Boys Left Behind

Boys Left Behind:A Look at Boys’ Struggles in Literacy Classrooms and Suggestions for Reform


Katharine Covino, University of Massachusetts Lowell

For many years, girls occupied the focus of gender-based educational reform (Stromquist, 1993). Recently, however, educational researchers and practitioners have begun to suspect that in their efforts to support female students, they may have left male students to struggle. Recent writing reveals that female students now earn more degrees at all levels of educational achievement (Marche, 2013). This trend fuels a growing concern regarding the plight of boys in school, and adds a sense of urgency to those investigating boys’ academic underachievement, particularly their literacy underachievement (Hayes, 1998; O’Donovan, 2006). Recent meta-analyses demonstrating a gender gap in literacy learning have only made more clear the fact that boys now stand as the more-disadvantaged group. The purpose of this paper, then, is to identify the forces at work in today’s schools that are leaving boys behind, and to explore ways educators can establish gender-equitable literacy classrooms, in which all children can grow and thrive.

Demographics of the Literacy Classroom
Those interested in the causes of boys’ struggles with literacy learning need look no further than the make-up of today’s language arts classrooms. Even the most cursory examination reveals an environment that is indisputably feminine, in the most literal sense of the word. In America, as around the world, the overwhelming majority of reading teachers are female. As Gurian and Ballew (2003) attest, “In kindergarten through sixth grade, almost 90 percent of the teachers are women, and female learning and teaching styles dominate” (p.27). From the time they enter school, boys must learn to negotiate a system based upon gendered discourses and practices, in which they are perpetually cast as ‘other’ to their female teachers and peers (Barrs, 1994). From their first days as readers, boys face a challenge girls do not. They do not see themselves reflected in their instructors. As Sokal, Katz, and Chaszewski (2007) contend; boys’ models of reading are predominantly female. Amid the crush of female voices and perspectives in literacy classrooms, boys remain a minority increasingly left behind.

Teacher Expectations
The feminization of language arts classrooms feeds into yet another factor leaving boys behind – teacher expectations. Because girls are often better able to engage with literacy lessons and to remain on task without prompting, teachers tend to respond more positively to them. Boys, on the other hand, do not always act in ways that are viewed favorably by language arts teachers. For one thing, they are often more physically active (Bruemmer, 2006). They have shorter attention spans, and need new activities to keep them focused. For this reason, male students are often viewed as more difficult to manage. While this trend manifests itself in all academic subjects, the demands on students to regulate their attention and behavior can be stricter in literacy settings (Alloway & Gilbert, 1997). The innate rigidity of language arts classrooms, coupled with boys’ need to be active, often means that some teachers view boys as more distracted and disruptive. Their perceived disinterest prompts instructors to spend less energy trying to engage them, and once again, boys find themselves jilted in literacy classrooms.

A Focus on Fiction
Lastly, a focus on fictional texts in school can cause boys to feel excluded. Research demonstrates that while boys tend to prefer nonfiction and informational texts, most reading teachers rely on fictional selections (Parsons, 2004). The bent towards reading fiction begins in the early grades and becomes more predominant as students advance to secondary school. While reading primarily fiction in school may cause dissatisfaction for both sexes, it can prove especially alienating for male students. Male preferences for nonfiction and informational text may be heightened by the cultural feminization of fiction. In their writing, Sokal et al. (2007) discuss the ways that students view reading, and particularly reading fiction, as “a gender-marked behavior” (p.652). A trend highlighted in Cherland’s (1994) research. When asked about their reading preferences, the fathers in her study “ vehemently declared that they did not read fiction [and] denied that their sons read fiction” (p.86). Taken together, the feminization of reading fiction and the overreliance on fiction in school, can contribute to boys’ devaluation and disinterest in reading, both in out of academic settings.

Steps Toward Gender Equity in Literacy Education
The preceding paragraphs identify a few factors which serve to exclude boys in contemporary literacy classrooms. Identifying the ways literacy education is leaving boys behind, however, is only the beginning. Recognition must be coupled with reform. As Klecker (2006) suggests, schools should be actively looking for ways to include male students in reading reform across all grade levels. Specific steps must be taken to make certain that male students are better integrated into language arts learning and better enabled to share the success girls enjoy. This may mean looking critically at some the ways literacy is taught, with an eye open to gender-conscious change. Prado and Plourde (2011) affirm the need for reform; arguing that the time has come for implementing new and diverse methods of teaching reading to boys. First, educators should strive for increased an awareness of the ways gender can affect teaching. Second, teachers should incorporate their new understandings to better engage male students. Finally, instructors should commit to equitable teaching for boys and girls alike.

Creating Awareness of Gender
While it is easy to recognize the preponderance of female language arts teachers, it is more difficult to identify a promising solution. Literacy instructors are disproportionately women. This phenomena is unlikely to change. In fact, as the work of Sokal et al. (2007) make clear, numbers of male reading teachers are actually dropping. The solution lies not in altering teaching demographics, but rather in helping language arts teachers become aware of the ways their gender intersects with their pedagogy. Though many educators tacitly acknowledge the overrepresentation of female literacy teachers, few address the ways in which gender is deeply implicated in the practice of teaching. Fewer still address the effects that such a feminized culture can have on students, particularly boys. Where most teachers shy away from such frankness, Bruemmer (2006) uses her writing to discuss the extent to which her teaching practice reflects her gender: “My approach to teaching [is] informed by theory and practice, but also by my femaleness” (p.37). Barrs (1994) voices these sentiments in a more general way, arguing that teachers of both sexes cannot claim an ungendered perspective. If, however, such teachers are committed to moving in the direction of gender equity, they need to be aware of their gender, and the ways it can affect teaching and learning in their classrooms.

