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September 1, 2006
Vol. 64
No. 1

With Boys in Mind / Bridges to Literacy for Boys

Boys' passions, hobbies, aspirations, and experiences can spark meaningful literacy development.

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The notion that girls read better than boys do has become embedded in the popular consciousness. In fact, it's not a myth. Boys in elementary school through high school score significantly lower than girls do on standardized measures of reading achievement (Grigg, Daane, Ying, & Campbell, 2003; Mullis, Martin, Gonzalez, & Kennedy, 2003; Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, 2001). Boys also outnumber girls in corrective and remedial reading programs (National Center for Education Statistics, 2000).
Evidence for female reading superiority dates back to the 1930s (Holbrook, 1988). It splashed onto the public scene in 1961 after a landmark study of the comprehension and vocabulary test scores of 13,000 elementary students (Gates, 1961). This long, well-documented history of underachievement has helped contribute to an entrenched perception—indeed, an expectation—that many boys simply will not become thoughtful, accomplished readers (Brozo, 2002).
Reversing this perception and addressing the complex problems facing boys who have turned off to reading will challenge educators for years to come. We can start by taking the literary behavior and attitudes of male students more seriously and designing language curriculums that honor their unique imaginations. Boys have passions, hobbies, aspirations, and experiences rife with opportunities for genuine curricular links. Exploring these links and inviting male students to find connections between their lives and school-based literacy may be the key to reducing achievement disparities between them and their female peers. Here are three examples of resources in the lives of boys that can serve as bridges to successful literacy.

Competencies with Familiar Texts

The eight boys and three girls in Mr. Martin's remedial English class were bored. Using flash cards and workbooks for word study produced nothing but complaints and despondency from these 8th graders. As Mr. Martin watched his students enter the classroom each day—many of them with hip-hop music pulsing from their headsets—he got an idea about how he could link word study to their real-world competencies. The lyrics from his students' favorite songs could form the basis of a meaningful experience for learning word families.
After getting titles of a few of the most popular songs from his students, Mr. Martin tracked down the lyrics on the Internet and found that they contained many words that students could study as families. The students went through each song to find words in a particular word family and then expanded on the family to generate new words for their individual vocabulary notebooks. They used the word families as models for decoding other similar words in school texts and in their own writing.
For example, in Snoop Dogg's lyrics for “I Love to Give You Light,” Mr. Martin's class found numerous examples of words with /ck/ and /ch/ sounds. Students wrote these words in a T-chart in their vocabulary notebooks. They worked with partners to think of new words with the /ck/ and /ch/ sounds and add them to the T-chart. Then they wrote their own rap lyrics containing some or all of the new words they had generated for the two word families. Renard read aloud the rap lyric that he and Dontrell wrote while Dontrell kept rhythm on his desktop:I put my socks in my backpack when I go to school.I put my backpack in mylocker or I look like a fool.I get my socks from my backpack when I go to gym,Where I catch the ball then stick it in the rim.
Mr. Martin's students— especially the boys—had never had such fun doing word study. The students' enthusiasm translated into genuine learning as their ability to recognize many of the same and similar words in other texts increased. Their test scores in vocabulary and comprehension improved. By creating a bridge between his students' competencies with familiar texts and their classroom experiences, Mr. Martin was able to increase students' engagement in learning and expand his striving male readers' literacy abilities.

Personal Interests and Passions

Eighth grader Claude had a genuine passion for ice hockey, but none of his teachers had noticed. His fervor for the game was revealed when his history teacher found him standing outside the classroom before the bell had rung talking animatedly with his friends about a picture in the daily tabloid of a referee who had been hit by a puck. The teacher, who had played hockey in his youth, gave Claude The Leafs vs. the Canadiens by James Duplacey (Kids Can Press, 1996). As a young teen who had never “bathed in the energies of a book” (Birkerts, 1994, p. 84), Claude experienced for the first time the unique pleasures of reading. There was no turning back. “It's the first book I ever read all the way through,” he told his teacher as he asked for more books about hockey.
Although the history teacher just happened to learn about Claude's interest in hockey, teachers do not have to rely on chance encounters to discover students' outside interests. Using a strategy like My Bag, teachers can learn a great deal about individual students' hobbies, dreams, and experiences, which provide important clues to finding reading material to match. In this strategy, students place items in a bag that symbolize different aspects of their lives and then explain them to classmates and the teacher.
For example, Delfino, a young man I worked with in a university reading center, shared from his bag a photograph of himself and some friends standing on the beach with their sailboards. As we talked about his hobby, I learned that in spite of his passion for windsurfing, he was not reading about it in books, in magazines, or on the Internet. He became enthusiastic when I introduced him to Tim Winton's novel about a young surfer, Lockie Leonard, Human Torpedo (Little, Brown, 1991).
Through a My Bag activity, a 6th grade science teacher found out that Armondo, one of his weakest readers, had developed a fascination with the U.S. space program after seeing the movie Apollo 13. Although books on the topic were limited in his school, the teacher found many interesting and easy-to-read passages and articles on the Internet about rockets, space shuttles, and the space station. He made these materials available for Armondo in an electronic folder that also contained links to photos, audio clips, and video clips. The young man discovered for perhaps the first time that he could enjoy reading in school about something that captured his imagination outside school.
Discovering strengths and interests led to encounters with texts that heightened Claude's, Delfino's, and Armondo's reading engagement and their achievement in language arts.

