Harry. Harry Potter, that is.

When J.K. Rowling introduced the young wizard to the world in 1996 in the first of four books, she unleashed the magic of reading for boys and girls. Suddenly, parents and educators found themselves in the midst of a reading phenomenon, looking hard at the power of literacy both in and out of the classroom. Especially for boys.

But boys' interest in reading is nothing new to literacy professors Jeffrey Wilhelm of The University of Maine and Michael Smith of Rutgers University, who have long shared concern over media reports and public perception generalizing boys' social and academic shortcomings.

In their collaborative new study, the researchers found that there's more to the perceived plight of boys' literacy. That's despite standardized tests that show that the widest gender gap in learning achievement is in literacy, with boys' scores in reading far below those of girls, and continuing to slide.

The findings of the research by Wilhelm and Smith soon will be in a book, Reading Don't Fix No Chevies: The Role of Literacy in the Lives of Young Men.

Wilhelm and Smith followed a diverse group of adolescent boys, examining their favorite activities, as well as their attitudes toward reading. The researchers looked at how boys' literate behavior plays into their interests.

What Wilhelm and Smith found was a total disconnection between in-school and out-of-school literacy. Boys considered to be problem or highly reluctant readers in the classroom had very rich literate lives outside of school, and used various forms of literacy to pursue their interests and goals.

As educators, Smith and Wilhelm are particularly concerned that the focus on boys' generalized problems overlooks individuals and obscures strengths that schools and communities could build on. They also worry that assessment of boys' literacy achievement is weighed entirely by their success in school.

The study both supports and challenges teachers to involve students' interests and the ways they use extracurricular literacy in school to a greater extent.

"We've just made teachers' jobs harder by suggesting that they should conceive of curriculum as inquiry, not content, and that you can't teach kids unless you know them, care about them and address them at their point of need and interest," says Wilhelm.

The year-long study, supported by the Spencer Foundation, involved 49 sixth 12th grade boys of different ethnicity, social class and school success at four diverse sites in three states: an urban high school; a comprehensive suburban high school; a rural school; and a private all-boys school. Approximately one-third of the boys were regarded as high achievers, one-third as average achievers and one-third as low achievers.

The boys, who chose pseudonyms for the project, ranged from Mick, a non-reader who subscribed to trade magazines about cars and mechanics, to Zach, an honors student whose literacy activities outside school focused on an elaborate role-playing game with friends.

The researchers' findings defy the broad social and academic categorization of boys:

Instead of being totally disinterested in school, the boys recognized the necessity of schooling for future success and the real-life goals they desired freedom, possibilities and achievement.

The boys valued the information they took from their reading, but not necessarily the experience of reading.

Rather than floundering, the boys were goal-oriented and accomplished in various areas of their lives. For many, literacy was part of that accomplishment. They enjoyed popular culture texts, including comics and cartoons. They knew and talked about music. They liked video games, movies and TV shows. Many read sections of daily newspapers to keep up on their areas of interests, subscribed to specialty magazines, searched the Internet and communicated electronically with friends.

In essence, none of the boys in the study rejected literacy. What they did almost universally reject was "school literacy."

For example, Rev, an 11th grader, maintained that he hated school so much that it depressed him to attend, and he dismissed English as being about "nothing." Yet he watched the Discovery and History channels, and wrote music in a different style for the three bands in which he played.

"Literacy construed broadly had an important place in the lives of all the boys in the study," says Smith. "Unfortunately, the ways schools use literacy don't align with the ways boys use it."

Most of the boys expressed a dramatic contrast between school reading and life reading. For instance, school reading was assigned, unconnected to their interests, too long and hard, and involved mostly literature; life reading was freely chosen, built on their interests, and was usually short texts that they felt competent to read.

While emphasizing their own belief in the importance of the traditional role of literacy and literature in the classroom, Smith and Wilhelm advocate teaching literacy in a framework of inquiry question-oriented instruction designed to motivate, engage and sustain student interest. Through inquiry, they say, students can call on their own experience, identify problems, hear and critique other perspectives, and use what they learn.

"People think teaching is telling because that's what has been done, not because that's the way it has to be. Research clearly shows that it is not the best way," Wilhelm says.

The researchers recommend that teachers expand their view of what counts as worthwhile reading; offer a choice in what students read; connect literacy instruction to the interests boys value; create lessons that are active, social and visual; teach before students read the text rather than after to give them a sense of competence going into the reading; and work to develop home-school connections to get to know students as individuals.

Smith and Wilhelm say they, too, are challenged to redefine and broaden their definition of literacy. The educators are taking a closer look at how they help aspiring teachers in their own classes clarify their goals for students.

by Kay Hyatt
February-March, 2002

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