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What would interest boys? Boys as readers and writers

Tuula Merisuo-Storm
University of Turku, Finland. Email: tuula.merisuo-storm@utu.fi

Paper presented at the European Conference on Educational Research, University of Crete, 22-25 September 2004

The purpose of the study was to explore fourth-grade pupils’ (aged 10 to 11) attitudes towards reading and writing. The boys’ attitudes towards reading were significantly more negative than the attitudes of the girls. They liked mostly comics and humorous books; adventure books were favourites of the girls. Poetry did appeal neither to the male nor the female pupils. Most pupils, especially boys, did not like to read aloud. Even many fluent and motivated readers felt embarrassed when doing it.

The pupils’ attitudes towards writing were more negative than those regarding reading. Furthermore, the boys were significantly more reluctant writers than the girls. To interest boys the writing task should have a meaningful purpose or a communicative function. Most pupils would prefer to write letters and a strong incentive for the writing of letters is receiving a response.

With interesting reading materials it is possible to encourage even a most reluctant boy to read. Furthermore it is important that there is an approving atmosphere in the class so that each pupil can feel comfortable when reading aloud or letting other pupils to read his or her texts.

An important goal of literacy teaching is to awaken children’s interest in language and literature. The aim is to give them, during their first school years, a lasting positive attitude towards reading and writing. Pupils’ ability to read, interpret and use different texts should develop, and they should adopt a habit of evaluating and observing themselves as readers. They should learn to choose appropriate reading material for different purposes and to search for information in different sources. Furthermore, their writing skills should develop.

Attitudes towards reading and writing develop early. When home provides a rich reading environment that includes books and magazines, and when parents read to their children frequently, the children are likely to adopt a positive attitude. When children observe adults reading and writing, this can work to increase their awareness of the various purposes of the written text. It is possible that even before going to school they obtain a relatively rich vocabulary and a sense of story structure. Consequently they often learn to read without struggle and for them reading can become a pleasant pastime. A pupil who reads fluently is likely to be an eager reader, who reads also outside school. As a consequence, his or her reading skills continue to improve. A poor reader does not read voluntarily, and therefore the difference between their respective levels of reading skills becomes even more significant. (Wallace 1992, p. 7)

Pupils are very different as readers, and they are motivated to read very different books and texts. The reader should find the topic of the text interesting and possess enough previous knowledge related to its subject matter. Therefore it is crucial to offer pupils a wide variety of reading material, in other words an array of books representing a variety of topics, levels of difficulty and genres of literature is necessary. (Cole 2002, p. 335) It is, however, a very challenging task for the teacher to choose reading material for his or her pupils. They may have special personal interests, and the material available may not always meet their hopes. Furthermore, children’s books regarded by adults as quality books do not always correspond to children’s tastes.

In PISA (the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment), Finnish children and teenagers showed significantly higher mean achievement in reading literacy than their peers in any other country. They showed particularly strong performance in retrieving information and interpreting texts. Their high level of interest and engagement in reading outside school corresponds to that of their reading skills. They borrow books from the library more frequently than in any other OECD country and 41 per cent of them reported that reading was one of their favourite pastimes. For girls the figure was 60 per cent. Girls scored better than boys in all OECD countries but in Finland the gender gap was the widest. This was, however, not due to Finnish boys performing poorly but to Finnish girls doing exceptionally well. In fact, Finnish boys scored better than the boys of any other OECD country and better than the girls in many of them. (Linnakylä, Välijärvi & Brunell, 2003)

Reading skills are an important tool that pupils need to become academically successful. Good readers are better students than poor readers in every subject area. As Brozo (2002) stresses, it is especially important that boys can be motivated to read. In the USA, boys are significantly less successful in school than girls: boys are three to five times more likely to have a learning disabilities placement in school, boys score significantly lower on standardized measures of reading achievement and they are 50 per cent more likely to be kept down a year. In universities the number of female students is increasing while the number of male students is decreasing. Trying to motivate a reluctant boy to read is a difficult and often frustrating task for parents and teachers. Boys are easily caught in a harmful cycle. Peer pressure discourages a boy from reading, an activity that is not considered ‘cool’. His reluctance to read leads to a decline in his reading skills. The latter, together with the consequent feeling of incompetence, causes (real or pretended) indifference towards reading, and this indifference catalyses the decline in the boy’s reading skills. (Brozo 2002, pp. 11-13, 154)

Boys prefer texts that have a purpose: getting information, making things and helping others. In order to encourage boys to read, schools should expand their view of what is worthwhile reading and connect literacy instruction to boys’ interests. (Wilhelm 2000) There should be, from the beginning of school, a meaningful purpose for the writing as well. Children should be allowed to use it in the same manner as adults, i.e. as a means of communication. When a teacher selects writing tasks for boys, he or she should use his or her knowledge of their interests and hobbies. Sometimes the use of computers can motivate boys, especially those who find writing by hand difficult, to write.

