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September 2006 | Volume 64 | Number 1
Teaching to Student Strengths
Rather than bemoan boys' fascination with movies and video games, teachers can use these visually mediated narratives to engage reluctant readers and writers.
In the film Apollo 13, all hell breaks loose at NASA's Mission Control after the explosion in the space capsule. System after system shuts down in the capsule. Oxygen is leaking, and computers are malfunctioning. In this charged and chaotic atmosphere, Flight Director Gene Kranz asks, “What's good?” These two words shift attention to the undamaged parts of the spacecraft and lead to the crucial decision to use the intact lunar exploratory module as a life raft to bring the astronauts home.
In this one moment, Kranz provides a lesson in leadership. Even during the most serious systems failures, some parts of that system still work—and any solution must build on these working parts, not simply focus on problems or deficiencies.
By now, the difficulty that boys as a group experience in school literacy is no longer news. Boys fall behind girls in reading and writing early on, never to catch up. By the end of high school, the gender gap in writing is huge. In fact, it's as large as the achievement gap between whites and blacks in writing (National Center for Education Statistics, 2002). Difficulty with reading and writing tasks plays a role in the dramatically higher high school dropout rate for males, particularly black males (Greene & Winters, 2006). It also partially accounts for the fact that 57 percent of college students are now female and only 43 percent are male, a reversal of the percentages in 1970 (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2005). This gender gap is most pronounced among Hispanic and black populations, in which the college graduation ratio of females to males approaches 2:1 (Hacker, 2003).
For boys, these numbers can translate into feelings of shame and embarrassment and, ultimately, to self-defeating strategies of avoidance and resistance (Boldt, 2006). During independent reading time, look for the boy flipping through the pages of National Geographic
magazine—he's becoming a master of “fake reading.” Or look for the anger that arises when the teacher assigns a reading task. “This is stupid!” the student exclaims. Or look for delaying tactics during writing time—the pencil that always breaks, the paper that's always mangled. In high school, these students find ways of familiarizing themselves with a book's plot without ever reading the book.
For these boys, a difficulty has turned into an identity. Many come to identify themselves as nonreaders, as nonwriters—indeed, as nonstudents. They choose a self-protective strategy that conceals their difficulty with literacy. By doing so, they enter a downward spiral. Because they have mastered avoidance tactics, these boys don't get the reading practice they need; as literacy tasks become more difficult, the gap widens, and their avoidance becomes ever more necessary.
For many boys, this cycle begins at a young age. For all the complaints about low standards in the U.S. education system, when it comes to literacy, the train leaves the station early (Gates, 1995). By 3rd grade, students are expected to be able to read fairly complex expository texts. According to the standards of my own state, New Hampshire, they should even be able to write “essays.”
To keep boys on the literacy train, educators need to ask Gene Kranz's question, “What's good?” What positive cultural, artistic, and linguistic resources can we tap into to improve literacy instruction for boys?
A cartoon recently pinned to our department bulletin board shows a young boy at a computer screen frame. Propped up behind the frame, in the space where the monitor would normally be, is a book. The cartoon caption reads “The ultimate solution.”
This idea of popular media as “the problem”—and not as a valuable resource—may be reassuring to literacy teachers devoted to book reading, who feel beleaguered by what they see as the shallow, undemanding gratifications of visually mediated entertainment. (Of course, Socrates made the same claim against writing when it was the new technology on the block.) This antimedia stance, however, is ultimately self-defeating.
A 2005 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation,
Generation M: Media in the Lives of 8–18 Year-Olds, offers insights into U.S. children and adolescents' media use (see “A Generation Immersed in Media” in the April 2006 issue of Educational Leadership). The study found that children ages 8–18 engaged with media (visual, audio, or print) for an average of 6 hours and 21 minutes each day. Clear gender patterns emerged, with boys typically more involved with video games and girls more likely to use e-mail and instant messaging. The study also showed that contrary to popular wisdom, children who are heavy users of electronic visual media tend to read more than light users do, although the portion of the day spent on reading is small, and book reading declines after age 10.
