Tuesday, April 18, 2006

How Boys Read

So, this is the first in a series of postings for today. First of quite a few articles of interest over the last few days here. The website is well worth checking out as well. We have posted on boys and reading previously on this site. Here and here for starters.

Also - particularly like the section of the A book for Boys site that talks about Southpaws. Go Southpaws! Was thrilled to know that I was part of an illustrious group that includes Bill Clinton, Queen Victoria, Leonardo Da Vinci and both Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen!


PUBLICATION: National Post
DATE: 2006.04.13
BYLINE: Don Truckey
NOTE: Don Truckey is a screenwriter whose work includes StreetLegal and TV movies Chicks With Sticks and Crazy Canucks. He is also the author of a children's novel, The Adventures of Caraway Kim ... Southpaw. www.abook4boys.com

How boys read

Twenty years ago, it was girls and math. Now, it's boys and reading. It's the latest hot-button subject in education. In Canada, the United States and many other Western countries, boys trail girls by 10% or more in standardized reading and writing tests.

The counter-attack is well underway. Ontario, for instance, is hosing the entire field of literacy with money, and the special problems faced by boys have gotten an extra soaking. Me Read? No Way! A practical guide to improving boys' literacy skills, a comprehensive survey document put together by the province's education ministry, spells out the scope of the problem.

Those on education's front lines have been studying this issue for some time. In Toronto, the result is the mushrooming phenomenon of boys' book clubs. There are close to 300 of them now operating, with nearly 50 more in nearby Hamilton.

It all started early this decade. Dr. Chris Spence, now Director of Education at the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board, was principal at a school where the data on boys' reading achievement were, in his words, "appalling ... jumping off the page."

Spence and others decided to do something about it. A mass gathering of boys was convened at a local video-games emporium, and the kids were asked what they do when they're not reading.

As you might expect, the answers included: playing video games, sports, hanging with friends and eating junk food. "We said to them: You don't have to give up one to have the others," Spence recalls.

So when the clubs were formed, they included comic-book analysis, movie reviews, buddy programs that paired a senior reluctant reader with a junior counterpart, as well as conventional library reading. (More about these clubs can be found in Spence's latest book, Creating a Literacy Environment for Boys).

In Toronto, this club network convenes en masse at a hotel near the airport for an annual day of presentations by authors, poetry readings by members of the Toronto Argonauts (yes, you read that right) and, last year, an appearance by Premier Dalton McGuinty, jacket off and shirt sleeves rolled up, exhorting a ballroom full of hundreds of boys to read.

Boys can attend the year-ender only if they are in a club. It's a goal they work toward. And this aspect notches into a consistent finding among those who study the issue: Boys' reading is directed. They need a reason to read.

Professors Heather Blair of the University of Alberta and Kathy Sanford of the University of Victoria concluded the same thing in their provocative study of the subject (www.education.ualberta.ca/boysandliteracy/).

For two years, they followed groups of boys in grades three to six, snooping with permission in the boys' lockers and backpacks, and examining any and all reading materials they found.

It became clear that boys actually read a great deal, and to great effect, but not always in ways valued or even measured in school.

The researchers found that boys obtain basic reading skills from a variety of non-academic sources, and then adapt them into their own custom-made, boy-honed literacies. Blair and Sanford call it "morphing" literacy.

Boys' reading is often aimed at improving their knowledge or skill in specialized interest areas. It might mean poring over the sports page to relive last night's games. Or studying a videogame instruction manual to learn obscure strategies and tips. It is certainly there in Web surfing and Internet chat rooms, in devouring comic books and analyzing the data and biographical information on sports cards.

Remember the byzantine world of Pokemon? Look beyond the game's animated characters and you find a complex videogame world that requires memorization and strategizing. Tellingly, many schools banned Pokemon, which shows how hostile academic environments are toward the way boys learn. To educators, building literacy typically means school texts and high-brow children's library books. That approach works far better for girls than for boys. It's not literacy boys reject, but rather school literacy.

Blair and Sanford found that boys want reading that delivers in five areas: personal interest, action, success, fun and purpose. It's almost always about "finding stuff out" and "relating to their friends." If boys don't get this in school, they create a literacy of their own that comes in under the radar of standardized testing, school instruction and rigid teaching curricula.

But the researchers pushed their conclusions further. This "morphed" literacy is actually more valuable to boys when they leave school than the conventional reading (novels, poetry, stories) favoured by girls, Blair and Sanford say.

"The abilities to navigate the Internet, experiment with alternate [media], and read multiple texts simultaneously are more useful workplace skills than is the ability to analyse a work of fiction or write a narrative account," they concluded.

But what about boys and the cornerstone of reading -- books? Is it possible to write a novel that engages boys from the first page to the last, that speaks to their world, in their language?

Yes, it is. Boys want to read about relationships and emotions, but they want them on their own terms. Friendship, loyalty, competition, teamwork, winning and losing -- all of these engender positive feelings and help forge strong bonds between boys. And so they are all themes that figure in books that boys enjoy reading.

Yes, some boys still love books. But even those who don't are hardly lost causes. The energy a boy invests in finding out if Jerome Iginla is on the same goal-scoring pace as last year, or how to destroy the Combine Gunships in Half Life 2 is not wasted. "Morphed" reading is just as valuable as its structured, classroom equivalent. If educators want to help boys, they should understand that fact, and learn how to exploit it.


At 2:50 PM, Anonymous Jen Robinson said...

Hi Louise,

This is an interesting article. Thanks for posting it! I'll be sure to mention it on my own site. One small thing - I noticed that the link to "A Book 4 Boys" is missing the "http", which makes it not work.

I'm a southpaw, too, by the way! Always happy to find out that other people I like are in the group. Cheers!

At 3:40 PM, Blogger Louise said...

Oooh - thanks for catching that - I'll go fix it.

And the list of southpaws grows ever-more illustrious...


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