On Reading, Literacy, and Boys: Reflections on the "Sold A Story" Podcast
I was truly moved by journalist Emily Hanford’s six-part podcast series, Sold a Story, on reading education and the decisions made in many American schools for the past 50 years. The stories of struggling readers and the lifelong implications when wecannot get literacy education right are profound. These stories and the people who live this reality are among us every day, but often their shame can keep them and their struggles invisible.
Personally I find myself in groups where, for various reasons, men are expected to read aloud and I can hear the inflections of insecurity as well as difficulties they have pronouncing even simple words. Comprehension, therefore, also clearly lags. One does not need to be completely unable to read for there to be the impact of unrealized literacy. It is often always in degrees. These deficits hurt individuals, families, communities and our entire country in many ways. And, as I will ultimately get to, men are disproportionately represented among the fully or functionally illiterate. Hanford’s podcast does not directly deal with this matter, but it’s a critical piece we need to keep investigating and seeking real change in our educational systems.
In this blog post, I’m going to make one important correction, add an echo from an important educational thinker, discuss my own experiences with implementing reading and writing curricula in a K-5 setting (Yes, Lucy Calkins’ Readers and Writers Workshop) and then discuss something from the podcast which lurks strongly in the background as I went from episode to episode, namely what is occurring specifically with boys and literacy.
Personally I find myself in groups where, for various reasons, men are expected to read aloud and I can hear the inflections of insecurity as well as difficulties they have pronouncing even simple words. Comprehension, therefore, also clearly lags. One does not need to be completely unable to read for there to be the impact of unrealized literacy. It is often always in degrees.
Firstly, if you’re interested in the cognitive neuroscience of reading, I would highly recommend Stanilsav Dehaene’s Reading in the Brain. He is an incredibly accessible thinker and writer who cares deeply about the education of children. My one correction of Hanford’s characterization of how the brain works in terms of reading comes from Dehaene but also other major researchers in the field. Hanford expresses that the brain is wired to learn how to read and this is not an accurate assessment. The brain is prepared to learn how to read. Multiple neural systems are ready for the task of learning how to decode symbols and sounds that ultimately turn into reading, but these centers were not originally designed or used for that purpose. These centers need to be co-opted for that purpose which takes work and specific training of these neural networks. Dahaene calls this process “recycling”:
Sheer luck gave us a cerebral network that links visual and language areas and is plastic enough to recycle itself and recognize the shape of letters. Even this recycling process is tightly constrained - only a localized circuit seems to possess the optimal properties needed for reading. Even after the circuit has been converted to reading, it still possesses most of the properties inherited from its evolution. Biological interia keeps the upper hand over cultural innovation. (Dehaene, p. 172)
This distinction between born to read versus ready or prepared is a crucial one. It lays the foundation for understanding that there is no inherency to reading. We need to be taught the skills and knowledge in order to gain this competency. The contrast would be to our ability to speak which, for most people, is environmentally and biologically ordained. Reading takes a lot of work and a lot of conscious cognitive processing. What some students may need more or less is for the classroom teacher to figure out, but there are fundamental steps a student needs to go through in order to literally hijack these cognitive centers for the purpose of reading.
The constant echoes that I had when I listened to the podcast was L
isa Delpit’s critical work, Other People’s Children. I went back and read sections because Delpit’s observational wisdom and professional understanding of what children need to read, particularly those children coming from marginalized communities, and what they were not getting under more progressive programs such as whole language approaches, was alarmingly prophetic. Delpit wrote Other People’s Children in 1995 and while others were becoming intoxicated by whole language approaches, she was hollering, like Cassandra into the wind, about what was NOT happening with the students she was teaching and in teacher training. Delpit reflects on a colleague expressing her frustration with her professional voice being minimized at the expense of fluency programs that were just not working for her Black and minority students:
Our kids are fluent. What they need are the skills that will get them into college. I’ve got a kid right now – brilliant. But he can’t get a score on the SAT that will even get him considered by any halfway decent college. He needs skills, not fluency. This is just another racist ploy to keep our kids out. White kids learn how to write a decent sentence. Even if they don’t teach them in school, their parents make sure they get what they need. What about our kids? They don’t get it at home and they spend all their time in school learning to be fluent. I’m sick of all this liberal nonsense. (Delpit, p. 16)
As Hanford reports, the students most damaged by poor societal choices regarding educational practices are those that cannot “tutor away” these issues with their social and economic power. The voices of these minority educators and parents have no weight where rich, mostly white, children can have the ineffectiveness of programs minimized through wealth and access.
Reading takes a lot of work and a lot of conscious cognitive processing. What some students may need more or less is for the classroom teacher to figure out, but there are fundamental steps a student needs to go through in order to literally hijack these cognitive centers for the purpose of reading.
