Yesterday afternoon my third grader came home with a newfound air of confidence and reported excitedly that his teacher had told him that he’s ready to move up to the fourth grade reading class. The charter school he attends focuses more on each student’s needs and abilities than on his/her age.
After having three sons that excelled at reading early on, our fourth seemed to be cut from different cloth. Even from the time he was tiny he didn’t care to be read to. His older brothers had loved that activity. In preschool and Kindergarten, and even first grade, letters and words just didn’t seem to make sense to him. Our painstaking personal training with him didn’t seem to help much. He also had some speaking dysfunction for which he received therapy for quite a while.
Scientists have long known that girls develop language and reading skills earlier than boys. Since the early 90s studies have recognized a significantly higher rate of reading dysfunction among boys than among girls. Recent studies have shown that the brains of girls and boys process language very differently. (See 3/5/08 Science Daily Article.)
When dealing with auditory or written language, girls’ brains engage abstract thinking regions while boys’ brains generally do not. Instead, boys process language in the tactile sensory centers of the brain. One study found that “In boys, accurate performance depended -- when reading words -- on how hard visual areas of the brain worked. In hearing words, boys' performance depended on how hard auditory areas of the brain worked.”
It is possible that this is part of the reason that girls develop language skills earlier than boys. Additional study is needed to determine whether these tendencies continue into adulthood. Some educators are responding by developing language and reading curriculum that is more tactile and sensory based. But even this is not enough to overcome the basic issue of brain development.
The ability to learn anything in our education system is strongly tied to the ability to read. In recognition of this fact, there has been a huge push over the past generation to get children reading earlier and to get each child to a grade appropriate proficiency level.
The problem with this is that we are now realizing that many boys’ brains are often insufficiently developed in the earlier grades to achieve what is demanded of them. The average boy in grades K-3 is physically incapable of reading at the average reading level for the grade. But we have deeply entrenched policies that drive the requirement anyway.
The result is that overwhelming numbers of young boys are treated as defective. This label is not lost on boys. They get the message very early on that they are academically substandard performers. This message deeply informs their self image and identity, producing lifelong individual and far reaching societal results.
Couple this with cultural problems such as the diminution of fathers over two generations and a generation of policies aimed at improving opportunities for girls and women, and you end up turning out far fewer male than female college graduates. Today the college graduation ratio is about 60-40 in favor of females. It is estimated that females will make up two-thirds of all college graduates by 2020.
Early disparity in reading ability is not the only factor lending to this trend. But it is part of an entire culture that has developed and become institutionalized that treats boys as essentially flawed and dysfunctional. This has been studied and well documented by Michael Gurian, Christina Hoff Sommers, Michael Thompson, and others. In reality, we have a defective model; not defective children.
It is time to rethink our reading-centric early education requirements and to develop education models that recognize realities of brain development. We need learning environments and curricula that take advantage of the natural brain development of both girls and boys.
My son’s charter school is one of two in Utah that currently employ the expeditionary learning model. This model involves a lot more hands-on techniques that are sensory rich. There is a lot more moving around inside and outside of the classroom. There are far more off-campus learning experiences. There is more emphasis on the natural world, as opposed to environmental messages that imbue a fear of such (as has been documented by Richard Louv).
We are beginning to see some payoffs from this type of learning approach. We are seeing that the amount of time spent in school is far less important than how school time is spent. I only wish that more children could experience the kinds of benefits our children are seeing.