Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Why Boys Read Less Than Girls--My $.02

Why don't boys read as much as girls? I'll give you one reason: teachers. Specifically, elementary and middle school teachers who use the dreaded class novel. The class novel, for those out of the know, is when a teacher selects a book (usually something like this in elementary school or this in middle school or, God forbid, this in high school*) and then they spend about eight times as long as necessary reading and discussing the book until, even if the book is halfway decent, all the interesting has been hoovered out of it.

Now, most teachers, for too many bad reasons to name, tend to choose books that they think have high literary merit. They teach classics, or at least books with pretty words that tend to be character driven and big on THEME (and yes, as a third grade teacher I am required to teach THEME). In other words, a lot of these teachers use pretty much the same criteria that the Newbery judges use. (And a lot of them don't know jack about kidlit and figure if it's got a shiny medal on the cover then it has to be good.)

So pretend you're a boy and because it's short and because it's historical and because it won a Newbery, your third grade teacher decides to torture you with a month-long study of Sarah, Plain and Tall. In fourth grade, you get On My Honor. In fifth, maybe it's Island of the Blue Dolphins and in sixth, how about Bridge to Terabithia.

There's nothing necessarily wrong with any of the above (except Sarah, Plain and Tall. That books sucks. See below.), but if you're a boy who'd rather be spending his in-class reading time, I don't know, choosing books you actually want to read like your teacher does when she takes her steamy romance novels to the beach in the summer, then you might just start to think that reading is:

a. Boring
b. Something you're forced to do, like eating your vegetables
c. For the smart kids, especially the girl ones
d. All of the above

And you might receive the unintentional message that some books are worthy enough to be read and some are not (at least, not where your teacher can see you). That Captain Underpants book you saw in the store? "Garbage!" says Ms. Davis. Those Wimpy Kid books? Please. There are cartoons in them!

So my message to teachers is this:

a. no more class novels
b. allow your students to choose the books they want to read and allow them to read them at their own speed. (Kind of like you do.)
c. if you want to know if they're understanding it, read the book yourself and talk about it. (You know, like real people do.)
d. if you must teach THEME, use picture books. They have themes too and you can cover about twenty different themes in the time it takes you to work through one (maybe two) in a class novel.
e. The Wimpy Kid books are awesome.


Sarah, Plain and Tall
, reviewed by what sounds an awful lot like actual third grade boys (from Amazon):

"I don't think this is a good book for these reasons: It has no emotional, dangerous or mysterios parts."

"Sarah, Plain and Tall is a short and boring book. I, an eleven-year-old boy, had to read it for Accelerated Reader, and as the story progressed it became worse and worse."

"The story goes nowhere fast. My last comment is the book is too short. If you're a person who likes short books basically about the colors blue, gray, and green, and your between the ages of 7-10, knock yourself out."

"Don't put any little kids through the torture of reading this horrible book. It scarred me for life."

"Few interesting things happened, and the dialog stank."

"Some of you say "poetic nature" and a "light romance" what ever!"

"What a snore!"


*Thank God for The Outsiders and Lord of the Flies.


Rena Jones said...

Great post. I'm reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to my boys (we homeschool) right now and they're loving this one. Don't think they'd like some of the ones you listed, for obvious reasons. We do a lot of theme stuff with picture books too, just like you said. Another good boy/girl one that all my kids like is My Side of the Mountain.

Kelly Polark said...

I think that teachers should choose some books that kids read and have them choose some- a happy medium. I also agree the teachers should put more thought into the selection they choose, too. Otherwise, many kids wouldn't be exposed to "the classics", and they should have some exposure. Not every single time and not drawn out, but exposed to them.
Hilarious comments on Sarah Plain and Tall!

Anita said...

Boy says his favorite books are STUART LITTLE and CURIOUS GEORGE books. I think Boy would also like KELLY, FUN AND DANCING, if such a book existed (he's a bit obsessed with Kelly's dance video).

Valerie Geary said...

Whoa whoa whoa! Step away from Bridge to Terabithia... that book is the bomb! Although... you do make a good point. Also. I studied Captain Underpants in a Post Modern Literature class in College. Now THAT was the bomb!

Unknown said...

I happen to really like Bridge to Terabithia, but my twelve-year-old self would have hated it and I would have had to rediscover it later when I wanted to read it.

Just like I did with almost every book required in English 11. They were pretty good, when I didn't have a due date and a response journal and I didn't have to listen to Mrs. Rief gush over symbolism.

Heather Kelly said...

Really good post, PMM. Kate Messner talked about this a week or so back on her blog--about not forcing any book on any reader. And, it's interesting, because my son, who's 10, has always read girl and boy protagonists without favor, one way or the other. Of course, the themes can't really be girlish in any way, but he loved such books as The Doll People (okay, that is kinda girlish, I guess), and The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z. I hope that he doesn't realize anytime soon that people think those are "girl stories".
I just think that the characters need to be engaging for kids. Not to pick an award winner just for the sake of reading an award winner.

Sarah Dooley said...

Great post! I've got to read novels aloud if my kids are going to be exposed to them at all, because my students' reading levels are far below their interest levels. But I try to let them choose the books. We're currently finishing up a GOOSEBUMPS book. They dig it.

I did make the boys sit through CLEMENTINE earlier in the year, though, because it was my one girl's turn to pick. Actually, it was quite popular even with the boys. And "pigeon splat" has now entered their lexicon.

Laura Pauling said...

I have to agree that the Little House and the Prairie are extremely boring - even for some girls. You have a point, but I disagree with you on the classroom novel. I think it depends on the school and the teacher, but my kids have always enjoyed the classroom stories. My kids have come home wanting to get more of an author because it was introduced in the classroom. But I don't think at our school it's a month long study - it's just read. :)

Unknown said...

Let me clarify: I'm all for reading books aloud and exposing all sorts of different novels to kids. What I'm opposed to is choosing one book, assigning it to all students, spending an undue amount of time on that book, and talking it to death.

In a typical year, I usually read about 20 books aloud. I do it during students' snack time and I don't make them listen. (They can draw or write or read their own book while I'm reading.)

Unknown said...

I like how you roll. Thank God I get to basically choose the books (with one colleague) that I teach. And thank God we chose to teach The Outsiders, which blows the kids' hair back in September.

Anonymous said...

I've read Sarah Noble and Sarah, Plain and Tall, but none of them were class books. The teachers you know must be very, very boring people. I think it's great to have books you read in class, but I remember really liking books like The Giver and The Watsons Go To Birmingham, which generally all kids can enjoy. Still liked the girly books, but those I was happy reading on my own. So I think there can be a happy medium.

Lily Cate said...

I remember loving the books we read in elementary. Lots of Rohl Dahl, and my 4th grade teacher read us the entire Chronicles of Narnia.

But by high school, yeesh. I had a string of teachers who wouldn't assign anything written after the 19th century.

I hope educators are looking at the brilliant work being put out in YA right now.

Anonymous said...

Also, if you knock Laura Ingalls Wilder, I will have to hurt you. A lot. Sorry. :-p