In Millard’s study (2001, p. 1) half of the boys questioned, amongst them able writers, disliked almost all school writing. On the other hand, most girls enjoyed writing at school and chose to write for themselves at home. Kear, Coffman, McKenna and Ambrosio (2000, p. 15) state that as the pupils become older their attitudes towards writing generally decline. They realise that skilful writing requires effort. They may have had unpleasant experiences with writing; it may have proved tedious or they may have received negative feedback. Teachers have a difficult task as they attempt to foster positive attitudes in their pupils.

Alloway and Gilbert (1997) suggest that boys may not show their true literacy skills within the set of literate practices that school involves and values but rather in other, for them more desirable forms of literate practice. A big part of the problem is that many groups of boys have come to regard school literacy as ‘unmasculine’ and thus undesirable, a threat to their masculinity. It is worth remembering that a student’s attitudes towards reading and writing affect not only his or her own engagement in literacy; they often affect the literacy environment of the whole classroom: negative attitudes are contagious (Rhodes & Shanklin 1993, p. 63).

Method

In the study participated 145 fourth-grade pupils from the Finnish comprehensive school (aged 10 to 11) out of whom 67 were boys and 78 girls. The aim of the study was to explore fourth- grade pupils’ attitudes towards reading and writing, and to find out what texts pupils would choose to read and write and which materials they do not find attractive, and whether boys and girls enjoy reading different texts.

The instrument was derived from two sources: McKenna and Kear’s Elementary Reading Attitude Survey (1999), and Kear, Coffman, McKenna, and Amborsio’s Writing Attitude Survey (2000). In the present instrument the questions were, however, mainly different. It was designed to measure pupils’ attitudes towards reading and writing. The instrument contained two twelve item sections. Responses were made on a 4-point scale to avoid the possibility that children would select a neutral alternative. The instrument was designed to be administered to an entire class in only a few minutes. It achieved a high degree of reliability. Cronbach’s alpha, a measure of internal consistency, was .84.

The questions were worded in such a manner as to be unambiguous and easy to understand. When answering a question the pupil ticked the one of the four teddy bears placed above the question that best illustrated his or her opinion about the asked matter. The expressions on the teddies’ faces are easy to understand. The very happy teddy means that the pupil loves to do what he or she is asked about, the smiling teddy means he or she does it with pleasure, the tired and unhappy teddy means he or she would not want to do it, and the repulsed teddy means he or she would hate to do it. (See Figure 1) The very happy teddy is assigned a score of four. The repulsed teddy receives a score of one. In the study described in this article, in order to confirm that all pupils had understood what they were expected to do, the teacher and the class had talked about how the teddy felt in each picture. Moreover, the children answered, supervised by the teacher, one extra question before they started filling the questionnaire.

Figure 1 The four answering alternatives and the pictures related to them

The answers to the questions in the first section of the instrument provided pupils’ opinions about the reading of various types of reading material. Moreover they supplied information on how willing the pupils were to read aloud in the class or to visit a library. In the second part of the instrument pupils expressed their opinions about the writing of different types of texts, the checking and correcting of their own texts, and the professions of a writer or a journalist. In addition they were asked how they feel when the other pupils read their texts. The focus of the results reporting is on the questions the answers to which were exceptionally positive or negative or appeared clearly linked to the subjects’ gender.

Results

Most of the participants in this study (60 per cent) took part in a previous study by the author (Merisuo-Storm 2002) in which various aspects of their reading and writing skills were tested after the first and the second school year. After two years in school there was no significant difference in girls’ and boys’ reading skills, but the girls were significantly (t= -3.10, p= .002) more skilful writers than the boys. In the study described in this article the differences between boys’ and girls’ attitudes towards reading and writing were significant. In the fourth grade the girls enjoyed reading far more than the boys, and there was an even greater difference in the girls’ and the boys’ opinions concerning writing.

