by Cathi Bond
After having two gifted daughters with exceptional language skills, I recognized right off when our third child, a son, was going to need extra help to learn to read. I explained to him that when he learned to read, the entire world would be his oyster!
Boys can be rowdy, noisy, messy, and have a hard time sitting still. When teachers make girls the gold-standard of behavior and academic performance, boys generally can’t measure up. Their kinetic energy is considered disruptive. As a result, boys are made to feel like substandard girls and they wonder what’s wrong with them.
In 2010 boys significantly lagged behind girls in all 50 states in literacy skills. Data from 15 year olds in 65 countries indicate that this is a universal problem. In 2000, results of the Programme for International Student Assessment showed girls outperformed boys in reading by an average of 32 points. A 32-point difference places boys “a full year and a half behind girls in reading skills.” By 2009, girl’s scores exceeded boy’s scores in literacy by 39 points!
Recent research reported from the University of Bristol of England in 2016 reveals boys are twice as likely to fall behind girls in language skills before they even begin school; this gap is seen in boys as young as five years old. A boy’s confidence and motivation to read for pleasure can be severely compromised at an early age. Problems not remediated while young increase each year leaving him further behind his peers, causing him to think he is stupid. Early intervention is critical so students don’t fall through the cracks which can lead to emotional and mental health issues. Time is precious when there’s so much at stake!
There are few public policies or initiatives to assist boys in closing the widening academic gap. However, in a wider effort to tackle challenges that boys and men face, the White House Council on Boys and Men has addressed the impact of poor educational achievement among boys. The council found that:
- More boys are in special education than girls
- By age 12, boys are 60% more likely than girls to have repeated at least one grade
- Boys receive the majority of D’s and F’s and a minority of A’s.
- Boys are twice as likely to be suspended
- Boys are three times as likely to be expelled
- At age 16, boys start dropping out with more dropouts than girls
- A smaller percentage of them graduate from high school than girls
- Boys are being outpaced by girls in college attendance and completion
- By the eighth grade, only 20% of boys are proficient in writing and only 24 % proficient in reading
- In neighborhoods where fathers are most scarce, more than 1/2 of boys don’t finish high school
- Girls are 58% of college graduates; boys 42%
- In the Class of 2010, boys received only 39% of the Masters’ degrees
To reverse these disturbing trends, the White House Council recommends recruiting more male teachers, designing boy friendly tests, updating teacher education, and only prescribing Ritalin when all else fails. Other solutions may include bringing back recess to expend physical energy, and not withholding it as a punishment for poor behavior. Boys can learn better when they aren’t sitting all day.
Parents can make a difference by reading aloud to their sons and having interesting books in the house. Surround them with boy-oriented reading material they enjoy such as real-life non-fiction, adventure, sports, and how-to books. Parents who take the time to read out loud to their boys on a daily basis teach their sons that reading is pleasant and enjoyable.
Our son had a hard time sitting still when he was a preschooler. Although he was exposed daily to reading and high interest books, as a kindergartener it was difficult for him to sound out words. This could have been a nightmare, but I taught phonics and focused on vowel sounds to improve his word attack skills, resisting the tendency to jump in to provide the correct sound or word. In this way he could learn to process the information for himself. I became his personal “literacy specialist”. With daily encouragement and steady practice, he cracked the code of literacy and became a fluent reader. My son says that literacy has “provided me with the ability to further my education, learn another language, and excel in my current occupational position.”
Parents truly are their sons’ first teachers and advocates. One of the greatest gifts we can give them is helping them master the art of reading and unlocking the key to learning!