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Reading & Literacy Opinion

The Quiet Crisis in Boys’ Literacy

By Thomas Newkirk — September 10, 2003 4 min read
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The recently released National Assessment of Educational Progress writing scores reveal a gender gap.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress released the results of its most recent writing test in early July. The results provided some bragging rights for states like Massachusetts and Connecticut, but in general educators found little new or especially alarming in this report, with the possible exception of the persistent disparity between white and African-American students. It was a one-day story.

Yet tucked among the tables was a stunning statistic. By the 12th grade, male scores were on average 24 points lower than female scores—and almost three-fourths of this gap had been opened up by grade 4. To put this difference in perspective, it equals the gap between African-American and white students at the 12th grade. While the racial gap is caused by a perfect storm of social inequities—poor housing, resegregation, poverty, and a legacy of discrimination—there can be no such explanation for the gender gap.

These results lead to compelling questions that are only beginning to be raised in American schools: What social or educational factors are powerful enough to produce this result? And what can we do about it? Here are some observations to open this discussion.

This bias toward literary realism and social significance causes teachers to dismiss the powerful attractions of popular culture—cartoons, TV shows, rap, video games, action movies, and humor. In many cases, female teachers find the popular culture enjoyed by boys to be repugnant or at least foreign. Consequently it is treated not as a resource for literacy work, but as an enemy which school literacy must contend against. There is even a reluctance to treat nonfiction as a serious literary form, though surveys show boys tend to prefer nonfiction. A book like Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air (a favorite among males of all ages) rarely holds a place beside “quality fiction.”

  • Developmental delay. It is almost a truism that boys are slower to develop the fine motor skills needed for writing, and they frequently have difficulty with the attentional demands of literacy work. The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study found boys lagging behind girls in every one of the 25 countries involved in the study, suggesting that no particular educational practice is responsible. Inevitably, many boys are aware of this gap and begin to identify themselves as poor readers and writers. As the reading material grows more complex, they feel overmatched by long words and long books which often pose no difficulty for the more “natural” readers—often girls.
  • Literacy and masculinity. Boys are conditioned to view reading and writing as unmasculine. For example, when the creators of the Superman comic book developed the character of Clark Kent, they had to give him an occupation that would perfectly hide his superhero identity. So what did they do? They made him a writer. To be a man is to be active and gregarious, to actively work to accomplish something tangible and practical. The sedentary practices of reading and writing are perceived as pallid substitutes for “real” activity. In particular, males tend to view novel reading as a feminine activity, as they rarely see men in their lives reading fiction.
  • School literacy. Boys also see school literacy practices as feminized and at odds with their own narrative preferences. Not only does the novel tend to occupy center stage, but the kinds of novels selected are “good literature” that highlight social issues, human relationships, introspection, and personal development. There is usually a moral agenda, a preference for books that might develop personal sensitivity and ethical awareness (Tuck Everlasting is a good example). Similarly in writing, young boys are steered away from action and adventure plots to literary realism that focuses on character development and human relationships. In the post-Columbine era, boys are often prohibited from using any violence in their stories, a form of censorship that has been imposed without any protest from watchdog organizations like the National Council of Teachers of English.

Some would argue that this attention to boys’ difficulties is misguided because male privilege is still so pervasive. Glass ceilings are still intact. Old Boys’ Networks still operate. But the alienation of boys from literacy (and by extension, school itself) represents a terrible waste of potential, narrowing the future for many boys. It also works to make the lives of their teachers miserable as well, as they daily confront the resistance and evasions of male students. These battles are wearing and dispiriting.

In my first year of teaching I met this resistance in an all-boys high school in Boston. I called my dad that first night in a panic. How could I make it through a year, when students refused to read the anthology (and a few used it as a projectile)? He asked me the simple question, “What will they read?” I explained to him that I didn’t think there was anything in the musty book closet that they would voluntarily read.

“I’m not talking about the book closet. What will they read?”

After some hesitation, I said that they might read Sports Illustrated.

“Well, tomorrow morning you buy every Sports Illustrated you can find and take them to class.”

I followed his advice, raiding all the newsstands in my neighborhood. The students did read. It was not a miraculous “Dead Poets Society” turnaround, but a good step in the right direction.

Thomas Newkirk is a professor of English at the University of New Hampshire, in Durham, N.H., and the author of Misreading Masculinity: Boys, Literacy, and Popular Culture (Heinemann, 2002).

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