Tuesday, April 12, 2005

A 'dandy' fallacy?

An article in the Scotsman bears a headline proclaiming Research finds a Dandy way to help young boys improve literacy. Apparently, giving boys comic books to read will encourage them to read more.
Research published yesterday revealed that while 17 per cent of boys aged between seven and 11 do not read books outside school, 60 per cent regularly read comics.

The survey also revealed that just 5 per cent of boys read for more than an hour a day in their spare time, compared to 17 per cent of girls.

Last night, experts said that encouraging youngsters to read comics could be a vital tool in the fight to improve literacy rates.
So this study posits that young boys will read comics, which are low on description and vocabulary and high on action and dialogue, in addition to offering pictoral support to the action, more readily than they'll read more girl-oriented books.

The low-male-literacy question is the other side of the why-don't-more-girls-do-math question that got teachers all hot and frustrated when I was at school. Examining the problem of girls and math led to changes in teaching methods, and a gradual closing of the gap between boys' and girls' performance on math tests. Gradually, educators started to consider how social conditions, intrinsic ability, and performance were connected:

Many now believe that traits that seem intrinsic – meaning those grounded in the brain or shaped by a gene – are subject to cultural and social forces, and that these forces determine how a biological trait actually manifests itself in a person’s behavior or abilities. An “intrinsic” trait, in other words, does not mean an inevitable outcome, as many scientists had long thought.

And, to be sure, in most countries, the gap between girls' and boys' performance in math has vanished.

But, according to this WaPo article, the question of boys, reading, intrisic traits, and cultural forces has educators baffled.

Apparently, despite a historical bias towards men in education (remember, folks, universal literacy is a relatively new idea; universal literacy that includes women is even newer.*), boys are, in general performing increasingly poorly in literacy tests. It appears that with respect to reading, paedogogy favours girls.

Exactly what should be done, however, is unclear, because there is no consensus on how much genetics, environment and culture are responsible for the gap. And it is not strictly a U.S. phenomenon: Stephen Gorard, education professor at the University of York in England, reviewed scores for 22 countries and discovered gaps in every one, despite differences in school setups and curricula.

What is known is that boys generally take longer to learn to read than girls; they read less and are less enthusiastic about it; and they have more trouble understanding narrative texts yet are better at absorbing informational texts. Those findings are from a literacy study done in 2002, "Reading Don't Fix No Chevys," by Michael W. Smith, a Temple University professor, and Jeffrey D. Wilhelm, Boise State University English education professor.

Scientists have said that boys are born with smaller language centers in their brains -- and larger spatial centers -- than girls and that boys develop language abilities at a slower rate, though eventually they catch up.

The WaPo article presents several theories, some of which make sense:
The notion of confidence in reading is central to the issue, said Smith, the Temple professor. He said that people like to do what they are good at and that when boys stumble early in learning to read, it is often a skill they never warm to.

So also with girls and math. It's no fun to work on things you suck at.**

Other theories make less sense to me:
Another factor, said Hoffman, a reading specialist at Pattie Elementary School in Prince William County, is that it is more difficult for many boys to sit still for classes, much less to "cuddle up with a book."

I mean, back in the boys-are-better-at-math-days, teachers taught math to children seated at desks or tables. We didn't learn multiplication by doing jumping jacks. And, statistically, boys performed better at math. I know it's more difficult for very active children to manage school—I used to have to take regular wiggle breaks with some of my tutoring students, and vary the pace of the sessions in order to get them to focus a bit. So I've no doubt that in some cases some boys have a difficult time sitting still.

I do wonder, though, how studies can take into account the less easily quantifiable question of parental and social expectations, and how these affect boys' proclivities for reading and girls' proclivities for math.

How many boys' parents give them books, comics, and magazine subscriptions as presents? How many girls' parents do so? How many girls' parents give them chemistry sets? How many girls grow up under the assumption that they'll learn how to repair a bike? How many boys grow up under the assumption that they'll learn how to tell a story? How many boys grow up in reading families, where people think that curling up with a book is an admirable way to spend a Saturday afternoon, for boys as well as for girls? How many families will listen to a boy who doesn't want to play hockey, or baseball, and
does want to read comics, science fiction, or books with scatological humour?

Children who grow up in environments that support, celebrate, and value a particular skill will often display aptitude in that area. Witness the Bach family.

The math gap came to educators' attention during the seventies and eighties, at a time when society in general (meaning, of course, the western society in which I live) was looking at women's performance in various math-and-science-related fields, and asking why more women weren't involved in business. The culture that set the expectations for women had changed, and the educational system had to change too. I don't see a similar shift in culture that would create an expectation that literacy among boys is good. And I hazard that until we see a social shift, neither comic books nor phonics will significantly affect boys' performance.

Yes, I know that "universal" de facto includes women. Unless, like the ancient Athenians, or early Americans, you don't believe that it does. Allow me my sarcastic rhetorical point, please.

** Completely statistically invalid anecdotal case in point: I dropped math as soon as I could, not because I couldn't do it, but because it was more difficult for me to do, and I thought I sucked at it. I greatly preferred working on subjects at which I didn't suck.


Anonymous said...

Not much to say, except that it seems to me part of a larger cultural problem (as you say) rather than a curricular or pedigical one. Bring back the dandy!

oh, and I tend to do things because I am not good at them. I find things that come easy boring. I became a Latinist because Greek came too easy to me.

jennie said...


Greek took a lot of work for me. I enjoyed it because it was difficult, but I did find it enormously difficult.

However, I think there's a difference between "This is challenging, but I'm getting it," and "No matter how hard I try, I can't make this make sense."

Too much of the latter dulls even the most ardent learning, I find. Effort has to bring some reward.