The other casualties in this process are students who have learning issues that go undiagnosed, as they wait for these programs to be effective for students whom they may never be. Here is where I bring my own personal guilt and frustration into this discussion.
In 2013 I was principal at a K-8 school with no unified writing and reading program, an issue which causes a number of problems and difficulties for learners and the school as a whole. And I did what most educators would do, I reached out to my colleagues across the country for advice and guidance. One after the other, they highly recommended the Lucy Calkins program out of Columbia’s Teachers’ College as well as the supporting assessment materials. With training, which we did for years, the program costs hundreds of thousands of dollars. We were smart about implementation and did it slowly, grade by grade. We had evaluation meetings where teachers could voice their concerns, and I even took teams of teachers to a nearby school which had recently implemented the program to watch it in action and to talk to the teachers about effective practices. When teachers demanded that we maintain certain aspects of phonics instruction, I was all thumbs up because I trusted my professionals. They returned the trust by going all in on Lucy’s program.
But as I look back, none of us (and ultimately it was primarily my responsibility) ever asked whether the program was working. I believe my main assumption was that my colleagues who I trusted had asked the right questions because, how could so many people not know the answer to that question? And, as Delpit points out, I was working in a community that, for the most part, could mitigate the issues with tutoring and services. It was never the program’s fault. It was the child.
The best illustration of this thinking came to a head when the parents of a student in 2nd grade came to us and told us that their child, let’s call her Beth, could not read. Beth had a big personality, she was highly verbal and engaged, loved school and had lots of friends. As we unpacked the situation, we discovered that Beth was highly gifted and capable…of faking it. She was able to convince everyone that she was reading when she actually could not decode the simplest of words. She avoided reading when she was able, but then had elaborately memorized most of the books that had been read to her so that, page to page, she appeared to be reading.
What we ultimately learned was that Beth was dyslexic. I had heard other stories like this before from teachers of dyslexic students. But I do believe that if we had been taking a much more serious approach to phonics and skills as part of our curriculum, we would have had Beth diagnosed as early as kindergarten and not have had her spend two years sweating through learning how to read. It was at this point that I went back to my office over the next month, called all of those school leaders who I spoke with about reading instruction and who had recommended Calkins. I asked them one question: “From where did you learn that this program was going to give you the results you were looking for?” All of them answered the same thing: “by asking a colleague for their recommendation.” I consider myself to be a fairly critical thinker about what I do and what is going on in the world. Why was this the moment I let my discerning mind fail me?
And, even with my background in cognitive neuroscience, I still did not put the pieces together. Remember Dahaene and his research on reading and the brain? Well, he goes to town on whole word reading approaches:
It is amazing to think that scientists and educators could have joined forces to support a conclusion that we know was so wrong…there is no reason to doubt that the global contours of words play virtually no role in reading. We do not recognize a printed word through a holistic grasp of its contours but because our brain breaks it down into letters and graphemes…we know that the immediacy of reading is just an illusion engendered by the extreme automaticity of its component stages, which operate outside our conscious awareness (Italics are mine). (Dahaene, p. 222)
I highlight this last statement from Dehaene because it leads so smoothly into a subject not discussed in Hanford’s podcast and which needs much greater investigation, namely, our young boys and why they are not reading and why their rates of illiteracy are reaching such catastrophic levels. We keep stating there is an issue with boy’s and literacy and we keep attempting changes which have no impact. It’s time to stop the madness and try to better understand what is going on so boys can be more successful with literacy.
Imagine that you have convened a group of parents together with educators who are, more or less, having trouble with boys in school, particularly in the areas of reading and writing. There would be levels of genuine frustration, with both teachers and parents hearing the same tropes from the students whether at home or in school. These might sound like:
“I just don’t like to read.” “I’d rather be doing something else.” “This is boring.” or the more telling, “I just don’t care.” Parents and educators might then be leaning into all sorts of theories that have become part of the regular mantra regarding boys and literacy skills.
“Well, boys develop later, so we shouldn’t have such expectations of them.” “Boys are not biologically designed to sit and do something like read for long periods of time. They need to move around so it’s hard for them.” “He likes other subjects like math and science (more of the biological argument) so why push him so hard? It’s going to make him hate school.” And my favorite: “If we just give them things that boys like reading, they’ll be more interested.”
All of this thinking and framing around the issue of literacy of boys has two important elements to it. I have heard it over and over again as an educator and I am quite certain that there is no validity to any of these sentiments.
There is another problem going on here which overlaps with Hanford’s podcast and gives us some insight into why boys are struggling so much with reading in particular.
