School is starting, and we need to remember what group is truly disadvantaged in our educational system--boys, not girls. Boys no longer do better, on average, than girls in mathematics. Boys lag far behind girls in the crucial skill of reading.
By the 12th grade girls leave boys in the dust in reading, according to the National Assessment of Education. The typical boy is a year and a half behind girls in reading, and the 12th grade gender gap is widening.
One reason for the reading gender gap is that school reading is far more in tune with the interests of girls. The majority of books read in classrooms are narratives, like stories, classic novels and poetry, point out Guzetti and her colleagues in their review of the literature on literacy.
"Why read stories and novels," one high school senior boy asked me, "They aren't even true!"
No matter how hard I tried to convince him that literature contained timeless truths, he wasn't buying.
"Boys typically prefer to read nonfiction books, magazines or comic books that were not available to them." Guzettie points out.
Boys like humor, adventure, mysteries, and, yes, violence. Boys also like graphic novels and reading visual material and information on the web.
A glance at what men and women read on airplanes makes the point. Men are typically looking at their computers, doing their expenses or playing games like solitaire. When men do read on planes they are often reading Louis L'Amour cowboy stories, action thrillers, or books about World War II and the Civil War.
Women are typically immersed in romantic novels which emphasize thoughts, feelings, and relationships.
From an early age, reading is identified as a female activity, point out Guzetti and numerous other researchers. Mothers model recreational reading and read books and stories to children or with them. Fathers read more for work or for a practical purpose.
When we hired an 18-yearold handyman to fix things at our house, he was shocked that we let our boys sit around and read. His father would have said he was lazy and told him to get up and do something useful.
Not having time to read is a status symbol for many boys because it means that boys were involved in more highly valued activities like sports.
Reading is considered by many boys to be "uncool." The consensus is that reading for fun is a "girl thing" and boys do not talk to other boys about books.
This does not mean that developmental differences don't exist between boys and girls in verbal ability. While it's not politically correct to bring them up, any more than it's politically correct to talk about a biological difference for the math and science gap, study after study shows that girls develop faster verbally than boys.
Schools can do a lot to close the gender gap in reading. Most important is allowing boys--and all students--freedom to choose what to read. High interest materials need to be available in school classrooms and libraries.
For boys, this means adventure, mystery, jokebooks, parodies, graphic novels, and nonfiction.
Schools also need to bring in male role models who show boys that reading is enjoyable. Some schools and libraries bring in firemen, policemen, scientists, politicians and other men to read to boys.
The Guys Read program in Fairbanks, sponsored by the Fairbanks North Star Borough Library and the school district, is an excellent example. The program brings in men to read to boys at lunch, uses books of interest to boys, and projects vivid illustrations on a screen.
"One boy wanted to skip recess so that we could keep reading," said one male volunteer. "The books were off the shelf for checkout," said a school librarian.
The reading gap between boys and girls is not inevitable. Just as we have tailored mathematics to appeal more to girls, we need to tailor school reading to appeal more to boys.
Judith Kleinfeld is co-director of Northern Studies and a professor of psychology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
BY JUDITH KLEINFELD