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By Birgit A. Self Reading Choice Impacts on Literacy by Gender
Introduction • Numerous recent studies have indicated a broad decline in the level of literacy in the United States. • In the summer of 2004, the National Endowment for the Arts released the results of a survey entitled: Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America. This study showed a serious decline in both book reading and literary reading across all aspects of American society including across ages, regions, races, incomes, and education levels. • However, there was one aspect of this survey that ought to be particularly troubling. From 1992 to 2002, the gender gap in reading by young adults increased significantly. Overall book reading by young women decreased from 63 percent to 59 percent, while overall reading by young men decreased from 55 percent to 43 percent (National Endowment, 2004). • Numerous studies throughout the years have indicated that young females tend to be more literate than males at all levels of education. This phenomenon is nothing new. What is troublesome about this particular survey is that the survey indicates the levels of book literacy between young women and young men are increasing in our current educational system. • It would seem that understanding the causes of this difference would be more important today than at anytime in the past. Furthermore, it would be beneficial to about 50% of future Americans if we could identify any measures or steps that can be easily taken to stop or slow this rapid decrease in male book literacy.
Research Question • How do young girls exhibit a greater degree of literacy due to an emphasis of reading choices that cater to young females? • This is a very broad question and there is no indication in my research that any individual has attempted an in-depth and statistically significant study of this specific question. • One can only imagine that such an in-depth study would involve detailed analysis of a large population of public school library reading choices and attempt to find any trend between the gender choices within those libraries and the book literacy of the children who have attended those schools. However, a logical means of answering the broad question would be to ascertain whether there are gender preferences in elemental reading; whether young readers were more attracted to literature that is generally preferred by their gender and then determine if there are any significant differences in the emphasis of reading choices for one gender or another.
Themes • During the course of my research in attempting to answer the question as to reading choice and how it impacts literacy by gender, five recurring themes were encountered. • Literacy levels have a tremendous impact upon the eventual success of individuals as measured by income and criminal activity . • Girls are traditionally more book literate at all educational levels as compared to boys. • There are many anecdotal or traditional beliefs as to why girls have greater literacy; and that all of these traditional beliefs are rooted in anatomical differences and not based upon scientific study. • Girls traditionally demonstrate a greater desire to read than boys. • There are strong differences in the types of literature that appeals to girls than boys. Disappointingly, there was limited development or inquiry into the relative availability of literature broken down by gender preference.
Theme 1 Impact of Literacy Upon Future Success and Happiness • Study upon study demonstrates that the level of literacy attained by and individual within a society has a tremendous correlation to that individual’s socioeconomic status and the likelihood of that individual committing a serious crime. • A literate society is likely to have a higher average standard of living and less crime. The most concise data that supports this fact is a simple 2008 calculation by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which compared the per capita income of countries around the globe to the literacy rate of citizens of each country (OECD, 2009). This study indicates that countries with adult populations with a literacy rate below 40% produce a per capita income for the citizens of $600 per year. Those countries with adult literacy rates above 98% produce a per capital income for their citizens of over $12,000 per year. There is little question that society ought to place great value upon the literacy rate of its citizenry (OECD, 2009). • The single most important indicator of future educational success is early childhood literacy. Reading permeates almost the entire school curriculum and in most every subject a student will encounter during their educational years will require the ability to adequately read and write. • It is imperative that society makes every reasonable effort to ensure that children are able to read and write competently at a young age. Many children, particularly boys, struggle at an early age with reading literacy. However, almost every struggle can be overcome with the help from institutions and individuals that are willing to attack this most important issue. The National Research Council states: “Most of the reading problems faced by today’s adolescents and adults are the result of problems that might have been avoided or resolved in their early childhood years” (National Council, 2004, p. 46).
Theme 1 (continued) • Research indicates that it is particularly important to motivate boys to read and states that “in the USA, boys are significantly less successful in school than girls: boys are three to five times more likely to have a learning disabilities placement in school, boys score significantly lower on standardized measures of reading achievement, and they are 50% more likely to be kept down a year” (Brozo, 2002, p. 11). • Poor reading skills and the learning difficulties caused by them often predict unemployment, crime, homelessness and drug problems. The impact of early childhood literacy upon both the individual and the greater society is almost indescribably immense. If one-half of children are potentially struggling due to the reading choices they are exposed to, it would seem that a serious consideration of this solvable problem should be investigated (Brozo, 2002).
