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District 833 wants to see more boys interested in books

Devin Carlton, Oltman Junior High School seventh-grader, didn't like reading in sixth grade. This year, in Amy Johnson's reading class, he changed his mind.

"I love reading," he said. "I really like fantasy books and I get to choose the books I read."

Fellow seventh-grader Shane Ferlaak said he hasn't been convinced yet. He reads what is necessary for school assignments, but "I'm not a reader," he said.

Even if Carlton has changed his mind about reading and Ferlaak hasn't, the youths have a lot in common, according to National Education Association research.

Carlton's said his attitude has changed because he gets to choose the books.

If there is a point to the book, such as learning more about fishing or car racing, boys are more likely to be interested in reading. Right now, Ferlaak said he doesn't see a concrete reason why he should be interested, but School District 833 educators are not giving up on him or other "reluctant readers."

Anne Wenisch, the reading specialist for Liberty Ridge Elementary in Woodbury, said the reason for the reading gap between boys and girls is three-fold: science, school environment and society.

Wenisch said, according to brain researchers, girls are wired for language since their part of the brain that connects the two hemispheres is on average 20 percent larger than boys'.

But science isn't the only factor for the reading gap, Wenisch said. The fact that 90 percent of elementary teachers tend to be women causes curriculum to be geared more towards the tastes of girls.

In order to lessen this gap and to heighten boys' interests in reading, Liberty Ridge is increasing their collection of genres that boys seem to be drawn to, such as informational, humor, science fiction, sports and action stories.

Wenisch said bringing in male guest speakers, whether it be authors, community leaders or high school boys, can only help the younger readers also.

"It really boils down to creating a more welcoming environment to boys and helping them to develop in areas where girls are typically stronger," she said. "Boys don't want the teacher to draw attention to their mistakes."

Last year's Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment reading test results showed a nine to 12 percent gap between boys' and girls' reading scores, a reality that is "unacceptable," according to District Director of Curriculum and Assessment Rick Spicuzza.

The result has been a district-wide concentrated effort to boost boys' interest in reading. While Spicuzza, teachers and reading specialists are seeing glimmers of hope -- because of students such as Carlton -- that efforts are paying off, there's no way to predict results of reading tests next month.

One of the reasons for the gap is rooted in the curriculum, according to national educators. In the past, suggested reading lists have been heavily dominated by books girls like because many teachers are female, according to Mark Bauerlein former director of Research and Analysis for the National Endowment for the Arts.

Also, when well-intentioned teachers tried to promote more understanding of diversity issues in recent years through suggested or required reading, both genders tuned out, according to Bauerlein.

"Boys need choice," said Amber Walsh, Oltman literacy coach. "They like graphic novels and nonfiction and are not going to read novels about relationships," she said.

Oltman seventh-grader John Radmanovich is a typical male reader, according to literacy educators. He read "The Roar of the Crowd" from the "Winning Season" series by Rich Wallace.

"It's easy to read and I love football. I'm reading the second book by this author," he said.

Seventh-grade boys at Oltman are reading the Lemony Snicket book series, "Sword of Angels," "The Hobbit" and "Lord of the Rings"

Jefferi Gallogly is an ardent reader but said he chooses only books with a point to the plots.

"I don't like long descriptions of scenery or books with a lot of explaining," he said.

Walsh said boys do not have the same fully developed abstract thinking skills as girls do, so teachers must model it for them.

"We ask them what kind of car it was and help them make visual connections in their heads," she said.

There has to be some piece of a book to draw them in, said Amy Johnson, who assigns lists of books based on reading proficiency.

"We don't know for sure but I think their interest in video games has led them to be interested in fantasy books about heroes and adventures,"

While the district is focusing on getting more boys to read, literacy coaches are finding some of their strategies are also good for girls.

"One-hundred percent of what's good for boys is also good for girls," Walsh said. "If you can get them to read a book they enjoy that is also one of a series, they're hooked."

Seventh-grader Rachel Boughton likes to read fantasy books and prefers those that are part of a series.

"I hate it if they leave you hanging at the end of the book," she said, "especially if they didn't make another book."

If adults want kids to read more books, then they should also spend more time reading, Boughton said, a thought echoed by Johnson's seventh-grade reading class.

"Reading together with cups of hot chocolate and bowls of popcorn goes a long way," said Lynn McGuire, district reading specialist.

While many programs and staff development efforts are being put into place to foster more reading by boys, Spicuzza said teachers and parents shouldn't assume gender differences can't be changed.

While he acknowledges there is a gender gap and that some brain-based research explains it, it doesn't mean boys "are allowed to be off the hook," he said.

Five years ago, there was a gap between boys and girls regarding math and science and testing showed it.

"Now," there is no difference between boys and girls in math and science," Spicuzza said. "There is no gap."

Getting boys to read

Here is a list of what School District 833 is doing to get boys to read more:

• Book clubs for boys led by male teachers.

• More boy-friendly books in media centers

• Parent-led groups of boys in third-grade.

• Male athletes from high schools tutoring as role models.

• Book displays in media centers and local bookstores.

• All-boy guided reading groups

• More graphic novels and mysteries in classrooms.

• Buddy reading pairing up good readers with reluctant ones

• Creating a library in the art room

• Reading with a therapy dog

• Book nooks and quiet reading spaces

• Posters in schools with showing male teachers reading

• Adventure read-alouds

Amber Kispert contributed to this story.

Judy Spooner
Judy Spooner is the longest-serving staff writer at the South Washington County Bulletin. Spooner, who covers education and features in addition to writing a weekly column, has been with the newspaper for over 30 years.
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