Photo Credit: Rifka Schonfeld

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 her recent book, The Trouble with Boys, Peg Tyre argues that our educational systems are failing boys. That is, boys are failing because the schools are failing them. The Trouble with Boys was born out of a 2006 article in Newsweek by Tyre about many teenage boys who are bright but completely disappointing themselves, their teachers, and their parents with their performance in the school. She explains that the differences between male and female brains are not necessarily because of the way we teach children to think and act, instead:

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These days scientists believe [classic “boy” behaviors] are an expression of male brain chemistry. Sometime in the first trimester, a boy fetus begins producing male hormones that bathe his brain in testosterone for the rest of his gestation. “That exposure wires the male brain differently,” says Arthur Arnold, professor of physiological science at UCLA. How? Scientists aren’t exactly sure. New studies show that prenatal exposure to male hormones directly affects the way children play.

In other words, our educational system that has been revamped over the years to accommodate better and more education for women, might be failing our boys.

 

Boys and Reading

This is particularly apparent when it comes to reading. In all my years of teaching kriyah and English reading, I have encountered significantly 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:

            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. Thus when 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 they are often presented with books in school that have characters that 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.

Aside from modifying the way that we teach reading, we can also change the way our schools run. Boys will benefit from two other changes to the school day:

            More recess. Of course, if we want our children to learn more, we don’t usually give more recess. But, the reality is that our boys need to run around more – it will help their brains work better. Many schools and teachers are resistant to the idea, but research shows that exercise before learning helps everyone retain information, especially boys.

            More hands-on activities. More hands-on activities allow students to engage their whole bodies in learning, and not just their brains. These activities allow for movement and additionally incorporate multiple learning styles. The more we involve boys’ bodies in learning, the more learning they will do!

Schools that are boys-only are the first candidates to make them more boy-friendly! After all, who else are they catering to? So, let’s help our boys by tailoring the subject matter to them, reading non-fiction, providing more time for recess, and giving them more hands-on activities. In the long run, they will learn a whole lot more!

 

Register now for an anger management workshop by Dr. Ross Greene on November 14, 2017. Please call Mrs. Schonfeld at 718-382-5437 for more information.

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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 rifkaschonfeld@gmail.com.