Reading

Nearly all of the pupils said that they enjoyed reading books and visiting a library. None of them had ticked the most negative alternative ("It would be awful") as representing his or her opinion about them. Only three pupils said, "I do not like to read books" and six of them said, "I do not like to visit a library". All of these pupils were boys. The girls were significantly more motivated to read books (t= -2.77, p= .006) and to visit a library (t= -2.80, p= .006). It seems probable that the differences between the two genders become wider still when the pupils are older. According to a national survey carried out in spring 2000, in the sixth grade girls read twice as many books as boys. (Korkeakoski 2001, p. 90). The percentage distribution of girls’ and boys’ opinions about reading books are presented in Figure 2.

Figure 2 The percentage distribution of girls’ and boys’ opinions about reading books

One has to know what texts appeal to pupils to be able to motivate them to continue reading. The study confirms that girls of this age usually read many types of texts, but boys are far more selective readers. The boys’ first choice was a comic, although most of them said, as was mentioned before, that they like to read books. Comics were followed by humorous stories and adventure books. The girls’ favourites were the same, but in a different order. The girls liked adventure books best although they have been traditionally regarded as "boy books". Their second choice was a humorous story and a comic was the third. The boys were significantly more interested in comics than the girls (t= 3.06, p= .003). They also chose humorous stories more often than the girls, but there was no significant difference between the two genders.

Most boys would hate to read poems, but stories and fairytales were nearly as unpopular as poems. Non-fiction and poetry were genres that least appeal to most girls. In fact for Finnish ten or eleven-year-old pupils poetry seemed to be the least interesting genre of literature. One quarter of the pupils said that "It would be awful to read them". The girls’ opinions about poems were, however, significantly more positive than the boys’ opinions (t= -3.30, p= .001). Likewise, their attitudes towards fairytales were significantly more negative than the girls’ attitudes (t= -3.82, p= .000).

Many pupils would have been delighted if there were a sequel to the book they have read or if a book were part of a series. Boys were even more interested in series of books than girls. It is easy to pick up a book that belongs to a familiar series from the library shelf; one can predict what the story will be like. Moreover, as it is important for the boys to know that the book they choose is not a ‘girl book’, a series of books is a safer choice. When asked for their opinion about series of books, 81 per cent of the girls and 93 per cent of the boys had ticked one of the two happiest teddies.

Pupils at the age of ten or eleven did not appear to like to read aloud in class. Girls liked it little, but boys found it significantly more often (t= -4.40, p= .000) unpleasant. Almost one quarter (22 per cent) of them found reading to other pupils horrible. One of the two unhappiest teddies had been ticked by 70 per cent of the boys and 38 per cent of the girls. Eriksson (2002, p. 406) has found similar results in her study in Sweden. Most Swedish pupils in the fourth grade were frightened of reading aloud in class. When they were allowed to choose a page to read aloud, they chose the shortest in the book. Some pupils did not want to read anything at all. Gambrell’s results (1996, p. 19) in the USA are similar: 45 per cent of the pupils reported that when they read aloud they worried about what other pupils thought about their reading, and 17 per cent reported that when they read they felt embarrassed and sad.

Pupils who most clearly rejected reading aloud do not, on the basis of the answers to other questions, appear to differ from other pupils. In this group there are both eager readers and pupils who do not enjoy reading. From the results of the author’s previous study, mentioned above (Merisuo-Storm, 2002), it was possible to check what level of reading skills those pupils who took part in both studies had at the end of the second school year. Those who in the fourth grade most disliked reading aloud possessed reading skills of varying levels in the end of the second school year. In this group there are pupils who read fluently, making few errors and understanding the content of text very well, and on the other hand there are pupils who then had very insufficient reading skills. It appears that a pupil can feel uncomfortable when reading aloud in class even if he or she is a skilful and eager reader. The percentage distribution of girls’ and boys’ opinions on reading aloud in class are presented in Figure 3.

Figure 3 The percentage distribution of girls’ and boys’ opinions about reading aloud in class

It is also interesting to examine the opinions of those pupils whose attitudes towards reading were the most negative. Twelve pupils chose the most negative answer to three or more than three questions. Their favourite reading choice was a comic. Humorous stories and adventure books came next, but in the opinions of this group the number one position of comics was far stronger than in the general opinion of all participants. In our society comics are not a highly valued genre of literature; therefore many teachers do not allow their pupils to read them at school. On the other hand, in Finland for example the Finnish editions of Walt Disney’s Donald Duck magazines have received the "Language Gem of the Year" award from the Department of Finnish at the University of Helsinki for their translations (See http://www.sanomamagazines.fi/uutiset/uutinen.asp?f=54&d=291). They are of a high quality and use ingenious language, the reading of which both children and adults enjoy. It is worth considering whether it would be possible to give poor readers a chance to improve their reading skills reading comics and then, guided by a skilful teacher, they might gradually learn to enjoy more sophisticated literature as well.