One of the most striking findings in the Kaiser study concerned race and television exposure. Exposure to TV for children in black families averages 4 hours and 5 minutes each day, compared with 2 hours and 45 minutes for children in white households—a difference of 1 hour and 20 minutes daily. Similarly, on average, black children spend 23 minutes more each day playing interactive video games and 31 more minutes watching movies than white children do. The inescapable conclusion is that black children come to school with greater exposure to visually mediated stories.
It's easy to deplore this situation and see this excessive involvement with media as a problematic aspect of black family culture or, indeed, of popular culture in the United States. It's also easy to assume that heavy media use displaces experiences with books, and thus with the skills and knowledge essential for school success.
It is illogical, however, to treat media narratives as though they are completely unrelated to school literacy. TV shows are, after all, usually
written. They are built on scripts that include characterization, plot, dialogue, and often humor—the very elements that we want our students to include in the stories they write. And these media narratives often speak to children's fantasies of power, exploration, and conflict. Surely teachers can find something to use here.
Anne Dyson, a researcher of literacy learning in urban schools, argues for a “permeable curriculum” (1993) that embraces the “unofficial worlds” of children—their immersion in hip-hop music, jump rope rhymes, television, movies, professional sports, and other forms of popular and peer culture. She sees children's involvement in these activities as resources that children can “orchestrate” in school work.
Cutting literacy learning off from students' media-immersed lives makes school an alien and unappealing place. For schools to effectively teach literacy, they should work with, not against, the cultural tools that students bring to school. Several instructional strategies that tap into popular media can help teachers create more willing readers and improve boys' literacy learning.
I regularly speak with boys who are heartily sick of writing about a person they admire or a school rule they would like to change (but can't, of course). Some writing workshop approaches discourage young writers from borrowing from TV or movie plots on the grounds that such writing is not “authentic” (Parsons, 2005). Instead, teachers push young writers into more literal autobiographical writing. I would argue, with Bruno Bettelheim (1976), that fantasies of power, escape, resistance, aggression, and fear are authentic human expressions.
This openness to media-based plots raises the knotty question of violence. In the post-Columbine era, many schools have instituted blanket no-violence policies for student writing. When I visit schools like these, I ask administrators whether they have a similar policy for student reading. Usually they hesitate, and then say, “Well, no.” And for obvious reasons. Without conflict—and without the physical or psychological violence that can accompany conflict—it would be hard to create a plot. Presumably, reading about violence is less dangerous than writing about it.
This is not to say there should be no limits. Violence shouldn't be gratuitous, and it should never threaten a classmate or teacher. And repetitive violence simply gets, well, repetitive. But these limits should be a topic of discussion. How much is too much?
I suspect that educators who condemn children's television and video game use haven't spent much time with these mediums. Anyone who thinks that video games shorten attention spans should watch a child trying to beat a game like Final Fantasy, which requires a persistence that we wouldn't dream of demanding in schools. Stephen Johnson (2005) has even made the bold claim that the visual media available today are more complex than in previous eras—and actually make us smarter. Contemporary cartoon shows like Jimmy Neutron are more complex, more satiric, and faster—they require more alertness—than my old favorites like Popeye.
These visually mediated narratives can provide scaffolding for early attempts at story writing. Too often, scaffolding or modeling is conceived of exclusively as something that the teacher provides and then gradually releases to students. But movies like Star Wars
can provide a set of props for hesitant writers—story types, character names, not to mention those mesmerizing light sabers. The stories that students create have the feeling of “play.” They may borrow the basic conflict from a movie—such as pitting Luke Skywalker against Darth Vader—but they create their own versions. Students may involve their friends in a conflict with Darth Vader, create a new character, or borrow a character from a different movie. Dyson calls these stories hybrid texts because they draw from multiple sources (1993). Students often enact their stories with sound effects and hand motions as they compose. And unlike accounts of real life, these story types lend themselves to sequel after sequel.
