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Strengthening Literacy Learning for Boys

EducationWorld is pleased to feature a variety of book excerpts in collaboration with Stenhouse Publishers. The following excerpt comes from The Principal Difference: Key Issues in School Leadership and How to Deal with Them Successfully, by Susan Church (Pembroke Publishers, 2005; distributed in the U.S. by Stenhouse Publishers). The book retails for $21 and is available on the Stenhouse Web site. See the book for a complete list of works cited in this article.

boys literacyPrincipals in today’s schools strive to create a quality school environment that encourages learning for all. This article discusses recent research on literacy learning for boys and how to better engage them in the classroom. See Telling Your Own Story: School-Led Self-Evaluation and Garnering Community Involvement for two additional excerpts from The Principal Difference.

A body of qualitative research describes what literacy learning is like for boys, offering some generalizations regarding the problems that many boys experience. Rather than working from a deficit model that positions boys as a problem, however, much of this research examines the strengths that boys bring to literacy learning and documents a mismatch between those strengths and many current classroom practices in literacy teaching and learning.

With the caveat that these characteristics do not apply to all boys in all situations, the research shows that boys

  • generally learn to read more slowly than girls, read less, and are less enthusiastic about reading.
  • place a lower value on reading and writing than girls; they read less for pleasure and are more likely to choose informational texts.
  • are more likely to choose magazines, newspapers, comic books, and graphic novels.
  • like to read about things that they might like doing (sports, hobbies, how-tos).
  • tend to be more interested in reading associated with technology.
  • resist literacy because, as gender is constructed in some social and cultural contexts, it is seen as a female activity and not “manly.”

Several more recent qualitative studies provide insights into the richness and variation in boys’ literacy learning. Smith and Wilhelm’s own study of a diverse group of adolescent boys shows that, across all categories of diversity, there were some characteristics that dominated. Above all, the boys wanted to have a sense of competence and control. For them all, literacy learning was inherently social. Many of the boys were deeply engaged in using a wide array of literacy practices outside school. For many, varied and sophisticated applications of technology facilitated social interaction. In terms of texts, the boys expressed preferences for

  • stories rather than textbooks
  • visual texts
  • texts that could be brought into conversations
  • texts, such as serials, that sustain engagement
  • texts with multiple perspectives
  • texts that bring surprise or novelty, are edgy or subversive, and contain powerful ideas or humor

About Stenhouse Publishers

Stenhouse publishes professional development books and videos by teachers and for teachers. Their titles cover a range of content areas -- from literacy and mathematics to science, social studies, the arts, and environmental education -- as well as a variety of topics, including classroom management, assessment, and differentiation.

A study by Blair and Sanford of somewhat younger boys documents how boys “morph” school tasks, transforming them into literacy practices more suited to their interests and ways of learning. The researchers observed, “They do this in many ways: by using characters from their out of school literacies to match their interests, by livening up the activity, by changing and converting the teacher’s instructions, or by including elements of humor and satire in their reading and writing” (p. 453). Many of the boys were struggling with school literacies, but they demonstrated rich literacy engagement outside of school with media texts, computer games, sports magazines, comics, and other graphic texts. In school they preferred fantasy, action stories, and information texts with “action and violence, games/competition, challenges, and satire” (p. 456). Some of the boys did not seem to function well within the classroom structure, needing a more flexible and supportive environment in which there were larger time frames to complete tasks. In many classrooms, teachers did not acknowledge and value the boys’ out-of-school literacy competencies, and thus the boys struggled to make connections with the school curriculum.

In another study of young boys’ literacy, Newkirk makes a strong case that the devaluing of boys’ preferences does them a significant disservice. Schools set up a hierarchy of “good” and “not good” texts, discounting such narrative forms as television, video games, and comic books. Further, schools misread boys’ fascination with violence in their reading and writing, sending up signals of alarm rather than attempting to understand how both boys and girls draw upon popular culture and other narrative forms as they develop as literacy users. He offers an alternative explanation for the violence, showing how boys use their reading and writing to role-play, exercising control and power in fictional worlds. Boys also use action-oriented literacy practices to make social connections. He suggests that teachers and parents need to work with children, emphasizing the development of plausible story lines and the use of suspense and action rather than gratuitous violence. Adults also need to be attuned to the way boys, in particular, take pleasure from crude forms of humor, both as readers and writers.

Researcher and parent Bronwyn Williams writes eloquently about her conflicts over her own son’s violent writing. Recognizing his power as a writer, she nevertheless cringes at the violence depicted in many of his stories and reflects thoughtfully about how parents and teachers should respond. She notes that, as an adult reader, she enjoys action and suspense. She wonders, if she can get pleasure from these texts and keep the separation between fiction and real life, why can’t we also trust boys to make that distinction? Why do we assume that violence expressed in literacy practices necessarily translates into violent actions? At the conclusion of her article, Williams raises provocative questions (p. 514) that all educators need to consider as they work with both boys and girls.

  • What do we want young people to learn about literacy?
  • Is character analysis necessarily the pinnacle of literacy practice?
  • If we say we are trying to teach creative and critical thinking through literacy, what activities do we imagine will achieve this, and what will such literacy look like?
  • Are our students engaging in literacy practices outside the classroom that we should pay more attention to and work with rather than against?
  • Do we need to reconsider what creative literacy practices and thoughtful and analytical literacy look like?
  • What choices, options, and possibilities can we offer?
  • Most important, how can we help boys and girls learn about the many different ways that reading and writing can provide them with power, choice, and flexibility as they become adults?

The questions that Williams poses seem to me to be a helpful tool for thinking through how best to support both boys and girls as literacy learners. They might make an interesting beginning point for a principal’s discussions with staff about the assumptions underlying a school’s literacy program.


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