Writing

There is quite a strong correlation between the reading and writing sections in the measure (r= 0.62, p= .000). Same pupils were interested in reading and in writing. However, pupils enjoyed writing far less than reading. In the reading section of the questionnaire, there are six questions that more than half of the pupils had answered with the most positive option. In addition, there are five questions to which over 90 per cent of the pupils had chosen one of the two most positive answers. Not a single question in the writing section of the questionnaire received equally positive response.

In the reading section the girls’ aggregated scores are slightly higher than the boys’ but the difference is not significant. However, in the writing section the girls’ aggregated scores are significantly higher than the boys’ scores (t= -6.61, p= .000). The percentage distributions of girls’ and boys’ aggregated scores in reading and writing sections are presented in Figures 4 and 5.

Figure 4 The percentage distributions of girls’ and boys’ aggregated scores in reading section

Figure 5 The percentage distributions of girls’ and boys’ aggregated scores in writing section

According to the results, both boys and girls would like writing to a pen friend the most. For the boys the second best choice would be writing a story, or a letter to an author of a book that they have read. The second best in the girls’ list is keeping a diary and the third writing stories. The girls’ opinions about writing to a pen friend are significantly more positive than the boys’ opinions (t= -5.10, p= .000). However, most boys were willing to start a correspondence. As a reply to the correspondence question, 85 per cent of the pupils ticked one of the two happiest teddies.

It is worth mentioning that many of the pupils who gave negative answers to most questions were, nevertheless, willing to start a correspondence. Fourteen pupils gave the most negative answers to five or more questions. These pupils found writing to a pen friend the best and the writing to an author the second best purpose of writing. A clear communicative function to the writing motivates them to write. Furthermore, a strong incentive for the writing of letters is receiving a response (LeVine 2002, p. 234). E-mail is an excellent medium for letter writing because it makes the receiving of a quick reply possible; this is something that teachers ought to keep in mind when pondering how to activate poor and reluctant writers. The percentage distribution of girls’ and boys’ opinions about writing to a pen friend are presented in Figure 6.

Figure 6 The percentage distribution of girls’ and boys’ opinions about writing to a pen friend

The answers to the question "Do you like to write stories?" are relatively positive as well. Pupils have been writing stories in school from the first grade onwards and the process is familiar to all of them. "I love it" or "I like it" were the answers given by 81 per cent of the pupils. The boys were, however, not as eager writers as the girls. The difference between the two groups is significant (t= -2.78, p= .006). Nevertheless, the girls enjoyed writing in a diary even more. More than half of them (54 per cent) answered the diary question by ticking the happiest teddy. "Would you like to keep a diary?" is the one question in the questionnaire that divided the opinions of the two genders the most clearly. "I would hate it" replied 34 per cent of the boys, and 30 per cent of them said "I would not like it".

Both boys and girls found poetry the least attractive genre of writing. However, girls’ answers were significantly more positive than boys’ answers (t= 6.23, p= .000). The pupils who were eager readers of poetry were eager writers of poems as well; there is a strong correlation between the two questions (r= 0.64, p= .000).

It was mentioned above that the pupils were not eager to read aloud in class. In the writing section of the questionnaire they were asked how they would feel if the other pupils read their texts. It was not a pleasing thought either. The pupils appear to fear other pupils’ criticism. Only 11 per cent of them said that they would love it. However, nearly half of them noted that they liked it. The pupils who said, "I would hate it", were mainly boys. That was the opinion of one quarter of them. The percentage distribution of girls’ and boys’ opinions about a situation where other pupils read their texts are presented in Figure 7.

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Insert Figure 7 about here

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Conclusion

One of the main goals of literacy teaching is to awaken children’s interest in language and literature and to give them a lasting positive attitude towards reading and writing. The results of the study described in the article revealed that school has not been able to reach this goal particularly with regard to boys. The age from ten to eleven is usually a period when children are eager readers and it is probable that a few years later especially boys will spend less time reading and writing. The international PISA survey mentioned earlier (Linnakylä et al., 2003) showed that the girls’ scores were higher than the boys’ scores in every OECD country, but in Finland the gender gap was the widest. Therefore it is important to reflect how it would be possible to motivate young boys to read and to continue reading when they reach their teens. It is important regarding the development of writing skills as well. Fluent readers are usually skilful writers and struggling readers are usually poor writers. Habitual reading has a positive effect on writing skills as well as on reading skills.