Promoting Student Engagement
In addition to becoming more aware of their own gender, teachers should be encouraged to rethink the ways their expectations for student participation in language arts classrooms may be gender-based. As alluded to previously, boys can be more active and distractible than girls in academic environments, particularly literacy settings. Teachers, therefore, should be aware of these tendencies and responsive to students who seem predisposed to “physical and mental ‘fidgetiness’” (McGuiness, 2004, p.157). Male students can become disinterested quickly, and have an easier time focusing when teachers offer new and varied stimulants to keep them engaged. For teachers, this can mean changing activities more frequently. Some researchers advocate incorporating movement or physicality in literacy learning whenever possible. For younger students, this could take the form of Reader’s Theatre. For older students, acting out a play by Shakespeare. Such kinesthetic methods can offer students a chance to embrace “the physical capacity of an assignment [without] disturbing the day’s academic lesson” (Bruemmer, 2006, pp.39-40). Distracted students also typically respond well to opportunities for hands-on, discovery-learning. Finding ways to weave the arts into literacy classrooms allows students outlets for creative thinking and incorporates different learning styles and intelligences (Gurian & Ballew, 2003). Participating actively and collaboratively in a broader, more inclusive range of classroom activities can result in a more positive learning experience for students.

Augmenting Reading Affinity
Finally, literacy teachers should commit themselves to the task of connecting boys with texts of interest. As alluded to earlier, research demonstrates that sometimes boys and girls have different reading preferences. Boys tend to be more interested in nonfiction and informational texts (Goldberg & Roswell, 2000). For this reason, they are often “less satisfied with the books available to them in school” (Barrs, 1994, p.5). To address this issue, some researchers advocate choosing texts with male-friendly themes (Bruemmer, 2006). Parsons (2004) agrees with this approach, citing his practice of stocking his shelves with materials designed to pique male interest (p.1). There are other ways to entice boys into reading. Some schools create ‘boys only’ book clubs (Parsons, 2004). While still others seek out male teachers and adults in the school community to provide boys with positive role models of adult male readers (Ellis, 1994). Instead of pursuing explicitly separate methods to connect students with texts, many teachers advocate creating a rich and diverse classroom library. For Annan (1994), this means including “fiction and nonfiction, dual language texts, magazines, comics, newspapers, catalogues, telephone directories, ‘home-made’ books, maps and atlases, and any other suitable form of print” (p.102). For those teachers willing to broaden their understanding of what counts as a school text, innumerable good choices present themselves, with options to match the interests and abilities of every student. As the author makes clear, “I aim to create an environment in which it is possible to build on and widen the experiences of all, thus making success in reading more likely for everyone” (p.103). Validating diverse reading tastes and choices can help boys, and indeed all students, develop an augmented affinity for reading.

Of course, some caveats accompany the preceding suggestions. First, when rethinking various aspects of pedagogical practice it is important to remember that not every strategy will work in every case. Even methods that have a grounding in research will not apply equally to each boy in each class. As Bruemmer (2006) advises, “The strategies do not work with every boy because he is a boy” (p.38). Sokal et al.’s (2007) writing reminds practitioners to be mindful of “the heterogeneity of boys and their reading needs” (p.657). Another caution must be voiced warning educators of the danger of advancing the interests of boys ahead of those of girls. Swinging the pendulum too far in favor of boys is just as dangerous as swinging it too far in favor of girls. In their writing, Alloway and Gilbert (1997) caution educators of the flawed results of a system in which the interests of girls are pitted against those of boys (p.10). The pedagogical responses designed to support and enfranchise boys should in no way undermine girls. It is necessary, therefore, to remain grounded in a “positive agenda for change that not only acknowledges the needs of boys, but also clearly recognizes the important needs of girls” (Alloway & Gilbert, 1997, pp.2-3).

Gender Equity through Best Practices
In concert with the preceding suggestions, gender-conscious educators interested in supporting the needs of male students should espouse research-based best practices for literacy instruction. Though some might argue that best practice strategies are not gender-based, and therefore will not be useful in helping boys succeed, others disagree (Ellis, 1994). Recalling Gertrude Stein, Parsons succinctly argues, “A good reading program is a good reading program is a good reading program” (p.4). Diversity, inclusivity, and choice – hallmarks of best practices in language arts – stand at the heart of gender-equitable education. Whenever possible, literacy instructors should draw from diverse genres, including fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and drama. They should allow students to respond to texts in ways that are personally significant. They should offer lessons that appeal to different learning styles and preferences, including auditory, visual, and kinesthetic activities (Hausheer et al., 2011). Constructivist strategies and techniques, which allow students to formulate active, participatory, hands-on responses to reading, can be both engaging and empowering for students (Bruemmer, 2006). While such techniques are beneficial for all learners, they are particularly advantageous for struggling or distracted readers, many of whom are male. Though these suggestions barely scratch the surface, they represent a starting point for literacy instructors interested in helping boys and girls enjoy success and achievement in contemporary literacy classrooms.


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