Why do boys read less well than girls and what should we do about it? In a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed piece, publisher Thomas Spence argues that the problem is the amount of time boys spend on video games, and that our response to the problem is completely wrong-headed. His title pretty much says it all: "How to Raise Boys Who Read. Hint: Not with gross-out books and video-game bribes."
Spence objects strongly to the reasoning embraced by many publishers, writers, teachers, and parents--reasoning which says that boys don't enjoy classic books, and that to entice them into reading we need to "meet them where they are" by providing gross, vulgar entertainment at their level. Their level seems to mean Captain Underpants, books about farting and butts, and a series of books on "grossology."
Spence argues that education is meant to civilize. These books prepare boys to be boorish idiots rather than good husbands and fathers. Besides, the effort to bribe the boys with vulgar books is useless. No book, not even one about farting, will be as stimulating as a video game. So turn off the games and bring out the good books, ones worth reading, ones that will help our young savages grow into civilized men.
It's a well-written piece and definitely worth reading. We parents need lots of moral support as we try to hold our stance against the raging current of ever more electronic content flooding our kids. But I object to two parts of Spence's argument.
First is a matter of fact. Spence states, "The appearance of the boy-girl literacy gap happens to coincide with the proliferation of video games and other electronic forms of entertainment over the last decade or two." This didn't sound right to me, so I checked. It isn't right. The boy-girl achievement gap in reading, according to the longitudinal NAEP exam given nationally every few years, has existed at least since 1971. Since that time, boys' reading scores have increased substantially for 9-year-olds and to a lesser extent for 13-year-olds, while for 17-year-olds they've remained about the same. The boy-girl gap, the amount by which girls read better than boys, follows the same pattern. Among 9-year-olds it's fallen by almost half, for 13-year-olds it's fallen some, and for 17-year-olds it hasn't changed. So it's not accurate to say appearance of the gap coincides with the proliferation of video games. The gap precedes the rise of video gaming, and if anything it seems to be getting a bit better the past few years. Spence concedes as much in his response to my comment on the article.
My second objection is that Spence writes as if it's an either-or proposition: read junk or read literature. An awful lot of kids read the whole range, or progress from one to the other. Is it really so bad to read a book called Grossology which explains the science of blood, slugs, and excrement? Boys are curious about such things. Is it pandering? Yes, on one level. On another level it's telling boys that it's all right to be curious about everything, including bodily functions and things their mother doesn't want to discuss.
But I may be overstating Spence's argument. (He may have overstated it himself.) His main point I agree with. Rather than try to make books as superficially exciting as video games, let's agree that parents have the right and responsibility to limit screen time and introduce their sons to the joys of reading good, meaningful books. . . with just a little junk thrown in.