Some young male writers are more proficient at drawing than writing, and many of their stories are carried by their art. Given their penchant for the visual, a full page of straight text can seem like a minefield, like an endless string of opportunities for failure. Texts supported by pictures are far more appealing.
To stay on the literacy train, these challenged readers need access to cartoons, comics, graphic novels, and picture books. As students get older, new multimedia genres of digital storytelling—such as video literature (vid lit)—can sustain their interest in reading. Comparable to movie trailers or music videos, vid lit features clips that illustrate scenes from a book.
Although comic books or cartoons are often considered subliterature and hardly appropriate for schools, these genres make an interesting bargain with young readers. According to read-aloud specialist Jim Trelease (2001), to become proficient readers people need to master a set of about 5,000 “rare words” that appear infrequently in conversation. In the average adult novel, these words appear 52 times per 1,000 words of text. In comic books, they appear 53 times per 1,000 (Hayes & Athens, 1988). Consequently, comic books don't reduce the vocabulary demand on young readers, but they do provide picture support, quick and appealing story lines, and less text. The comic book-like Captain Underpants series, wildly popular with reluctant boy readers, fits this pattern, not by oversimplifying vocabulary, but by drawing readers in with the visual story of a principal-turned-superhero in cape and briefs.
Educators who grew up with less technologically complex media may be tempted to dismiss our children's and our students' media affiliations, contrasting them with what we remember as the far more wholesome literacies of our own childhoods. Many of us who grew up in the 1950s can remember with affection the comic books we read, with the Charles Atlas ads at the back. Yet at the time, some critics believed that these comic books promoted juvenile delinquency.
If I were to pick the most idyllic vision of boyhood that I can think of, it might be Tom Sawyer playing with his friends along the Mississippi River. But think what they were playing: Bluebeard the Pirate on the Spanish Main, a fantasy that Tom borrowed from dime novels, which were as disapproved of in his day as video games are in ours.
Popular culture continues to feed the fantasy lives of children and young adults. It saturates their lives and enters the classroom on their shirts, in their backpacks, and in their imaginations. It can be a solid bridge to literacy for boys—if we choose to use it.
Bettelheim, B. (1976). The uses of enchantment: The meaning and importance of fairy tales. New York: Knopf.
Boldt, G. (2006). Resistance, loss, and love in learning to read.
Research in the Teaching of English, 40, 272–309.
Dyson, A. (1993). Social worlds of children learning to write in an urban primary school. New York: Teachers College Press.
Gates, V. (1995). Other people's words: The cycle of low literacy. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Greene, J., & Winters, M. (2006). Leaving boys behind. Civic Paper 48. New York: Manhattan Institute.
Hacker, A. (2003). Mismatch: The growing gulf between women and men. New York: Scribner.
Hayes, D., & Athens, M. (1988). Vocabulary simplification for children: A special case of “motherese”? Journal of Child Language, 15, 395–410.
Johnson, S. (2005). Everything bad is good for you: How today's popular culture is actually making us smarter. New York: Riverhead Books.
Parsons, S. (2005) First grade writers. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
National Center for Education Statistics. (2002).
The nation's report card: Writing 2002. Washington, DC: Author.
Kaiser Family Foundation. (2005). Generation M: Media in the lives of 8–18 year-olds. Menlo Park, CA: Author.
U.S. Bureau of the Census. (2005.)
Statistical abstract of the United States, 2004–5. The National Data Book. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
Trelease, J. (2001). The real-aloud handbook. New York: Penguin.
Respond to this Article
Thomas Newkirk is Professor of English at the University of New Hampshire, where he directs the New Hampshire Literacy Institutes. He is the author of Misreading Masculinity: Boys, Literacy, and Popular Culture
Copyright © 2006 by Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development
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