Over a school lunch of spaghetti and meatballs earlier this spring, a group of fifth- and sixth-grade boys — and one girl who likes spy novels — discussed the ups and downs of youth author Jack Higgins' latest action-adventure novel.
Tessie Boudreau, Golden Hills Elementary School's literacy coach, charted the nonstop action on an oversized sheet of paper.
After giving “Sharp Shot” an all-thumbs-up rating, with a few toes for good measure, the youngsters voted on their next read and headed back to class.
Yes, back to class.
This gathering was a boys book club, one of several that Boudreau and fifth-grade teacher Mike Zook started eight years ago to spark boys' interest in reading.
The staff at Golden Hills, in the Papillion-La Vista district, had noticed that boys' scores on school reading assessments lagged behind those of girls. They weren't the first to notice such a gap, and their school isn't the only one addressing it. Schools across the metro area are trying reading clubs and other initiatives.
The reading gap, relatively small but persistent, has been seen worldwide since the earliest large-scale reading studies in the 1960s. And it's held up, to varying degrees, even as overall reading scores have improved.
The latest batch of U.S. Department of Education numbers showed higher scores for girls at all three grade levels tested: 7 points in fourth grade and 9 points for eighth-graders in 2011, with a 12-point gap for seniors in 2009.
Boys lagged behind girls by at least a small margin at every grade level in the first three years of Nebraska's new statewide reading test. The numbers for Iowa show a similar pattern.
Though the gaps at some levels in both states are small, they're notable for their consistency.
To be sure, plenty of boys are avid readers and prolific writers. And the reading lag by boys isn't the kind of gap that keeps educators or policymakers awake at night.
The concern lies with those who already are considered at risk, and with the recognition that the 21st century requires a higher level of literacy than ever before, said Guy Trainin, associate professor of education at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
So researchers have been trying to figure out what's behind the gap — and how to close it.
It turns out boys are reading, said Matthew Zbaracki, author of “Best Books for Boys: A Resource for Educators.” But they may not be reading traditional literature, which has been geared more toward girls.
Children also have a lot more choices than in the past: sports, TV, video games. “All of those things in a sense are pulling them away from reading, as well,” said Zbaracki, who has focused on humor to hook reluctant readers.
Children's authors and book publishers, as well as librarians and teachers, have responded by producing and stocking more boy-friendly materials, including action-adventure, humor and literary nonfiction.
The Library of Congress in 2008 appointed well-known children's author Jon Scieszka as its first ambassador for young people's literature. About the same time, Scieszka founded Guys Read, a Web-based literacy program aimed at encouraging boys to read. The website lists book picks for boys in categories such as “Scary,” “Animals” and “At Least One Explosion.” He also offers a template for creating book clubs, which he calls “field offices.”
“Boys are not neglected,” said Tricia Parker, director of language arts education for the Nebraska Department of Education. “We're not putting them off in the corners and not paying attention to them. But they have their own interests, their own skills.”
Julee Sauer, director of curriculum and instruction for the Bellevue Public Schools, said the district began taking steps to tap those interests about five years ago. Libraries stocked more materials that appeal to boys, including nonfiction. That can benefit both genders, given that tests today rely more heavily on informational texts.
Media specialists, following research, also reconfigured libraries along a bookstore model, grouping materials by interest, she said. Bellevue East High School's library, for example, has sections featuring mysteries and biographies, as well as books labeled of interest to boys, or to girls.
At the same time, educators know students need to be able to read and understand a variety of texts. They're trying to change the notion that kids who read technical manuals aren't readers, and find ways to connect them with literature, or narrative text, that plays into their interests.
The Elkhorn Public Schools have been working to add nonfiction at the elementary level, said Cindy Gray, associate superintendent.
The effort was based on input from boys and male teachers, as well as on the prevalence of such materials in tests and in the Common Core State Standards. While Nebraska has not adopted them, they're nonetheless influencing instruction nationwide. The district's new elementary reading series also includes more nonfiction material.
Golden Hills' approach is even more direct.
Heidi Henningson, Golden Hills' principal, said staff surveyed boys' interests before launching the school's first book club.
“They like to read about adventure, they like to read about blood, they like to read about weapons,” Henningson said.
Boudreau said that boys were excited to be part of a team. Research indicates that, for boys, reading can be a social activity.
Boudreau and Zook now have 60 students in four book clubs, one each for fifth- and sixth-grade boys and girls. A fourth-grade teacher also has two clubs. Two other Papillion-La Vista buildings also have started boys book clubs. So has the Westside district's Hillside Elementary.
Henningson said Golden Hills boys are holding their own in comparison with others on state tests. Before the clubs, the school saw significant gaps between boys and girls.
“I don't want there ever to be that stereotype 'Boys are better in math and girls are better in reading,'” she said.
Boudreau said she often selects books from a series or by authors who have published multiple titles. That way, students can simply move on to the next one. Often when kids put down a book, it's because they don't understand it or aren't invested in the characters. She also ties into video games, which all have story lines, given that many reluctant readers are gamers.
“You can change a boy and turn him into a reader,” said Boudreau, whose older son used to leave books half-finished and now is a top reader. “But you do need to pick the right book for him.”
At Westside's Hillside Elementary, literacy coach Ally Hauptman started by asking teachers for the names of boys who were good readers but who wouldn't typically pick up a book for fun.
Now the school has five clubs and hopes to offer clubs for girls next year, if it can secure grant funding.
“Will it affect test scores?” she said. “I don't know. But am I seeing daily affirmation that they're excited about reading? Absolutely.”
Resources for encouraging boys to read
>> Tips and book lists for readers of various ages: www.pbs.org/parents/best-books-for-boys/
>> Children's author Jon Scieszka categorizes books of interest to boys: www.guysread.com
>> Read Aloud Nebraska provides various links to literacy resources: www.readaloudnebraska.org
>> Teacher and author Michael Sullivan offers more books for boys: www.talestoldtall.com
>> Nebraska Department of Education's 2010-11 State of the Schools Report includes a variety of tips and resources to encourage reading by all children. Find them at reportcard.education.ne.gov/20102011/Main/Home.aspx
>> The Nebraska Literacy Team has developed an Early Childhood Literacy calendar designed for use with kids up to kindergarten age with kindergarten readiness in mind. A limited number of copies are available through the Nebraska Department of Education. Or go to www.education.ne.gov/read/Earlychildhoodcalendar.html to download and print.
>> The State Department of Education's early childhood team also has created a Ready for Success booklet, available in six languages. To get copies, contact Amy Bornemeier at email@example.com or 402-471-0348. Or go to www.education.ne.gov/OEC/ready_for_success.html
Contact the writer: 402-444-1223, firstname.lastname@example.org