Theme 2 Girls are Traditionally More Literate Than Boys • As early as 1909, Leonard Porter Ayres in his famous treatise on the education system in the United States, Laggards in Our Schools, noted that girls tend to read and write at a higher level than their male counterparts (Ayres, 1909). • A majority of the articles encountered during the research of this paper cited the PIRLS study on gender differences in reading note that in every single one of the thirty countries studied, that girls read and write at a statistically significant rate greater than boys. • Based on recent results from large-scale reading assessments, the present researcher’s concern relates to the consistent observation that girls, on average, surpass boys in their reading abilities (White, 2007). The articles and studies citing boys under-achievement as compared to their female counterparts is almost endless and consistent amongst data gathered in developed countries. The United Kingdom government Office for Standards in Education summarized their recent studies as follows: “The pattern of performance in reading seems pretty clear-cut. Girls made a better start at learning to read than boys…girls always out-performed boys and usually by a considerable margin” (Coles & Hall, 2002, p. 97). Most explanations relate to mental and/or biological differences between boys and girls. However, most solutions include the bottom-line objective of making reading more interesting to boys in order to encourage their natural desire to read and write with greater frequency.
Theme 3 Traditional Beliefs Related to the Literacy Differences Between Boys and Girls • For the last one hundred years, there have been numerous popular explanations for the differences in reading literacy levels between boys and girls. Many of those populist beliefs have a biological basis while others have a socio-economic basis. Many of the recent biological explanations of the difference in reading literacy levels relate to differences in such things as chemistry, brain-wiring, and maturation rates. Those researchers who believe a biological difference exists are great proponents of gender specific strategies for teaching boys and girls how to read and write. Most of these researchers believe that the reading curriculums developed around the world are biased toward those methods that favor the feminine development of reading literacy. Coles and Hall state: “There are some strands of evidence which suggest differences between individuals, and between the sexes, in the extent of the use of alternative cognitive process during the learning of a reading skill” (Coles & Hall, 2002, p. 105). • In 1996, Burnett cited the importance of self-concept for explaining the differences in literacy amongst genders. In his research, Burnett used data in the form of teacher statements, student self-talk, and academic concepts, which he obtained from 957 children in third thru seventh grade (Burnett & Proctor, 2002). This data indicated that malestudent’s self-concepts were typically higher in math and kinesthetic abilities, while the self-concepts of female students were higher in the areas of school, reading and parental perceptions. Not a single research paper encountered mentioned differences in the intelligence levels or raw physical differences between boys and girls. All physiological differences noted were in the processing features and speech learning methodologies preferred between boys and girls.
Theme 4 Girls Have a Greater Desire to Read As Compared to Boys • Merisuo-Storm,, states “Girls enjoyed reading significantly more than boys...many boys did not enjoy typical school texts..”boys were significantly more reluctant writers than girls.” Merisuo-Storm studied the differences in literacy between boys and girls by examining 145 fourth-grade children from a Finnish comprehensive school that were ages of ten or eleven. Sixty-seven boys and seventy-eight girls participated in the study. The objectives of the study were to ascertain fourth grade students attitudes toward reading and writing and to find out what texts students would naturally choose to read and to determine if boys and girls would choose to read different texts.. The questions used were designed to be easy to understand and unambiguous. • In the results section of the study, Merisuo-Storm states: “….the differences between boys’ and girls’ attitudes towards reading and writing were significant. In the fourth grade the girls enjoyed reading far more than boys, and there was an even greater difference in the girls’ and the boys’ opinions concerning writing” (Merisuo-Storm, 2006, p. 117). Merisuo-Storm notes that the girls in his study had more positive attitudes toward both recreational and academic reading in the elementary grades. The gap in recreational reading widened as children got older while the gap in academic reading remained mostly constant. • In James Duggin’s 1989 study of his sixth graders, states that girls were twice as likely as boys to be interested in reading. The statement that “girls have a greater desire to read as compared to boys” seems almost intuitive to any observer of a young classroom in the developed world and would like be confirmed by the vast majority of mothers who have both young girls and boys in the household (Duggins, 1989, p.9).
