K-12 Literature: Girls Read, Boys Don't

Mark Bauerlein and Sandra Stotsky have a column in the Washington Post highlighting a tidbit from last year's NEH study about the nation-wide decline in the reading of books. What no one noticed is that, while there has been a marked decline amongst girls reading books, the decline for boys is phenomenal -- less than 50 percent of boys in K-12 are readers of books.

But here's their explanation for it:

But boys prefer adventure tales, war, sports and historical nonfiction, while girls prefer stories about personal relationships and fantasy. Moreover, when given choices, boys do not choose stories that feature girls, while girls frequently select stories that appeal to boys.

Unfortunately, the textbooks and literature assigned in the elementary grades do not reflect the dispositions of male students. Few strong and active male role models can be found as lead characters. Gone are the inspiring biographies of the most important American presidents, inventors, scientists and entrepreneurs. No military valor, no high adventure. On the other hand, stories about adventurous and brave women abound. Publishers seem to be more interested in avoiding "masculine" perspectives or "stereotypes" than in getting boys to like what they are assigned to read.

Hm, I don't know... Could Sony PS2, XBOX, and GameCube might have something to do with it? And: peer-to-peer downloading, internet chat, MP3s, etc. etc.


Sutton said...

Time was I would have agreed with your take, and even would have added my shock and dismay at what I would have called obvious gender stereotyping in the quote you shared. But I used to work for a research outfit looking at the use of non-fiction (specifically science) children's literature (NOT "golden books" with study questions at the back and "controlled vocabulary") in early elementary classrooms, and we found a LOT of teachers who reported an extremely heightened interest in reading among their male students once these books were introduced (for what it's worth, the quality and quantity of this stuff has exploded in recent years: for any teachers/future teachers, check out this commercial resource for locating some of them: http://searchit.heinemann.com/). Maybe this is because many boys don't see their fathers interested in literature, as opposed to newspapers or magazines, and so are conditioned to look at reading as something that should involve "real" subjects, facts and the like.
Accuse me of stereotyping if you will, but the fact is that there does seem to be a difference between the boys' interests and the girls'. Maybe (probably) it's all learned, maybe schools shouldn't be playing into it, but as the LEAST powerful of the three strongest educational environments kids are exposed to (Media, Family/peers, school), maybe schools shoot themselves in the foot if they ignore what kids are learning about themselves from these other sources.

Of course, not having read the column, the averages may be derived from something like the following: well-to-do kids read a lot, poor kids are lucky if they have access to a phone book and a Bible at home and have school libraries with more than one book per kid. That's the case in a lot of inner-city Baltimore neighborhoods, where studies have shown that, not only are there fewer books per kid, there is substantially less of every kind of printed matter: free newspapers in boxes on the street corner and even street signs! I know that the reading rates are likely dropping even among better-off kids, but I imagine the overall rate is being pulled WAY down by the poorest of the poor, who may arrive in kindergarten rarely having even held a book, much less having been read to.

electrostani said...

Sutton, that's not stereotyping, that's first-hand evidence!

As for the study, Bauerlein and Strotsky are mainly going from the "overall" statistic; no word on what's happening at the Kindergarten level. The one statistic they provide there is the fact that girls *outperform* boys at that level on an entirely different test.

I have no objection to putting in some more "adventure" oriented stories. But if you carry this logic to its conclusion, it seems to me this is an argument for gender-segregated schooling -- at least at the level of literature. I'm not in principle opposed to that either, though I thought there were a thousand studies out there questioning it.

Of course, those studies were asking a different question. The old assumption was that boys were outperforming girls in the classroom... Is that still true?

Sutton said...

Well, as someone who read plenty of every and any kind of book I could get my hands on, I wouldn't recommend anything of the kind. As for your question about whether boys are still doing better than girls in general, I think more and more the answer is no. By random chance, here's a collection of articles on the subject (compiled by a pro-gender-segregation org, so grain of salt):
FInally, while all of this is interesting to talk about, I cringe at the thought of some state education agency deciding to actually do something about it, since the usual thought process seems to be: "well, if that study suggests a little of X is a good thing, we'll just speed things up a little and implement 1000X! Our test scores will rise so fast their heads will spin... hey, why are all the teachers quitting?"