Reading's lost boys

Trying to spark a reluctant reader can be a frustrating job for parents. But there are books out there with 'boy appeal.'

August 15, 1999|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Sun Staff

"Harry Potter," "Goosebumps," "I Spy," "The Guinness Book of World Records." The staff at the Parkville Public Library glumly recites its list of recommended readings like failed strategies in a losing war.

How do you get a grade-school boy to read? Librarians Jean Blair, Beth LaPenotiere and Mercedes Connor would love to know. And this time it's personal: They are the mothers of boys who just say no to books.

"My boys are embarrassed for people to think they might be reading a book," says Connor, the mother of three boys, ages 8, 10 and 12. "Card games and Nintendo, those are socially acceptable. Take out a book at the pool and you'll be branded for life."

Connor and her colleagues voice a frustration familiar to many parents. Even boys who are accomplished readers and gifted students may be reluctant to pick up a book -- unless it's thrust upon them.

Now, imagine you are a librarian who treasures reading and knows the books that are supposed to interest boys most. Watching your son abstain can be as discomforting as a noisy patron in the quiet room.

"I see parents in the library day after day who say the same thing: 'My son's a reluctant reader. What can I do?' " says LaPenotiere, whose son Evan is 9 years old. "You hope you can find something to say to them.

"But sometimes, it comes down to this: If the boy doesn't want to read, you might as well forget it."

Educators say the experience is all too common and parents are correct to be alarmed. The less time boys spend reading, the less they are able to read. Like playing music, reading takes practice and many boys won't even pick up the instrument.

"If you have a boy who can read, but doesn't, I'd be concerned," says John T. Guthrie, a University of Maryland, College Park education professor who researches child reading patterns. "The amount of reading a child does -- the time he or she spends with books -- largely determines how well they achieve in reading."

Ann Mintz, who develops reading curriculum for Howard County's public schools, says she sees that happen all the time. If a "child doesn't read independently, he will fall below grade level" in ability, she says.

"It's a big problem, and I'm not sure we have the answer to it yet," she says.

The Maryland School Performance Assessment Program, the standardized test the state uses to gauge its public schools, shows boys consistently lag behind girls in reading. Among third graders, 45.5 percent of girls read at a satisfactory level compared with 37.7 percent of boys.

But the fifth grade gap is even worse with girls outscoring boys, 46.1 percent to 34.7 percent, a margin of more than 11 points in last year's test scores.

"There's a gender gap," Guthrie says flatly. "Girls are better readers."

Researchers suspect there are many reasons behind the gap, some biological and some behavioral. Boys are more likely than girls to be born with some form of learning disorder -- although some researchers dispute this, arguing that boys are simply more apt to be diagnosed with one (due, in part, to their tendency to act out).

Less arguable is the fact that boys mature differently from girls. How much of the gender differences are due to nature and to nurture is "hard to distinguish," says Dr. John Andrews, a pediatrician at Johns Hopkins Children's Center.

"Boys learn and process information differently than girls," says Dr. Andrews. "But that's not the whole story. There are also a lot of parents who just naturally envision their sons as athletes and their daughters as readers."

Boys are more likely to want to gravitate to sports; girls prefer quiet, introspective activities. That generalization -- as un-P.C. as it may sound -- is more often true than not, agrees Jean Berko Gleason, a Boston University psychology professor and authority on language development and gender.

"We press little boys to be risk-takers and to go outside and play," Gleason says. "They pick that up pretty quickly. Whatever differences may be hard-wired, they are magnified by societal expectations."

Book publishers have long recognized the gender gap and have recently tried to do something about it. Particularly in the last decade, the market has been flooded with books aimed at boys.

The latest and hottest are the Harry Potter books by British author Joanne K. Rowling. The first two stories about the aspiring student -- and sometime hero -- at Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry have set record sales -- 1.5 million copies in the U.S. alone, with a third installment due next month.

But Rowling's books have sold well with girls, too, marking a publishing truism: girls between the ages of 7 and 12 read, boys 7-12 read sometimes.

"There's now a large body of work written for reluctant boy readers," says Tim Moses of Penguin Putnam's young readers division. "Sometimes, it's a matter of finding the right key, the right match for the boy."

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