Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Book Club--Part 5: The Trouble with Boys by Peg Tyre

Mom2MomEd Book Club: The Trouble with Boys by Peg Tyre, Part 5 -- Boys and Literacy
Welcome back to our Mom2MomEd book club! We hope you've been following along! Previously, McKenzie and I have written our posts together after discussing the week's chapters, but last week, due to scheduling issues, McKenzie wrote a post solo, and this week it's my turn!

Because, you know, LIFE happens! 

Anyhow, today we are tackling chapters 10 and 11 of The Trouble with Boys: A Surprising Report Card on Our Sons, Their Problems at School, and What Parents and Educators Must Do by journalist Peg Tyre.

Let's get started, shall we?

Although I spent much of my formal education wishing I could be homeschooled, I had some amazing teachers. Some of them were men--two in elementary school.

There was my fourth grade teacher, Mr. B., who understood that kids needed movement, a balance of science and the arts, and a good mix of hands on projects woven in with the textbook-based curriculum. 

There was Mr. L., my sixth grade teacher who also liked projects, but also loved to lighten things up with a weekly logic puzzle and goofy prizes. He also believed that kids needed movement, but he also believed in rest and naps.

My son had an amazing fourth grade teacher before we began to homeschool--Mr. C. believed in the arts, creative writing, and movement. 

Yet, when a new teacher arrives at an elementary school, what do you think the reactions are? In chapter 10, Tyre uncovers the typical reactions: parents are worried and suspicious. They wonder why a man would want to teach elementary school. They whisper behind his back. They complain to the administration.

Men in teaching have to prove themselves much the same way women in male-dominated fields have to prove themselves. They have to work harder, be better, and go the extra mile.They also often face similar discrimination and gender stereotyping.

The sad thing is that our sons (and daughters) need both male and female teachers in their lives. Boys, in particular benefit from male teachers, as Tyre discovers, because male teachers are much more understanding of the boy experience--they have been there, done that.

According to Tyre's research, at the time of the writing of her book, the number of male teachers in the United States was at an all time low in elementary school with only 9-percent of teachers being men. 

However, Tyre's research also uncovered that while we do need more men in the teaching profession, the research actually seems to indicate that the gender of a student's teacher is less important than the sensitivity of that teacher to the student's and the class's needs. A teacher who is able to understand and balance the needs and challenges of boy students along with the needs and challenges of girl students is far more likely to have success with both. 

In chapter 11, Tyre begins to tackle the issue of boys and literacy--boys simply aren't reading as well as girls. My private tutoring practice, spanning more than two and a half decades bears this out well--in all of that time, of all of my reading students, only three have been girls. And, I have tutored A LOT of kids over those many years! 

Tyre's research uncovers just how wide the gap is between the vast majority of boys and their female counterparts when it comes to reading ability with huge numbers of boys falling into categories of below basic and barely literate. 

Can you guess which groups of boys in particular are falling into these categories of such low reading performance? What ages, socio-economic classes, or races do you think these boys belong to?

Would it surprise you to find out that it is ALL ages, ALL socio-economic classes, and ALL races of boys?

ALL categories of boys are under performing in reading (and writing...but that's the next chapter!) 

Tyre also notes that some studies suggest that if boys are not reading "at grade level" by the eighth grade, their likelihood of graduating from high school plummets. She points out early in the chapter that 40+ years ago this might not have been a huge hindrance as there were many avenues of work available with good, livable wages, that did not necessarily require a high level of literacy. Unfortunately, many of those jobs either no longer exist in large numbers in the United States or they don't pay as well as they once did. 

What's not clear, however, is the exact reason why boys fall behind in literacy--and stay there. While research is being done in an effort to gain insight into this issue, there have been no conclusive answers, despite a few studies having been widely cited as proving brain differences between female and male students. The research simply isn't well enough developed and has been misconstrued as saying something it may not actually mean.

Tyre does go on to look at possible ways to address male literacy deficits, but she also found that many people in the field of literacy and education are hesitant to talk about boy-centric issues since so much emphasis has been on female-centric learning issues for so long.

Tyre points out a few ways to help boys that you may find beneficial and that are somewhat in line with my reading suggestions in THIS post and THIS post. In particular, I want to highlight three topics that Tyre addresses and that have come up over and over in my tutoring practice:

1. Boys (and girls) MUST see their parents and other important adults in their lives reading--and they MUST see MEN reading.
Over time, boys typically begin to view reading as a female activity since most of the people they see reading or who suggest reading materials to them are women. These women often--but not always--also tend to focus on books that appeal more frequently to women and suggest such books to boys without realizing that they may not have the same appeal to a boy.

