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Raising Boys

Home » Boys in School »

Practical Strategies


Boys Can Learn Literacy

Boys Can Learn Literacy

"With the exception of the slow start boys get, I doubt that there is any fundamental biological reason why almost all of them can't become proficient readers and writers. I just feel we can't give up on them; we can't accept the idea that they just aren't naturally good at language (any more than we can accept the claim that girls aren't good at math they're proving now that they can do just fine)."

Thomas Newkirk, Ph.D.

Professor of English, University of New Hampshire. Author, Misreading Masculinity

At times, the problems for boys in school seem insurmountable. Fortunately, simple, practical strategies have been offered by the same experts who criticize the ways things are. Their suggestions apply to boys in preschool, elementary, and middle school and may be helpful to teachers and parents.

Let them play. Give boys lots of opportunities for physical activity and don't expect them to sit still for long periods of time. "Play is the work of childhood, it's how kids learn social skills and develop verbal skills, and it's vanishing from the classroom. Kids are not being allowed to play enough in school, both indoors and outdoors," says Jane Katch.

Create learning activities where boys use their bodies. "Boys learn best when learning is 'hands-on.' They learn by touching, moving, climbing on, and building things. They solve problems physically so if kids are handling real things, they will learn more effectively. This applies to kindergarten and throughout their school experience," says Joseph Tobin.

Let boys read (and listen to) books that appeal to their interests. "Know your boys, know their passions, and know what books can speak to those passions. Boys are open to reading if they can make their own choices. We read to connect to interests we have and literacy piggybacks on those interests," says Thomas Newkirk. "I tell my prospective teachers that they should have at least a thousand books in their heads possibilities for students to read. Unless we can build a base in reading thousands and thousands of words our students will never be able to read the classics. And by reading, I think we need to look at all kinds of reading — magazines, graphic novels, humor, etc. — and not just classical literature."

Read aloud to boys and have them read aloud to you. "One practice that is critical is reading aloud to boys. This stops way too early in homes and in schools. Reading aloud is a bridge to reading the child might do later on, independently," advises Newkirk.

Allow boys to write about what interests them instead of what interests you. "When children are learning to write, give them opportunities to write about subjects that are most meaningful to them — what they love, what they hate, what scares them and what excites them," recommends Katch. "This way they will learn the power and significance of using the written word to communicate. If they write in a way that causes others to be disturbed, then talk about ways they can write what is important to them without disturbing others rather than prohibiting their expression. I personally think Pokemon is boring but I know a boy who wrote 27 books about it and went from being a non-writer to a terrific writer. Another"" practice is connecting writing to digital storytelling. I think we need to conceptualize reading and writing as multi-modal involving not only print but music, visuals, and more," adds Newkirk.

Allow discussion of topics boys may want to talk about (but teachers and girls may not). "In a classroom that allows boys' thoughts and fantasies to be expressed in their stories and their play, controversial issues will come up. In my class, some children did not want to hear any story that contained killing," notes Katch. "But several boys complained that their stories of good guys and bad guys sometimes need to contain killing off the bad guy. When we discussed the problem, the children realized that everyone thought it was all right to kill the bad guys; there were objections only when a character was killed who was not clearly bad. So the boys agreed that they would only kill off evil characters. The children realized that by talking about what was important to them, they could communicate with each other and come to an agreement that felt right to everyone."

Allow boys to express humor in appropriate ways and at appropriate times. "Include satire, parody, and humor in the curriculum, and don't be too hard on boys who are class clowns. Instead, acknowledge the boy's skill at being humorous. If the boy gets credit for this quality, he may not repeat the behavior. If you treat a clown as your biggest problem you are creating a conflict. Treat that boy with respect and respectfully ask him to make jokes at another time, if they get out of control," advises Joseph Tobin. "Sometimes, you just have to have a sense of humor about the boy's sense of humor. Most teachers I know admit that as annoying as boy humor can be, it can also brighten up the day," adds Michael Thompson.

Logical Solutions

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