Connections with Caring Adults

Boys yearn for relationships with caring adults who can serve as mentors; such relationships can often help them make the connection between their personal experiences and their literacy development. One middle school program used community volunteers to read with the school's most seriously struggling readers, most of whom were boys. One mentoring pair included Rickey, a recently retired U.S. Navy pilot and instructor, and Marcus, a 13-year-old 7th grader reading at the 4th grade level and labeled as special education. Rickey was an ideal mentor for Marcus because gender-matched role models have the most positive effect on academic outcomes (Zirkel, 2002) and are sorely needed in the lives of many boys.
Soon after the pair first met, Marcus recounted his experience of spending the previous year in a juvenile detention facility and expressed confusion and curiosity about his legal rights. Rickey responded by actively searching for reading materials and planning meaningful activities around the topics of juvenile crime, courts, and penal facilities. He reasoned that Marcus's interest would motivate him to exert a sustained effort to read about others with experiences like his and to explore related social policy and law.
To build reading fluency, Marcus and Rickey read The House That Crack Built(Chronicle Books, 1992). A somber retelling of a familiar nursery rhyme, this picture book portrays the depths to which people can sink when they are trafficking in and addicted to drugs. Rickey read the book aloud while Marcus read the refrain “This is the house that crack built.” Eventually, after repeated readings, Marcus was able to complete the entire book on his own.
The House That Crack Built provoked a conversation about the causes of drug addiction and drug-related crimes, which led to another rewarding mentoring experience for Marcus and Rickey—reading the young adult novelMonster, by Walter Dean Myers (HarperCollins, 2001). Rickey found the novel in the middle school's library and realized that many issues of juvenile crime and justice were embodied in the experiences of the protagonist and narrator, Steve Harmon. Marcus was drawn in from the first page.
As they read Monster together, Rickey and Marcus kept a journal of their reactions to important questions that arose during conversation and discussion. For example, Rickey asked Marcus to compare and contrast his own experiences with the way the novel portrays the U.S. legal system. To do this, Marcus used a split-page approach, putting direct quotes and brief descriptions from the book in one column and adding his own insights about his treatment in juvenile court and detention in the other. For example, in response to a statement by Steve's lawyer, who says that jurors have negative stereotypes about young black men on trial, Marcus wrote,This is how it was for me. Everybody in court and most of the guys in juvie were black. I wanted to tell someone I was different. I wanted to say I wasn't like everyone else, but we all looked the same.
After reading Monster, Marcus felt so strongly about the unfair treatment of minors in the criminal justice system that he asked Rickey to help him express his feelings in some way that might influence lawmakers. Together they conducted Internet research to find information on their state representatives' policy positions on youth crime. They discovered that, although both representatives had cosponsored a youth advocacy task force, they had also voted in favor of trying minors as adults, and one had even supported legislation to make the death penalty an option for minors. Rickey suggested that Marcus compose an e-mail to make his case to the legislators. Rickey observed an unprecedented level of enthusiasm in Marcus as they discussed their thesis; worked on form, punctuation, and grammar; and searched for statistics and quotes from the various articles and books they had accumulated. Although Marcus's sense of empowerment was diluted after he received perfunctory form letter replies from the representatives, he felt proud of himself for taking action.
The mentoring relationship was a confirmed success for Marcus. Both his attitude toward reading and his test scores improved. Although Marcus still lagged behind many of his 7th grade peers, his progress in reading buoyed his confidence and gave him the determination to continue to improve.

Build on the Resources Boys Bring to School

To narrow the reading achievement gap for boys, we need to look at their existing competencies, interests, and personal needs and experiences as resources rather than as impediments. By building bridges to boys' out-of-school activities, carefully observing boys in and out of the classroom, and forming meaningful relationships with them, teachers can capitalize on the resources that boys already possess for becoming engaged and competent readers.

Birkerts, S. (1994). The Gutenburg elegies: The fate of reading in an electronic age. New York: Fawcett.

Brozo, W. G. (2002). To be a boy, to be a reader: Engaging teen and preteen boys in active literacy. Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Gates, A. (1961). Sex differences in reading ability. Elementary School Journal, 61, 431–434.

Grigg, W., Daane, M., Ying, J., & Campbell, J. (2003). The nation's report card: Reading 2003, National Assessment of Educational Progress. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics.

Holbrook, H. T. (1988). Sex differences in reading: Nature or nurture? Journal of Reading, 32, 574–576.

Mullis, I. V., Martin, M. O., Gonzalez, E. J., & Kennedy, A. M. (2003). PIRLS 2001 international report: IEA's study of reading literacy achievement in primary schools in 35 countries. Boston: International Study Center.

National Center for Education Statistics. (2000). Trends in educational equity for girls and women. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. (2001). Knowledge and skills for life: First results from PISA 2000. Paris: Author.

Zirkel, S. (2002). Is there a place for me? Role models and academic identity among white students and students of color.Teachers College Record, 104, 357–376.

William G. Brozo has contributed to educational leadership.

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