Linguistic gender gap is explored, targeted

The Education Beat

Disparity: `It's not that boys are inferior to girls,' one expert says, but that each sex benefits from different teaching methods.

February 10, 2002|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

YOU LIKE what you read, and you read what you like.

That, say the experts, is one reason why little girls read better than little boys from the time they set foot in school.

And why the gender gap in reading scores widens as children grow older - from 8 percentage points statewide in the latest third-grade MSPAP results to 13.6 points in the eighth grade.

And why a recent government study estimated that "the gap in reading deficiency [favoring girls] is ... equivalent to about 1 1/2 years of schooling" during a school career.

True, girls outperform boys in all six subjects on the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program, but the largest disparities can be found in reading and its sister, writing.

"It's nothing new to teachers," says Gail Lynn Goldberg, an authority on reading, writing and gender who helped craft the MSPAP writing test and who is now a consultant. "But there's no evidence in - what? - eight years of MSPAP data that we've done very much about it."

That's for sure. A close look at MSPAP results at almost any school in Maryland shows a persistent disparity among reading scores between the sexes. Females score twice as high as males in reading at some schools, and the gap is an equal-opportunity one - apparent in the rich, white suburbs and in the poor, black urban communities.

Goldberg says wide disparities are common in states such as Maryland and Washington with reading tests that call for a "constructive responses" - short essays that children write after reading a "prompt."

Maryland's reading curriculum is a three-legged stool: Kids read for enjoyment ("literary experience"), to follow directions, and to be informed. MSPAP is designed to test all three.

But Goldberg says many teachers emphasize literary experience, the kind of reading at which girls tend to excel, while largely ignoring the other two aspects.

"It's not that boys are inferior to girls; it's that they get different things out of reading, and we ought to pay more attention to that," she says. "We can't just shrug it off and say, `Boys will be boys.'"

Boys, for example, tend not to concentrate on peripheral characters in stories; they tend to look for the male protagonist. Girls tend to be more reflective and more interested in nuance, layer and interpretation. Boys are active learners - they want to know how things are put together, how they work. They want to give answers without a lot of elaboration.

Goldberg and Barbara Sherr Roswell, who teaches English, linguistics and women's studies at Goucher College, are co-authors of a new book, Reading, Writing and Gender, in which they lay out instructional strategies for closing the gender gap without hindering girls' progress. One of their suggestions is simple: Get more books that appeal to boys in the hands of boys.

Others seem counterintuitive. For example, boys can become interested in poetry, Goldberg says. "Boys love poetry. It's crafted. It's concrete. When they're writing a poem, they're building something, and they're noticing it makes a difference where words are in a piece of writing. There's nothing like a little haiku to excite a boy."

Goldberg says she and Roswell decided to explore gender differences in reading and writing when they realized they could read children's work without knowing who wrote it and determine the author's sex with near-perfect accuracy.

For example, when asked whether they would recommend some text to a friend or classmate, boys are far more likely than girls to say "No." They frequently support that position with a general statement, such as, "It was dumb."

Goldberg and Roswell advise teachers to ignore the injunction, "If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say it." They suggest asking kids to write a rave review and a "boo" of the same book. Such exercises help children, particularly boys, learn how to interpret text. (In nearly four years of reading kids' book reviews in The Sun's Reading By 9 pages, Goldberg says, she's never seen a book panned.)

The mother of two boys, Goldberg is one of many Maryland educators grappling with the gender issue. There have been a few successes.

Principal Rocco A. Ferretti of Bodkin Elementary School in Anne Arundel County, is a MSPAP star attraction when it comes to narrowing the gap. In fact, in last year's MSPAP, boys scored higher than girls in fifth-grade reading at Bodkin. Ferretti and his teachers changed nearly every aspect of the school's operation, from the books they bought to how they arranged kids in classrooms and hallways.

Edgewood Elementary in Harford County, where Goldberg is a consultant, also has made strides. The female-male disparity in third-grade reading narrowed from 26 percentage points in 2000 to 6.6 points last year.

And on Baltimore's east side, Tench Tilghman Elementary Principal Elizabeth L. Turner and her two reading coaches have asked the University of Maryland for advice on attacking the gender disparity.

"We're trying to get more books directed toward males into their hands and to bring more males into the building," says Turner. "Our writing gap is closing faster than our reading gap, but we've got a long way to go."

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