Teaching, Learning, and Living
Response to a Wall Street Journal Article

Response to a Wall Street Journal Article

To Whom it May Concern:

I am writing in response to an article entitled “How to Raise Boys Who Read” by Thomas Spence that appeared in your publication on September 24, 2010.  I am a kindergarten teacher and the director of a university child development program. I work daily to teach children to love books and to appreciate all types of literature. Many of my students are learning to read and their interests are widely varied. Despite what Mr. Spence may desire for his “daughter’s husband’s” literary resume, reading SweetFarts as a child does not mean that he will never read the classics. However, if you tell a young boy that he isn’t allowed to read Goosebumps, or the like, you can fully expect to have a negative impact on his relationship to books.

Here is a fact: Reading is not merely a set of phonetic symbols that elicit a voiced pronunciation of a word or sentence. Reading is comprehension gained through engagement with a text, sometimes in combination with illustrations, always drawing on prior knowledge and a child’s emotional connection and interest in a topic or storyline. Let’s face it, boys of all ages like bathroom humor. My students can’t get enough of the Froggy books by Jonathan London. In a couple of them there is mention of underpants and a chorus of giggles erupts with each reading. It is fun and harmless… five and six year olds love it!

I think we should be thrilled that our boys have choices in book selection. If we take away the choices and force boys to read “the classics” that we read as children, we are going to lose them. This is a different world. Too many children are growing up in homes where reading is not valued. Scholastic, a company that strives to make books accessible to all children, offers books through the school market that are affordable and meet the interests and needs of all children. Captain Underpants and Ook and Gluk both by Dav Pilkey are books that speak to boys and keep them reading. “Becoming a Nation of Readers”, a document presented by the US Department of Education sited the “average minutes per day reading books was the best predictor of reading comprehension, vocabulary size and gains in reading achievement between the second and fifth grades.” If this is true, shouldn’t we encourage boys to read what interests them? Of course I don’t think everything out there is good for children, but the books Mr. Spence drags through the mud are not of that category. Captain Underpants and Sweetfarts books are fun, silly books and boys flock to them.

Mr. Spence also quotes the Center on Education Policy report. Published in March 2010, the report addresses state test score trends from 2007-2008. The report does say that “consistent with other recent research, our analysis of state test results by gender suggests that the most pressing issue related to gender gaps is the lagging performance of boys in reading.” However, it also says “This is not to say that all boys are underperforming in reading. To the contrary, there is a great deal of overlap in the distribution of reading scores between males and females; many boys do well in reading and many do not, and the same is true of girls.” Shouldn’t parents and teachers make every effort to engage both boys and girls in reading through creative reading choices?
Mr. Spence and I have years of successful experience selecting books and engaging in them. Now think of a child – a second grade boy who spent his early childhood in front of a television with no memories of a book being opened in his house. At the school library, he is asked to select a book to take home and this paralyzes him. He doesn’t want to read and is below grade level, so he can’t read the books the librarian suggests. Then he is introduced to Captain Underpants. Although he can’t read all of the words himself, for the first time in his life, he is motivated to read. He laughs at the illustrations and can’t wait to turn the page and see what comes next. His teacher notices his interest and finds other books of this genre to put in the classroom. Before long, this child is really reading and can even be persuaded to read other types of books at times. Remember “Choose Your Own Adventure” books? They were not considered high-quality literature, but they were engaging. I know many boys who read them and went on to read Tolkien and Tolstoy later. Reading SweetFarts, doesn’t mean a boy is spoiled for life. In fact, the more positive experiences a child has with books, the better chance he will continue to be a reader.

I am bothered by Mr. Spence’s narrow-minded and somewhat elitist viewpoint. I am not suggesting that boys read only what Mr. Spence refers to as “gross-out” books, but I do see value in them as a tool of engagement for young boys. Do we really want to stifle a boy’s interest in a book because it isn’t our personal taste or preference? I applaud the authors and publishers who have recognized the need for more options for boys and encourage them to keep energizing the market in creative ways.

Meredith Burton
Director- Furman University Child Development Center


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