Latest update: May 23rd, 2013
When I was a young boy, America’s elite schools and universities were almost entirely reserved for males. That seems incredible now, in an era when headlines suggest that boys are largely unfit for the classroom. In particular, they can’t read.
– Thomas Spence, Wall Street Journal
In all my years of teaching kriyah and English reading, I have encountered more boys than girls who struggle with the skill. We are even subconsciously programmed to think of reading as a female endeavor. Picture a reader in a comfy chair, thinking, “Wow, what a great book! I can’t wait to share this with my friends.” Was the reader you imagined male or female? Chances are, you envisioned a female reader. The idea that the majority of readers are female is consistent with reading scores around the nation.
According to the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) in 2001, fourth-grade girls in all of the 30-plus participating countries scored higher in reading literacy than fourth-grade boys by a statistically significant amount. In addition, According to a recent report from the Center on Education Policy, substantially more boys than girls score below the proficiency level on the annual National Assessment of Educational Progress reading test.
Accounting for the Reading Gap
Why is there such a large gap between girls and boys when it comes to reading? There are several theories that explain why boys test below girls their own age when it comes to reading:
Girls begin school with a larger vocabulary. Studies have shown that on a normal day, girls use 30% more words than boys their age. Simply because girls speak more, they are more comfortable with language. Then, when it comes to reading, they are more likely to synthesize new words into their everyday speech. This in turn will make their future reading more proficient.
The subject matter is tailored towards women. Because many teachers are female, and because mothers are often the ones helping children pick out their books, the subject matter of the reading tends to appeal to female audiences. Most boys would like to read about characters who are similar to them, but are often presented with books that have characters they cannot identify with.
Boys’ brains might be wired for non-fiction. While girls are great at comprehending narrative texts and expository style, studies have shown that boys prefer informational texts and newspapers. Teachers often devalue these non-fiction texts – prompting boys to feel they are not “reading” when they pick up a newspaper. This only discourages them from reading in the future.
Girls enter school with better fine motor skills. Biologically, girls often gain fine motor skills essential for writing at an earlier age than boys. While the girls quickly figure out how to write, the boys struggle with the same tasks. This struggle with writing can often lead boys to feel they are “not good” at reading or writing and therefore they will not even attempt to try.
An often undiscussed issue in this area is Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). We all know reading takes concentration – without it you can’t get to the end of a sentence. What many people don’t realize is that while ADHD is a common behavioral disorder affecting 8-10% of school age children, boys are three times more likely than girls to be diagnosed with the disorder.
Of course, only a tiny fraction of boys have ADHD, but this fraction is significantly larger than the fraction of girls who do. This can also account for the differences in proficiency in boys and girls’ reading scores. Therefore, if you notice that your son is unable to focus, is easily distracted, and often fidgets, consider getting him tested for ADHD. His lack of reading skills could be attributed to a surmountable learning disability.
The most important thing to be aware of when parenting or teaching children with ADHD is that they are not “acting out.” Rather, it is difficult for these children to control their behavior without either medication or behavioral modification. Only a psychiatrist can prescribe medicine, but as an educator (or a parent) there are plenty of behavioral modifications you can implement in order to help a child become more attentive when reading or performing another activity that requires concentration.
Encourage fidgeting: Though this sounds counter-intuitive, children with ADHD benefit from distractions. In reality, it is not that they cannot focus – instead they focus on everything. So, give them a pencil to tap or a kush ball to squeeze while they are reading. Remember these are students who are designed to focus on more than one thing at a time. Providing them with the second activity, in addition to reading, will keep them from looking for what else they could be doing.
Provide breaks in reading: In a classroom setting, this method would be very frustrating to those students who are focused on the text. However, when reading in small groups or individually, it is great to have a child stop and tell you a story related to the reading. This will help them concentrate on the story when you get back to it. After you finish reading, ask comprehension questions. You’ll be surprised how much the student retained.
Engage other areas of their brain: While the child is reading, encourage him to paint a picture in his mind. This will stimulate the optical region of his brain. After a few minutes, ask him to share what picture he visualized. This will allow him to have multiple focuses, but remain on the task at hand: reading. In addition, you can encourage the child to take notes while reading. Note taking requires motor skills and hand-eye- coordination. Again, this technique allows the child multiple centers of concentration while still reading.
Utilize books on tape: Reading a book while a tape plays is a great way to give a child with ADHD a multi-sensory experience. You can use books on tape if available or you can read to him yourself, while he reads along aloud.
Break assignments into manageable piece: No one has a limitless attention span; however, children with ADHD have shorter attention spans than most people. With that in mind, help your child split up the reading into many smaller parts. Providing breaks in the reading will allow your child to regroup and refocus.
As a society that increasingly focuses on higher levels of literacy, it is important for us as parents and educators to help our boys surmount the obstacles on their path to reading. Believe me, it’s possible – I have seen it happen in my office for years.
About the Author: An acclaimed educator and social skills specialist, Mrs. Rifka Schonfeld has served the Jewish community for close to thirty years. She founded and directs the widely acclaimed educational program, SOS, servicing all grade levels in secular as well as Hebrew studies. A kriah and reading specialist, she has given dynamic workshops and has set up reading labs in many schools. In addition, she offers evaluations G.E.D. preparation, social skills training and shidduch coaching, focusing on building self-esteem and self-awareness. She can be reached at 718-382-5437 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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