Theme 5 There Exists a Strong Difference in the Types of Literature That Appeal to Boys as Compared to Girls • Another recurring theme is that there exists a strong difference in the types of literature that appeals to boys as compared to girls. Merisuo-Storm gave the study participants one hundred texts with which to rate as good or bad and as either “girl books” or “boy books”. Meriuso-Storm’s conclusion includes the following statement: “Boys are not, in most cases, as interested as girls in the texts that are commonly used in school. Boys and reluctant readers are interested in comics and humor” (Merisuo-Storm, 2006, p. 114). • One common misconception is that boys prefer to read non-fiction rather than fiction. Merisuo-Storm’s study clearly demonstrated that both boys and girls prefer fiction over non-fiction. • Other studies have indicated that those that do prefer non-fiction tend to be boys. The University of Sheffield (England) conducted a now famous study of children’s reading preferences in 1977 known as “The Children’s Reading Choices Project.” This study, which had been replicated in 1994, included a national questionnaire given to 7,976 children between the ages to ten and fourteen in 169 public schools and follow-up interviews with about 1% of the participants were conducted. In this study, 78% of those who chose to read non-fiction exclusively were boys. • The most significant observation to come out of the Merisuo-Storm’s study is that boys overwhelmingly prefer to read texts (fiction or non-fiction) that are viewed as masculine. Boys feel an extreme social pressure to not be identified by their peers as reading “girl books.” Merisuo-Storm observed a number of instances where boys choosing books with feminine themes were teased and chided by their peers. Thus, fiction is seemingly attractive to boys; provided that the fiction they are reading is viewed as non-feminine by their peers (Merisuo-Storm, 2006, p. 117).
Answering The Research Question Are Girls More Literate Due to Greater Reading Choices? • In the course of researching this paper, I was unable to identify any scientifically conducted research to indicate that young girls are more literate because they have a greater amount of reading choices. • Not only did I fail to find any research indicating that young girls’ greater literacy level is a result of their reading choice availability; I failed to find any authors attempting to claim that greater reading choices were resulting in greater literacy. • I was unable to locate any studies that objectively calculated and provided any meaningful data on the differences in public school libraries in the amount of “girl preferred” books as compared to “boy preferred” books include in the libraries’ available material. • However, I conducted a non-scientific, anecdotal investigation of preferred reading materials in Texas schools. Attached is the Texas Bluebonnet award list for 2009-2010. Texas elementary school teachers are encouraged by the TEA to include these books on elementary reading lists. A quick review of these twenty suggested books reveals the following types of reading material:
Texas Bluebonnet Award List 2009-2010 8 titles = girl-oriented 5 titles = boy oriented 7 titles = non-gender oriented 1. The Penderwicks on Garden Street:Girl-oriented, non-fiction. 2. Surprises According to Humphrey: Pet story non-gender oriented. 3. Frogs: Non-fiction oriented to both genders. 4. Martina, the Beautiful Cockroach:Girl-oriented, non-fiction. 5. The Gollywhopper Games: Boy-oriented, non-fiction. 6. The Luck of the Loch Ness:Girl-oriented, fiction. 7. Piper Reed, Navy Brat:Girl-oriented, fiction focusing on anorexia. 8. What to Do About Alice?: Non-fiction about a president’s daughter that is non-gender specific. 9. Savvy:Girl-oriented, fiction. 10. Alvin Ho: Allergic to Girls, School, and Other Scary Things:Boy-oriented, fiction. 11. Two-Minute Drill:Boy-oriented, fiction. 12. Yum! MmMm Que Rico America’s Sprouting:Girl-oriented, non-fiction about poetry and art. 13. The Hound of Rowan:Boy-oriented, fiction. 14. We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball:Boy-oriented, non-fiction. 15. Lady Liberty: A Biography: Non-fiction, non-gender specific. 16. Pale Male: Citizen Hawk of New York: Fiction, non-gender specific about a bird. 17. Maybelle in The Soup: Fiction, non-gender specific. 18. Where I Live: Fiction, girl-oriented. 19. Help Me Mr. Mutt: Fiction, non-gender specific. 20. Someone Named Eva: Fiction, girl-oriented.
Answering the Research Question Based upon the studies and papers reviewed, I can conclude that: No objective data was noted to indicate that young girls exhibit a greater degree of literacy as a result of a greater emphasis of reading choices that cater to young females.
