Leading educators find disconnect between boys' literacy in and out
of the classroom
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
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
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
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
"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
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
"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
by Kay Hyatt
for more stories from this issue of UMaine Today Magazine.