Evening out the odds for boys

More girls than boys go to university, so reading skills crucial for success in school

If boys are going to do well in school

Women have been taking desks from men in Canadian universities for more than 40 years. The trend shows no sign of reversing, but a Canadian author recently spoke to Maple Ridge parents about how they can give their son a fighting chance.

The 1971 census found that 68 per cent of university graduates in Canada were male. Just 10 years later that was a far more equal 54 per cent.

But by the 2006 census the scale had tipped – women accounted for 60 per cent of university grads, according to Statistics Canada. This is not just a Canadian phenomenon. The numbers are comparable in both the U.S. and the U.K.

It’s a topic that Vancouver author Pam Withers addressed when she was invited by the Maple Ridge Library to talk about her book Jump-Starting Boys.

Much of her advice is to get your little guys reading.

For some boys, it’s far easier said than done.

Withers is best known for her X-treme series of books for boys. She was an out-of-work journalist and whitewater racing instructor who wrote her first novel, Raging River, as a kayak adventure story for boys.

Her audience soaked it up, and it spawned a whole successful series. She would tour libraries, introducing it to young readers.

Along the way, librarians impressed upon her how tough it is to get some boys reading, and she learned the negative effect it has on their education.

The topic has become a passion, and Withers wrote the book Jump-Starting Boys with her sister Cynthia Gill – an educator of 30 years who works with at-risk kids.

Withers talks about a “brain lag” to describe how boys trail girls in their cognitive abilities. Girls are more than a year ahead in their communications skills by the time they start school, she said. That’s evident when they are toddlers, but parents assume that by the time boys are talking and then reading, they have caught up to their female counterparts. Not so, she says, and there is research to back her up.

Stats Can researchers looking into this issue also describe a “lag” by boys, almost from birth.

In early childhood, girls have better motor skills and social development, and fewer behavioural problems.

Girls are less likely to be aggressive or hyperactive, and more likely to pay attention.

Withers describes “fourth-grade syndrome.”

“It’s the age at which they go from learning to read, to reading to learn.”

It is a crucial stage, where some boys can get left behind. By then, boys need to read for enjoyment. Reading is the most important predictor for their future success in school, she says. Yet some 40 per cent of boys will become “reluctant readers.”

Reading to children from a young age is the key, and it can’t always be mom doing the reading.

“They need to hook up with male role models who read,” said Withers.

“They need to see men reading, they need to be read to by men, and they need to see men talking about books like they are worthwhile.”

Limit the amount of screen time boys spend playing video games or watching TV to two hours per day.

She advises parents to have some tolerance for books with fight scenes, and to hold their noses and accept a little toilet humour. Captain Underpants apparently deserved his promotion to a classic children’s book.

“That’s what boys tend to like,” said Withers, who has a son. “It’s more important to get them to love reading than to control what they are reading.”

Graphic novels, which are high-end comic books, are legitimate literary choices that can help encourage boys to read, she said.

Suzanne Hall is a former librarian for the Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows School District, who did research on the reading habits of local students for her master’s thesis.

Conventional wisdom said boys prefer to read non-fiction, and that’s what she expected to hear when asking local boys “what do you love reading?”

But the answers she heard from participants in the Bookfest program surprised her.

“By far, their favourite categories were fantasy and humour writing,” she said.

“Non-fiction almost didn’t turn up. Almost every favourite book was part of a series.”

Hall said children’s literature has changed a lot. It is now more edgy than some of the traditional favourites like Paddington Bear.

“Children’s literature really has improved in the past 20 years,” she said.

“Children’s books we liked (as youngsters), if we re-read them, we might not hold it in the highest regard.”

An example, she said, is Deborah Ellis’ book  I am a Taxi, about a 12-year-old Bolivian boy whose father is incarcerated, who supports his family by running errands for inmates. It’s social justice themes and gritty content made it a favourite for Bookfest participants.

“They are much more enjoyable for kids, and more challenging for adults.”

Hall said a single great literary experience can create a lifelong reader.

“One book can turn a kid on to reading – that’s the important job that teacher librarians really focus on,” she said, whether it be igniting that passion for the first time, or feeding more great books to fuel it.

Hall agrees with Withers’ assessments about how to get boys reading, and adds a few of her own.

“Be persistent about putting books in front of them if they’re not avid readers,” she said, and would include reading aloud to boys, and giving them books on tape – good ways to engage them in books.

Don’t worry if your son is selecting books which seem too challenging, or not challenging enough, she said.

“I don’t worry about that at all. The kids’ choice, and the kids’ interest, is way more important.”

And, don’t fret about your child only reading one series, or one type of book.

“Don’t worry when kids go on a tear, and read something obsessively for months – that’s OK. As long as they’re reading, that’s good.”

“When kids arrive, and can decode text, you have to really start getting them to read for fun,” Hall advises.

“The only way to get them to read enough, is if they do it for fun.”

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