If you are a man and reading this, please make time to read with, to, or in front of your sons. If you are a woman reading this, please take the time to encourage the men in your son's life to read to, with, or in front of your sons. 

Boys need to know that reading is an activity that can be enjoyed by BOTH males and females.

2. Boys need reading material that appeals to them. 
As a parent, teacher, or librarian, you may not like the idea of a student reading Captain Underpants, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Stink, Hank Zipzer, and so on. You might not think books that are merely lists and facts are appropriate. You might find comic books and graphic novels too graphic or not literary enough.

However, these are the types of materials many elementary school boys find interesting and enjoyable. 

I just want boys to read and I want them to enjoy reading. 

If it takes a book focused on farting and barfing to get a boy involved in and enjoying reading, I am ok with that. 

Get boys hooked on reading material that they find interesting and enjoyable, and later, when they have more experience with reading and maybe even WANT to read of their own accord, you can likely get them to read more sophisticated material.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I got one boy to practice reading by tying Spider Man into every tutoring lesson. I got another boy to improve his reading--and eventually to really enjoy reading--by allowing him to read the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series. Another boy was able to get into reading when I convinced his parents to allow him to read Captain Underpants--that boy gained three grade levels in reading ability in less than six months and was soon reading the entire Harry Potter series on his own and loving it.

You don't need to necessarily approve of your son's reading material--just be excited that he's reading at all!

3. Boys and girls BOTH may benefit from a phonics-rich teaching approach, but don't discount whole word (or sight word) instruction entirely.
Tyre discovered that a study done in Scotland showed that students taught exclusively with a whole word (sometimes called sight word) approach typically did not read as well as students with significant phonics instruction.

My tutoring experience supports a strong phonics base, but the English language is tricky and most of my reading students have benefited most from a mix of phonics and sight words practice. The majority benefited from about 70% phonics and 30% sight word instruction, and especially if manipulative tools (things they could hold and manipulate) were used during instruction.

One of the researchers Tyre interviewed noted that boys in particular seemed to like using magnetic letters that they could move about and rearrange and such approaches to teaching phonics seemed to work well for most students.

So, even if your child's school is using a sight words approach to teaching reading, I want you to bust out the fridge magnet alphabet letters and let your kids go to town with them! As a parent or teacher, use the letters to create both real and nonsense words and let your kids do the same. Perhaps even make up complete sentences of ONLY nonsense words and read them aloud to each other--you and your child will be forced to sound out all of the letters. 

The student I mentioned above who gained three grade levels in just a matter of months did exceptionally well with a phonics-based approach and with significant practice with made up words. Each session, we spent a few minutes on simply pronouncing letters and groups of letters. As he progressed, the groupings would become longer and more complex. Occasionally I would include a difficult real word to see if he would catch it during our pronunciation practice--the more his reading skills improved, the more frequently he found the real words hidden among the made up ones.

And a bonus on boys and writing...
Finally, Tyre touches on boys and writing--in particular, the fact that boys typically like to write about topics not deemed acceptable at most schools. Boys frequently want to write stories rich in action and conflict, often involving the bad guys dying violently. Or, they envision space warfare with battleships fighting for space territory and blowing each other up. Sometimes boys write about blood and guts. Sometimes they write about monsters.

Overwhelmingly, teachers are appalled by the natural subjects of boys' writings.

If that is the case for your son, I encourage you to accept that this is merely an expression of creativity and that boys often gravitate to these subjects NOT because they are violent themselves, but because it allows them to play out heroism. 

Boys and girls both need freedom to express themselves and to be creative. For boys, this often is at odds with what educators expect of them. 

However, without such creative expression, we would not have Superman, Star Wars, Tron, GI Joe, and many other iconic movies and characters that so many of us have grown up with. 

What struggles have you experienced in your own education with regard to reading and writing? What are your children's experiences? Share with us in a comment!

And, are there ways we might be able to help you in supporting your young readers and writers? How can we help you to advocate for or encourage your kids in their educations? Let us know!
You can find all of our posts about The Trouble with Boys by Peg Tyre here:
Head to your local library for the books mentioned in this post, or click through the links below to Amazon to purchase the books: 
If you bring home some of these books, let us know what your kids thought! 

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