As pointed out earlier, boys are less successful students than girls due to their poorer reading skills. Therefore it is crucial to pay serious attention to boys’ literacy needs. Teachers should find out what their pupils’ interests are and use that information when planning their literacy teaching. In addition, it is important to keep in mind that boys are afraid of being labelled unmasculine if they enjoy reading and writing. The approval of their friends and peers is important for them. Schools should offer boys reading material, which they can regard as interesting and ‘masculine’. Boys are not, in most cases, as interested as girls in the texts that are commonly used in school. According to the results of this study, boys and reluctant readers are interested in comics and humour.

Worthy (1996) stresses that pupils who are not interested in school’s reading material never engage in reading at all, and often develop an aversion to reading that may be lifelong. She points out that despite the wealth of children’s literature available, it is difficult to find reading material that would interest pupils who have already developed a dislike for reading. On the other hand she found out that students who had a negative attitude towards reading would read comics, series books or magazines if they were available in school. However, many schools and libraries do not have enough of this type of ‘light’ reading material in their collections because the teachers prefer that their students read literature of a higher quality. Yet, it is important to engage pupils in reading. The primary factor in selecting reading material must be interest. Otherwise many pupils do not read at all outside school. Moreover, the authors and the publishers should produce high-quality books that interest boys. A good example are J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books which have been a great success all over the world and which even reluctant readers enjoy.

Often pupils who avoid reading evaluate themselves as poor readers and prefer to do something in which they succeed better. Many pupils find reading aloud frightening and embarrassing. They worry about what other pupils think about them and are afraid of making a fool of themselves. Even an eager and skilful reader may feel uncomfortable when reading aloud. Especially boys would like to avoid it; 70 per cent of them ticked one of the unhappiest teddies to describe what they feel when they were asked to read aloud. Possible explanations for this are that the pupil is shy or that he or she has previously received negative feedback from other pupils or a teacher. If pupils rarely read aloud, they do not regard it as a normal everyday routine. Behind the fact that boys suffer even more than girls in reading aloud situations may lie their strong involvement in the peer group whose approval is important for them.

The results that give most cause for concern are the ones related to boys’ writing attitudes. Writing interests them far less than reading. The girls, however, enjoy writing nearly as much as reading. As Millard (2001, p. 1) states, the difference between primary school boys’ and girls’ writing attitudes becomes apparent at an early stage: even the boys who are skilful writers do not find school writing interesting.

The study supports the idea that writing without a purpose does not interest boys. Many of them have already found out that writing requires great efforts, and they do not start writing without a good purpose. As was mentioned earlier, often boys who in school dislike writing nevertheless use it for many purposes outside school. Therefore it is important that the teacher pays attention to his or her pupils’ interests when planning writing exercises. A pupil finds exercises that are connected to his or her interests meaningful. Pupils can feel that they are ‘experts’ when writing about their own hobbies, whereas that is not the case when the topic of the writing task is unfamiliar.

Moreover, if writing has a communicative function, this motivates pupils to write. Most of them, reluctant writers as well as eager writers, would prefer to write letters and a strong incentive for letter-writing is receiving a reply. It is not difficult to encourage a boy who knows how to use a computer to start writing e-mail ‘letters’ to a pen friend of his age. The quick receiving of a reply via e-mail further strengthens the motivation to write. Although the pupils enjoy writing letters to a pen friend, they do not want the other pupils in their class to read their texts. The opinions of other pupils are of great importance to them and they are afraid of their critical comments. One quarter of the boys would hate showing their texts to other pupils.

It is crucial that the teacher gathers information about his or her pupils’ interests. With interesting reading material it is possible to encourage even the most reluctant reader to read. It is not impossible, either, that even reluctant, poor readers have experiences of success, or that they gradually start to enjoy writing if the writing exercises are related to their interests. Furthermore it is important that there is, from the very beginning of the first grade, an approving atmosphere in the class so that each pupil can feel comfortable when reading aloud or allowing other pupils to read his or her texts.

References

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Eriksson, K. (2002). Booktalk Dilemmas: teachers’ organisation of pupils’ reading. Scandinavian Journal of Educational Research, 46 (4), 391-408.

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Wilhelm, J.D. (2000). When Reading is Stupid: The Why, How and What to Do about it. In E. Close, & K.D. Ramsey (Eds.) A Middle Mosaic: A Celebration of Reading, Writing, and Reflective Practice at the Middle Level (pp. 3-10). Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

Worthy, J. (1996). A matter of interest: Literature that hooks reluctant readers and keeps them reading. The Reading Teacher, 50 (3), 204-212.

This document was added to the Education-line database on 06 January 2005