Generations of schoolboys who squirmed through lectures on symbolism in "Lord of the Flies" may want to thank Michael W. Smith for finally understanding their pain.
In a new book, the associate professor of literacy education at the Graduate School of Education, and his University of Maine colleague, Jeff Wilhelm, document their research exploring why boys' literacy test scores are consistently lower than girls'. The book, "Reading Don't Fix No Chevys: Literacy in the Lives of Young Men" (Heinemann Publishing), takes a fresh look at boys' literacy in and out of school.
It's not that boys don't read, maintains Michael Smith. It's just that they read in ways that are not valued in the traditional classroom.
Photo by Nick Romanenko
"Boys are seen as in trouble," says Smith. But while the common assumption is that boys reject literacy because they see it as "feminized," Smith's research points in another direction. The boys participating in his study, he maintains, rejected certain literate activities not because they were for girls but, rather, because they were "schoolish."
"In our research, we looked outside of school to see what boys were reading and writing about," Smith says. "What we found, essentially, was that boys read -- that they in fact value literacy -- but most of them don't read or write in ways that schools recognize."
The authors worked closely with 49 middle- and high-school boys at four sites in three states, including New Jersey. The boys' school environments ranged from an urban high school to a private, all-boys prep school. Participants kept journals detailing not only how they spent their time in the classroom, but also how they applied literacy skills to activities outside the classroom. In addition, the authors conducted in-depth interviews with the boys several times during the course of the study.
Many study participants expressed a pronounced dislike for literacy-related classroom activities. But in their passionate descriptions of extracurricular interests --such as sports or movies -- Smith and Wilhelm found the boys were engaged in an abundance of reading-based activities. This contrast between "school reading" and "life reading" led the researchers to conclude that boys are motivated to excel inliteracy-related areas when they feel competent in them, understand their purpose or see a connection to their social environment.
"If that passion could be tapped," the authors write, "school would be revolutionized."
Perhaps no boy illustrated this point to Smith as poignantly as a functionally illiterate teen-ager, who had difficulty in school but nevertheless subscribed to several automotive magazines.
"I knew he couldn't read and wondered why he wanted to subscribe to a magazine," Smith relates. "He said he likes to look at the pictures and, if something seems important enough to be read, he'll ask someone to read it to him."
Another boy, an avid wrestling fan, eagerly absorbed facts and trivia about wrestling and took the trouble to document more than 600 wrestling moves in a notebook to share with his friends. "To call that kid alienated from literacy would be wrong," says Smith. "It's not only literate behavior, but 'schoolish' behavior, although not in a context that school allows."
The materials that many boys might actually enjoy -- mystery stories, novels of suspense, song lyrics, or Web sites and magazines about hobbies or sports -- are not valued in the traditional classroom, says Smith. In their place are texts selected by teachers that might not appeal or be accessible to every student.
"Lots of teachers like 'Lord of the Flies,' for example, because it lets them teach about symbolism in a nuanced 'teacherly' way," Smith notes. "There's nothing wrong with that approach to teaching, but we have to recognize that some boys -- many boys -- won't feel particularly competent about their abilities in that environment.
"We argue that, yes, boys need to be taught how to do that kind of literary reading, but that they'll be more motivated to do so if the reading is done purposefully -- for example, in the context of pursuing an answer to an authentic question."
Smith and Wilhelm's research also casts suspicion on the persistent myth that boys and men favor fast-paced action over character-driven stories.
"We asked boys to respond to four different stories, which differed in terms of the gender of the narrator and the relative emphasis on action versus character development," says Smith. "The story that provoked the most response from the boys centered on the family conflicts experienced by a female narrator. Some boys rejected the story, but many more were engaged by the issues it raised about family relationships.
"That's something we never would have guessed," Smith adds. "We put that story in there to give the boys a chance to reject it, and they didn't."
The study also calls into question another gender-based myth, which posits that adolescent and teen-age boys are less social than girls, a finding that the researchers believe should inform curriculum development in the future. "Our study challenged conventional wisdom that boys at this age are alienated and unemotional," says Smith. "All of the boys in our study had intense friendship circles. We found sustained relationships and strong social engagement."
Smith hopes his and Wilhelm's groundbreaking research on boys' literacy will lead to some changes in the approach to literacy instruction in the classroom. He sees this as especially critical in the upper grades, where boys are given fewer choices in their assigned reading materials and writing assignments.
"In secondary school, there's a shift from teaching how to read to reading canonical texts," Smith points out. "Choice goes out the window, and difficulty increases. Why in high school does it always have to be hard literature? Why does it alwayshave to be teacher-chosen?" he questions. "We need to work in choice in the classroom."
The alternative, Smith's research suggests, will continue leaving boys stranded in the classroom, much like the young island castaways left to fend for themselves in "Lord of the Flies."
What is it about Harry Potter?
Parents, teachers and other adults who hope to inspire young readers to develop a lifelong appreciation for reading and literacy may wonder what it is that accounts for the phenomenal success of the "Harry Potter" books by J.K. Rowling, which have inspired even those youngsters who previously had no interest in literature.
Associate Professor Michael W. Smith believes that his research on boys andliteracy provides some answers.
"In our study, we found that the boys like sustained relationships with authors and characters," says Smith. "That may explain why some young readers find it so difficult to wait for the next 'Harry Potter' book to come out. For them, it's like not being able to see a good friend for a whole year or more."
Smith explains that serialized books help young readers develop an appreciation for literature because these books create a familiar world that the reader returns to in book after book. Smith uses the term "scaffolding" to describe this concept.
"Once you've imagined a world, you don't have to re-imagine it," explains Smith. "The boys in our study didn't like to read stories if they had difficulty imagining the worlds the books created."
For similar reasons, sometimes young readers are more engaged in reading a book that has been made into a movie after viewing the film instead of before, Smith says.
Another reason "Harry Potter" is so popular is because its storylines are "exportable" in conversation, which, to the minds of the young men in his study, adds practical and social value to reading the books, says Smith.
"Like reading box scores or sports tidbits in the newspaper, there are cool parts of 'Harry Potter' that are easily reducible for conversation," Smith says. "A more complicated piece of literature is harder to bring into everyday conversation."