September 22, 2009
Teachers are pushing boys to read more
Male students have lagged behind females on state English Language Arts assessments
CINCINNATUS — When Louie Shevalier, Joshua Heath and Tyler Wied choose books to read, they prefer sports.
Shevalier, an 11th-grader at Cincinnatus High School, focuses on basketball stories, either fiction or nonfiction. Eighth-graders Heath and Wied read about boys and men who play basketball, baseball and football. They also like the Harry Potter series, although Wied said he lost interest after the first two books.
Heath gets caught up in true crime. Wied likes newspaper and magazine articles.
Another Cincinnatus 11th-grader, Klint Brown, sticks with magazines about diesel engines, mechanics and four-wheel all-terrain vehicles. Growing up on a dairy farm, he has been interested in these things since he was a boy.
The four are just a sample from one school, but they represent American boys in general.
In New York, where boys have lagged behind girls in English Language Arts tests, the Education Department wants students to read 25 books per year, both in the curriculum and of their own choosing.
Studies have shown repeatedly that boys take longer to master reading than girls do, prefer informational texts that tell how to do something, such as newspapers and magazines, and do not read for pleasure as much as girls do.
The studies, summarized by researchers Michael Smith and Jeffrey Wilhelm in their book “Reading Don’t Fix No Chevys: Literacy in the Lives of Young Men,” suggest schools find books that boys like.
Cincinnatus and other schools in the region have taken the recommendation to heart.
Teachers have been looking in recent years for books that boys like, starting at the elementary level. They challenge the established canon that Larry Spring, Cortland superintendent of schools, calls “the enshrined literature, the books you are told everyone must read to an American.”
Kim Hay, media specialist at Cortland’s Parker Elementary School, says younger boys like stories about animals, dinosaurs, space and sports. Older elementary students are devouring graphic novels, some based on classic literature, and sports, horror and adventure.
Cincinnatus teachers say they have kept the stories read by students for decades — books such as “A Separate Peace,” “Lord of the Flies,” “Animal Farm,” “The Scarlet Letter,” and “Catcher in the Rye” — and added newer ones such as John Krakauer’s nonfiction survivalist story “Into the Wild” and Laurie Halse Anderson’s “Speak,” a novel about a ninth-grader who was raped.
“Guys like ‘Catcher’ for the main character’s rebelliousness, or thinking about what they’d do to him, because he’s a whiner,” said Chris Fleet, English teacher at Cincinnatus High School. “In S.E. Hinton’s ‘The Outsiders,’ which they read in eighth grade, they relate to the boys even if they aren’t sure what a greaser is.”
His colleague in the middle school, Erin Gray, said her students read six or seven books together as a class, plus other books of their own choosing,
“Our library has gotten more books for boys,” she said. “Around here, guys like snowmobiles, hunting, sports, war, four-wheelers. When boys tell me they don’t like reading, I tell them they haven’t found the right book.”
Joe Mack, the high school principal, said the effort to find more books for boys in all grades led to a dramatic rise in ELA test scores at the school.
Shevalier, Heath and Wied said the books they like have boys as main characters, who experience what they might. Heath and Wied loved Gary Paulsen’s series about a boy surviving in the wilderness after a plane crash.
All three are athletes who enjoy athletes’ biographies.
Brown said he looks for writing that will help him understand how something works and new technology. His family farm has a diesel truck and diesel tractors.
None of the four could name any books they liked among the ones they had to read for class.
“Their parents relate to ‘The Outsiders’ because they read it,” Fleet said. “They want to know what their kids are reading.”
Boys consider reading a feminine activity, Smith and Wilhelm say. If they do not read well, they equate reading with losing, or with wasting time.
Smith and Wilhelm interviewed boys in four high schools: rural, urban, suburban and private for their study. They said boys wanted to hear more about a story before they read it, more humor, more of a social experience in reading, and more directness in a text instead of nuance.
Hay said boys need to be sold more on books, as they begin in third grade to read longer stories. She said Parker students like series by Bruce Coville, R.L. Stine, Henry Winkler and Jack Gantos, and the new Hardy Boys stories, which are different from the 1940s books.
Spring said he used Sports Illustrated articles to show students how to begin a piece of writing, when he was an eighth-grade social studies teacher. He said he looked for reading that was “authentic,” that could tie students to real life.
“What I found was, no matter how good the novel, there are people who don’t like it — and not just kids,” he said. “In my teaching unit, we let them choose from four books on our list and also a book from home.”
He said some boys grew so excited about reading, they brought in books beyond their reading level, such as Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse Five” and Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451.”
He felt that boys needed choice and connection to life beyond school, more than girls did.
Vicki Darrow, a math teacher at Cortland High School, said she and her daughter Marlyss, a CHS senior, read about 60 books per summer, mostly fiction with female main characters. Her son Zack, 23, now a Cortland High School teacher, has always preferred fantasy. Son Devon, a 10th-grader, “reads as little as he has to. Sports Illustrated cover to cover, biographies of athletes.”
“If you can read and write well, no matter what the subject, you will excel,” Darrow said.
“And one way to be a better writer is to be a better reader.”
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