Thomas Spence, of Spence Publishing Company (Dallas) has some thoughts on what explains the widening literacy gap between boys and girls. Since 1992, the disparity has grown, to as much as ten percentage points. In his article on the subject in the Wall Street Journal, Mr. Spence proposes a simple solution: pull the plug. In other words, severely restrict your son’s access to video games, or eliminate them altogether.
Anecdotally, I can say this works. Our son was so fascinated with electronic games he was continually asking to play the primitive version of chess that came with the ancient Toshiba laptop my husband used for his job. We didn’t own a PC until 1990, and we bought one game to go with it (called Mad Marbles, or something like that). The world of shareware knock-offs opened up further possibilities, but Tielman was limited to one hour on weekdays and two/day on weekends. We also homeschooled (Mr. Spence says there is no gender literacy gap among homeschoolers, but cites no stats), making that kind of control possible. Tielman saved his money to buy SuperMario and Sonic the Hedgehog but still suffered our one-hour limit. In between times he read a lot, and he read all kinds of stuff: Bobbsey Twins and Hardy Boys, fantasy, historical and realistic fiction, action-adventure.
Now he can play all the games he has time for, but he still reads. If he were in public school now and lagging in his literacy, he might have joined the drift toward post-literacy. As an antidote, he might be subjected to books like The Day My Butt Went Psycho, because gross-out humor is now prescribed as a gateway to more serious works. That’s what preadolescent boys are interested in, right? I recently read The Book Whisperer, by Donalyn Miller, a sixth-grade teacher in Keller, Texas (not far from Spence Publishing). She claims to have converted boys in her class to reading by judicial application of books like The Day My Butt Went Psycho; does that mean that from butts to brains is a natural progression for boys?
Maybe not for boys only. I remember being amused by gross-out humor (actually rolling on the floor at the thought of certain bodily functions), at the age of eight. We all know it’s common, though the reason why is an interesting question. I might get to that later. More to the point, we all know it’s a base form of humor that we eventually outgrow. Even though the popularity of movies by Judd Apatow and the Farrelly brothers suggests we might not be outgrowing it soon enough. I admire Donalyn Miller and appreciated The Book Whisperer very much. I don’t doubt that she’s sprouted readers in her classroom by the application of some slightly gross, er, fertilizer. Today Captain Underpants, tomorrow Atlas Shrugged? Maybe. But if you can swing it, Thomas Spencer’s recommendation seems more fruitful. As he writes, “If you keep meeting a boy where he is, he doesn’t go very far.”