Educators agree that the ability to read well is critical in forming a foundation for academic success. Reading builds vocabulary, feeds the imagination, allows us to share our thoughts with a broad audience, and provides access to critical instructions and information. It also opens the door to a lifetime of entertainment and new ideas.
But we’ve known for years that boys don’t seem as engaged as girls when it comes to literacy. They often disengage from books assigned in class, do less pleasure reading and perform below girls on standardized literacy tests.
While there is a lot of quantitative data proving the point, researchers had no explanation for why or what to do about it until 1999. That’s when Jeff Wilhelm, an English professor at Boise State University and a highly regarded author of dozens of books, and Michael W. Smith, a literacy professor at Temple University, decided to look into it.
While a few other studies have since touched on the problem, Wilhelm and Smith were the first to provide overarching data proving the extent of the problem. Their findings are now the go-to resource on the subject, both in Idaho and nationwide.
To get to the heart of the issue, they talked to boys about what they were reading and how they felt about it. And this is where the research gets interesting. There was a lot of data showing that boys weren’t keeping up in the area of literacy, but that data didn’t explain why. That’s because to find out what kids are really thinking takes time and dedication.
Wilhelm and Smith tracked boys’ reading, listened to them read out loud, asked them questions about how they felt about what they had just read, and conducted structured interviews both inside and outside of school. And they paid the kids to keep logs of what they were reading.
Their initial results, detailed in the 2002 book “Reading Don’t Fix No Chevys,” were surprising. Turns out the boys were engaged in literate behavior, but in areas they felt were relevant to their interests. School reading assignments, it turned out, were not meeting their needs.
So the researchers began looking for what would make reading match up more closely to what boys think is cool and important in their lives.
“We found that we need to tap into their existing interests and package them in a useful and appealing format that bridges to new, related interests,” Wilhelm said. “Boys need to be engaged. They don’t read to please others and they are less patient. They’ll say, ‘What can I do with this?’ ”
And the good news here is that efforts to engage boys also appeal to girls, so getting boys more involved helps all students.
Wilhelm, who also is founder and director of the highly acclaimed Boise State Writing Project, then turned his focus to what young people were reading for pleasure.
A British study that has followed a cohort of 17,000 children born in 1970 has shown that reading for pleasure as children leads to better educational opportunities and social success. But the data doesn’t spell out why. And Ruth Vinz, English education program coordinator at Teachers College, Columbia University, did some studies based on the horror genre, but not pleasure reading in general.
So Wilhelm decided to take a close look at what teens were reading, particularly the marginalized texts that teachers and parents love to hate: books about dystopian societies, graphic novels, mysteries, vampire and horror books, fantasy stories and more.
“Some of this is shock literature and teachers recoil from it,” Wilhelm said. But he found a lot of positives to letting kids read these books, including opportunities for them to explore their lives and rehearse difficult situations. Examples include vampire stories that deal with feelings of difference and untamed power, and dystopian novels that explore equality, fairness and how things could be.
He’s now studying how expert readers read nonfiction — how they notice what they notice, and how they know what to do with that information. The next step is finding more effective ways to help teachers transfer these skills to less proficient readers. Doing so is key to improving student learning and meeting Common Core State Standards.
The Boise State Writing Project is a primary partner with the State Department of Education in implementing literacy in Common Core — a skill set that pertains to every teacher in every subject. All of Idaho’s Common Core state coaches are Boise State Writing Project fellows who provide training to teachers across the state.
We have a long way to go before we fully understand the human mind, but research that motivates and engages young minds is a much-needed step in the right direction — for boys and girls.
Mark Rudin is vice president for research and economic development at Boise State University, where he oversees the Office of Sponsored Programs, the Office of Research Compliance, and other administrative and technical offices. His column looks at the state of scientific discovery and economic development in Idaho and beyond.