New book explores literacy, reading among boys
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...
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