New Findings My research into the basic question indicated that no data was found to indicate that boys’ literacy challenges are due to the emphasis of female-oriented reading material in public school libraries. However in addressing this question, it had become clear that there is a literacy crisis amongst boys in U.S. public schools and that every reasonable action ought to be taken to stem the tide of this literacy problem in America. • The level of male literacy in our society has, and will continue to have, a tremendous impact upon our levels of crime and economic well-being. • Young boys have a statistically significant lower level of literacy than young girls in our society. • Young girls have a greater desire to read than young boys. • Young readers have strongly differentiated reading preferences.
New Findings As teachers we need to: • Make every effort to encourage young boys to read. • Make every effort and attempt to clearly understand what reading material is of most interest to young boys. • Public school libraries should then be encouraged to review their collections and ensure that an adequate volume of material attractive to young male readers is made available to them. • Without discouraging the continued interest of young female readers, elementary educators ought to be encouraged to ensure that reading assignments include options that appeal to both young male and female readers.
New Findings Scieszka published an article in NEA Today entitled “Getting Guys to Read.” Additionally, this former teacher, has created a website located at www.guysread.com that is intended to provide resources and materials to educators and parents that will encourage young boys to read. Scieszka states “Boys need special attention when it comes to reading. Literacy statistics show that we are not giving boys what they need to be successful readers. I think anyone who teaches boys or has a son can attest to the fact that reading is often difficult for boys to master” (Scieszka, 2009). A quick visit to Scieszka’s website includes a significant number of books and other reading material that is not traditionally included in elementary reading materials.
Conclusion • Literacy is more important than ever to our American society. Low literacy level is a solid risk indicator of a life of poverty and crime for our citizens. • Young girls are clearly more literate than young boys; and young girls are unquestionably more interested in reading and writing than young boys. • It is clear that the availability of reading materials of interest to young readers encourages their recreational and academic reading. • No scientifically based studies were discovered which clearly indicate that young girls exhibit a greater degree of literacy as a result of a greater emphasis of reading choices that cater to young females.
References Ayres, L.P. (1909). Laggards in Our Schools. New York: Charities Publication Committee Bauerlein, M., & Stotsky, S. (2005, January 25). Why Johnny Won’t Read. The Washington Post, p. A15. Brozo, W.G. (2002). To be a boy, to be a reader: Engaging teen and preteen boys in active literacy. Newark, DE: International Reading Association. Burnett, P. & Proctor, R. (2002). Elementary school students’ learner self-concept, academic self-concepts and approaches to learning. Educational Psychology in Practice, 18 (4), 325-333. Retrieved November 17, 2009 from PSYCINFO database. Duggins, J. (1989). Middle School Students’ Attitudes about Reading. ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED_346082. Coles, M., & Hall, C. (2002). Gendered readings: learning from children’s reading choices. Journal of Research in Reading, 25 (1), 96-108. Merisuo-Storm, T. (2006). Girls and Boys Like to Read and Write Different Texts. Scandinavian Journal of Educational Research, 50 (2), 111-125. Mullis, I.V., Martin, M.O., Kennedy, A.M., and Foy, P. (2007). PIRLS International Report 2006: IEA's Progress in International Reading Literacy Study in Primary School in 40 Countries. Retrieved November 15, 2009 from http://timss.bc.edu/pirls2006/intl_rpt.html
References National Endowment for the Arts (June, 2004). Reading At Risk: A survey of Literary Reading in America. Washington, D.C. Retrieved November 16, 2009 from http://www.arts.gov/research/ReadingAtRisk.pdf Organisation for Economic Co-Operative and Development [OECD]. (2009). Equally prepared for life? How 15- year-old boys and girls perform in school, Paris: OECD Publications. Scieszka, J. (2009) Guys Read. Retrieved from http://guysread.com. Snow, C.E., Burns, M.S., & Griffin, P (1998). Preventing Reading Difficulities in Young Children. Retrieved from http://www.ed.gov/inits/americareads/ReadDiff/read-sum.html Texas Bluebonnet Award List (2009-2010) Retrieved November 16, 2009 from http://www.txla.org/groups/tba/nominees.html White, B. (2007). Are Girls Better Readers than Boys? Which Boys? Which Girls? Canadian Journal of Education, 30 (2), 554-581.