In the 1950’s, bestselling author Rudolf Flesch offered to give a friend’s son, who was a struggling reader, some help with reading. He soon discovered that the problem did not lie in the boy’s intelligence, but rather in the way that reading was taught to him in school. To set out his reading principles, Flesch wrote a now famous book entitled, Why Johnny Can’t Read – and What You Can Do About It. In it, Flesch outlined the basic approach of phonics, an effective and important manner of teaching reading.
More interesting today, perhaps, is Flesch’s title. The focus on a male student was telling then and continues to be important today. 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:
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 that 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 that they are “not good” at reading or writing and therefore will not try to succeed in the future.
Filling The Reading Gap
Why do we care so much about reading? Why is it important to get our boys reading to their greatest potential? Reading is the most important skill people can use to enhance their intelligence. Through reading, people improve their vocabularies and memories, become better writers, and even relieve stress. On a more practical level, literacy levels are correlated with financial success. In sum, we need to ensure that our boys are reading because their lives will be more fulfilling, relaxed, and comfortable.
Therefore, how can we help boys learn to read? Below are some time-tested solutions:
Instruction tailored to boys’ learning style. Teachers should create lessons that have clear, structured instruction with short bursts of intense work. When teachers set specific goals and praise the boys for their success, they will be more likely to push themselves in the future. In addition, hands-on learning models coupled with a sense of humor are great tools for getting boys involved in reading.
Role models. Young boys need to see male role models who are reading. Remember, any text is reading – including fathers and studying Gemara after Shabbos lunch or reading the newspaper on a weekday morning. The idea is that boys see their fathers reading and understand that this is an activity that is valued by both male and female role models.
Appealing subject matter. Allow your sons to choose their own books (within limits, of course). If they are interested in cars and baseball, do not steer them towards a story about penguins. They will be more likely to read if they are interested in what they are reading.