Wednesday, August 24, 2005

See Dick and Jane Both Read

I think about education at times throughout the year, but especially as each school year begins. One issue that regularly surfaces concerns the failure of kids who do not learn to read at expected levels.

The teaching of reading is an emotional issue. It is argued by educators, parents, politicians, and by workbook and software company representatives wanting to sell their goods for remedial instruction. Even a glance at those materials will show the skewing of pictures, text, and suggested activities toward boys. Textbook companies know that more boys than girls are assigned to remedial reading classes in this country. Few others discussing the problem of lagging success in learning to read point that out, however.

Yet that may be at the core of the problem. What is it about teaching materials, expectations, classroom management, and instruction that has schools in the United States shunting far more boys than girls into primary grade remedial reading programs? Why do boys also make up more than ninety percent of remedial reading pupils in many American middle schools? But not in all English speaking countries. What do we "do" differently that keeps our boys from learning to read?

Female elementary teachers have told me that boys have problems learning to read because "boys are more immature than girls." That seems to be what they believe. And if they do, then it must also be how they treat boys. Yet, if the problem were a gender-specific genetic deficiency, boys in all English speaking countries would have more problems learning to read than girls do. Research studies, however, show that not to be the case.

So, I suspect the cause is far more cultural than it is biological. Society seems to have accepted a cultural cause for the different problem of girls once being less successful, generally, in high school math and science than boys. With cultural awareness and changes in schools in recent decades, that gap has largely closed. But I haven’t heard of much movement to change expectations, methods, opportunities, whatever it takes in regular classrooms, to meet boys’ reading needs. We just put boys in remedial reading classes. Perhaps after giving them Ritalin.

I have wondered, half facetiously, what might be the long-term results of examining the meaning of maturity among grade school pupils. Suppose, for example, we redefined the mature primary youngster (grades K-3). Let’s agree a mature pupil is one who is constantly alert, can hardly remain still or seated for a moment, fidgets, and wants to move quickly from topic to topic, activity to activity, idea to idea, as the mature mind races to learn all it can. Further, the mature youngster is exercising thought processes rapidly and may ask many questions, some that seem unrelated to the task at hand. The mature pupil exhibits a tremendous curiosity and interest in everything that is happening with everyone else in the classroom, wanting to move about and interact with others. The mature youngster has a comment for everything and may interrupt the teacher and other pupils to contribute.

The redefined immature primary youngster, then, would be one who is dully content to sit quietly, perhaps with hands folded on the desktop, while the teacher talks. The immature child will often wait to be asked to parrot specific answers, perhaps memorized to please the teacher. The immature grade school child is willing to spend extended amounts of time on a single, often repetitive task or activity, seemingly oblivious of the array of events flowing through the room among the more mature pupils.

Would we not stereotypically conclude that primary boys were more "mature" and girls "immature" with those new "definitions"? Then, to continue only semi-facetiously, suppose we believed in those classifications instead of the reverse. What ramifications would the new beliefs have on textbooks, curriculum designs, classroom activities, teacher training, methodologies, plus teacher and society attitudes and expectations toward each sex? What effects might that reversal of beliefs have on the subsequent success of each group? Perhaps considering such a change from a semi-facetious philosophical point of view could direct the discussion to areas of reading instruction needing improvement.

Years ago militant women’s groups led the fight to change science and math class expectations, materials, and methods for girls. Those advocates for change were right. Do we now need advocates to question the current, typical reading expectations and instruction for boys?


Anonymous Gen said...

I have a different theory as to why boys do not read as well, especially in the younger ages. What if all fathers of tiny children were the ones to read the bed time stories and at other times to the boys and girls alike. Not the girl oriented fairy tails but rather some adventure type story that a boy could relate to. Would those boys then have a more positive role model on reading?
I know through my art and cub scout training that there really is a difference between boys and girls in their early childhood abilities. Boys large motor muscles develope before their small motor muscles. In Cub Scouting we had more success in craft activities if we did things with hammer and nails rather than needle and thread or gluing beads on a bar of soap. As much as some Women Lib advocates there really are differencs between boys and girls. Even the disposable diaper manufactures are finally realizing that.
along that line I have a question to ask about the trend to have equal opportunities for women in the man's world. Why is it ok to have gym/excersize facilities for women such ad Curves, where men are not allowed but there cannot be a gym for just men without occuring the wrath of the Women Libs?

8/26/2005 12:35 PM  
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