September 30, 2010

Raising Boys Who Read

My first child, a boy, came out of the womb reading. Well, practically. My second child, a girl, came out of the womb talking. Really. My third child, a boy, came out of the womb making machine gun noises. Seriously. And he was probably shooting at books.
Of the three, he provided the biggest challenge in teaching him to read. Of the three, he was the most challenging to get to read, once he knew how. Finding the right materials was the key. In his case, Mary Pope Osborne's Tales From the Odyssey were just what I needed to jumpstart him.  However, it's only this year, his first year in middle school, that he will independently select books from our family library to read. Of course, I still assign him a certain amount of pleasure reading each day, along with a heavy dose of historical fiction.

Because of this history, I was very interested in a recent Wall Street Journal article, How to Raise Boys Who Read.  It was interesting on several levels. The author, Thomas Spence, began by stating what he admitted is a well-known problem: boys are less proficient in reading than girls. And he notes that influential and well-intentioned folks want to do something about it. Spence's issue is with these folks' proposed remedy: "'meet them where they are' -- that is, pander to boys' untutored tastes." As any mother of an elementary- or middle-school boy knows, this involves all things gross. I mean, my youngest was playing his armpits and kneepits before he could sing well. And I didn't even know you could play a kneepit until he came along.

Spence falls back on wise men of the past to remind us that education, part of which is reading, is responsible for informing our manners and tastes. When Spence lists the books that are promoted for boys in this age group just to get them reading ("Worry about what they're reading later," postulates one library who, incidentally, throws gross-out parties to encourage reading.), I must admit that my sensibilities are offended. You'll want to read the article, because you wouldn't believe me if I told you.

Mr. Spense also notes that the discrepancy in boy-girl literacy has increased with the popularity of video games and other electronic entertainment. As books compete with these other entertainments for boys' attention, which do you suppose comes out on top? And a recent study confirmed the negative effect on boys' academic performance.

Thankfully, Mr. Spence offers helpful counsel on making a reader:

The secret to raising boys who read, I submit, is pretty simple -- keep electronic media, especially video games and recreational Internet, under control (that is to say, almost completely absent). Then fill your shelves with good books.
 A couple of other notable quotes finish up the article:

 Most importantly, a boy raised on great literature is more likely to grow up to think, to speak, and to write like a civilized man. Whom would you prefer to have shaped the boyhood imagination of your daughter's husband -- Raymond Bean or Robert Louis Stevenson?

I offer a final piece of evidence that is perhaps unanswerable: There is no literacy gap between home-schooled boys and girls. How many of these families, do you suppose, have thrown grossology parties?
I hope you'll read the article. I think it's worth the time.

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