As Hanford points out on several occasions, the results of illiteracy among boys and then adult men is no small issue. It dramatically changes the life trajectory and opportunities and overall life satisfaction that men can experience. There is much shame and self-loathing coupled with real limitations on ability to reach economic stability and well being in a post industrial society. As I mentioned previously, I have had the experience of being in certain spaces where groups of men were expected to read out loud and, as an educator, I cringe as I hear 40 year old men barely able to pronounce words, know where a sentence begins and ends, and ultimately understand and comprehend what they are reading.
The Sold a Story podcast mentions the now famous 40% statistic of students in grades 4-8 who are not at reading level. But this statistic belies two other profound truths: that a much larger percentage of that number come from poor, marginalized communities and the disparity between boys and girls achieving acceptable literacy levels is staggering.
The 2018 PISA scores indicated a 30 percent gender gap in reading in the United States; whereas, math scores were a mere 5 point differential favoring boys. The gender gap in math education has been radically closing for years. But this truth cannot be said for literacy scores. This also avoids the fact that boys occupy the bottom 26% in both math and reading on average which relegates the notion that boys are generally better in math to fantasy and gender bias.
Stanford’s CEPA report from 2018-19 contains even more shocking research which should, as with Hanford’s podcast, shake us to rethink our entire focus regarding boys and reading. The report indicates that boys are not meeting goals regarding reading and literacy regardless of their socio-economic status across the diverse districts and school systems from which they were sampled. In other words, this is not just some kid’s problem in a poor neighborhood or rural community. It is an endemic crisis.
So, what is happening with our boys and literacy and what practical steps can we take to solve this problem?
As Hanford points out on several occasions, the results of illiteracy among boys and then adult men is no small issue. It dramatically changes the life trajectory and opportunities and overall life satisfaction that men can experience. There is much shame and self-loathing coupled with real limitations on ability to reach economic stability and well being in a post industrial society.
What Hanford also points out on several occasions and which sometimes we forget as educators is the reason that students become confident academically is because they feel like they can do what we ask them to do academically. I am not dismissing students who, for very profoundly challenging reasons, just cannot learn at the rate or context in which we ask them. But this is not an issue of that percentage of our students who need learning interventions and supports. Over 50% of men in American prisons have some type of learning challenge. It is unconscionable that the reason that many of these men are in jail is that they did not receive the support they needed when they were in school.
But the large percentage of 4-8th grade boys who are not reaching literacy attainment or are on their way to being functionally illiterate are quite capable of meeting basic benchmarks. And, if boys are placed into situations where they are not acquiring the skills necessary to succeed because we have made flawed decisions in schools about the types of skills they need, they are not going to feel like they can do this thing called reading. Inwardly, they will blame themselves, castigate themselves, and feel horrible about themselves. But outwardly, they will communicate constructed masculinized messages which will make it even tougher for us to support them through these struggles.
“I don’t care about reading.” Boys and young men learn emotional and social dismissal as a strategy to maintain the appearance of strength and superiority rather than confront something that appears to be an attack on their emerging masculine selves.
“Reading is what girls do. Why would I want to do that.” Again, aligning oneself with traditionally viewed feminine activities would be viewed as an anathema to traditional masculine social construction. It is both an avoidance of a moment where you need to express another typically feminine position, vulnerability, and a re-establishment of masculine identity through false narratives of superiority.
Over 50% of men in American prisons have some type of learning challenge. It is unconscionable that the reason that many of these men are in jail is that they did not receive the support they needed when they were in school.
“I’m just not interested. I’d rather be doing something else.” This may be true. And as pointed out by one of the educators in the Hanford podcast, as educators our job is not to make them love reading and writing or really anything. Firstly, you can't learn to love something that you can’t do and second, our job as educators is to give them the ability (skills and knowledge) to accomplish tasks like reading and writing. When a child makes this claim of one interest over another, they still need to show us they can accomplish the task, regardless of whether they “would rather be doing something else.” But, my argument is that with boys we allow this type of posturing because of gender bias. Boys and young men, because of cliches around rugged individualism and assertiveness, are allowed to take these positions and we allow them to get away with it. We play along with the gender game in school, even when it is not in the long term interest or well being of a young student.
For me, the overlap between Sold a Story and gender is a crucial one to pay attention to if we want to solve this problem. Just as we don’t want to continue to blame children or families or even communities for why children aren’t reading, we also don’t want to make fiercely inaccurate claims about biology to dismiss why boys aren’t reading. There is no reason why boys should not be attaining the same levels of literacy as girls. The adults are the ones who need to make sure our stereotypical attitudes regarding gender do not let boys descend into a slippery slope of illiteracy. Our boys need an open-hearted determinism at the center of our practice as teachers. We just need to follow the science, the proven effective practice, and adjust our gender lens accordingly so all children can be successful.