Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Raising Discriminating Readers

A friend of mine emailed me a recent article from the Wall Street Journal entitled "How to Raise Boys Who Read," by Thomas Spence, which addresses the literacy gap between boys and girls.  Here's a link to the article online; click on it, read the article (it's fairly short), and then pop back over to me.  I'll wait.  It's that interesting.

Good, huh?  Spence makes several great points throughout, but I'm only going to comment on one (at least for now): his assertion that "pander[ing] to boys' untutored tastes" is a really bad idea.  Since Spence is particularly addressing the gender literacy gap, I'm going to point out the obvious.  Publishers make available plenty of twaddle for girls, too.

In the realm of children's books, there seems to be two main camps:  the "well-at-least-they're-reading" group and the quality literature group.  (Do I sound biased already?)  According to Susan Wise Bauer (AKA "SWB") in The Well-Trained Mind, one problem with the former camp is that sub-par children's books "develop a child's taste for short sentences, simple sentence structure, easy vocabulary, uncomplicated paragraphs, and shallow, simple plots" (page 62).  We're not talking about easy reader books, targeted to children who aren't yet strong readers.  We're talking about Goosebumps, the Baby-Sitters Club, Captain Underpants, and others that Charlotte Mason would call twaddle (or worse).

Spence, in his article, takes the issue even further.  The problem with the current and highly popular philosophy of publishing "gross-out" books aimed at boys "is that it is more suited to producing a generation of barbarians and morons than to raising the sort of men who make good husbands, fathers and professionals. If you keep meeting a boy where he is, he doesn't go very far."  What goes into the mind comes out into the life.

But we don't have to aim so low.  Basically, it's a matter of training a child's developing tastes.  Spence quotes C. S. Lewis: "The little human animal will not at first have the right responses. It must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, and hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likeable, disgusting, and hateful."  I don't think this is exactly the same as the tabula rasa thesis, but it does imply that nurture is a critical component in education.  By reading or listening to quality children's literature (or both!), children acquire a taste for the same.

As Charlotte Mason wrote, "The ideas it [a book] holds must each make that sudden, delightful impact upon their minds, must cause that intellectual stir, which mark the inception of an idea."  Hmmm.  Wonder how that works when the book is from the SweetFarts series?

I'd rather not find out.


  1. Well said...I second each and every of your sentences.
    Call me snob, but I detest those cheap books. There is a faulty reasoning thinking that "whatever as long as they read".
    I'm not going to say that we haven't read and read some books that are not totally twaddle free, but I do NEVER read the Barbie, Little Pony, CareBears, Scooby Doo, even if they insist in bringing them from the library. I simply don't read them. Sometimes we start a book that it's not so good...soon they realize it's junk. When we read wholesome literature, they ask for it again and again, and it's not necessary easy, it has difficult words, but it is the right diet. Don't feed them junk food just to be sure they eat, soon they will be obese...same with books, even if sometimes they have some candy!

  2. Marvellous, marvellous article. Thanks, Ellen.

  3. You were right, the article *is* that good. And so is your commentary! I found it particularly interesting that everyone's boys are suffering, but then he threw in at the end: not the homeschooled kids.

  4. Well said! I'm going to link to this on a post I recently published on teaching reading to our kids. ~K

  5. Great post! Thanks for drawing my attention to this article!

  6. Wow! Thank you for the link. I was about to comment on your commentary without reading the article, then clicked over. Glad I did. I was going to comment that the reading gap between boys and girls might be because of all the video games kids have. I have a friend with two boys and a girl. The girl loves to read, write, draw. The boys? Wii. Nonstop. Even their "imaginitive play" revolves around Mario. We don't have a Wii. Or any playstation. Because I know how hard it is to compete with the blinking lights and control sticks. I myself have to discipline myself with the computer. This blog stuff is a lot of fun, but it's not my family. It's not a good book. As hard as it is for me to resist stepping to the computer to check for messages, with all my grown-up self discipline, how much harder must it be for kids who have none at all.

    We may get some sort of game station when the kids are older. Much older. Once the kids have learned to love to read. Take away everything but the books, and they will learn to love them. That's my hope, at least.

  7. I just wanted to comment on the video games. I have several game systems but I don't allow my boys to play them at all during the spring, summer and fall. In the winter it is allowed with limits. The Wii is actually my favorite because it has a lot of active games and can easily be played as a family. It really is fun, but all the games I have are active and designed to be played as a family. If I had to pick what to keep it would be the Wii and the DS (also the only systems I bought myself). There has never been any books about underwear or bodily functions in my house (it is hard enough to teach boys to act as gentelmen). They read for thier lessons and we have quiet reading every evening, but they don't read often on thier own. They do; however, ask to be read to from great books so often that I have to tell them no several times a day.


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