How Boys Learn to Read

Great op-ed from The Wall Street Journal:

The appearance of the boy-girl literacy gap happens to coincide with the proliferation of video games and other electronic forms of entertainment over the last decade or two. Boys spend far more time “plugged in” than girls do. Could the reading gap have more to do with competition for boys’ attention than with their supposed inability to focus on anything other than outhouse humor?

Dr. Robert Weis, a psychology professor at Denison University, confirmed this suspicion in a randomized controlled trial of the effect of video games on academic ability. Boys with video games at home, he found, spend more time playing them than reading, and their academic performance suffers substantially. Hard to believe, isn’t it, but Science has spoken.

The secret to raising boys who read, I submit, is pretty simple—keep electronic media, especially video games and recreational Internet, under control (that is to say, almost completely absent). Then fill your shelves with good books.

People who think that a book—even R.L. Stine’s grossest masterpiece—can compete with the powerful stimulation of an electronic screen are kidding themselves. But on the level playing field of a quiet den or bedroom, a good book like “Treasure Island” will hold a boy’s attention quite as well as “Zombie Butts from Uranus.” Who knows—a boy deprived of electronic stimulation might even become desperate enough to read Jane Austen.

My parents are confirmed Luddites, and I hated them for refusing to buy us a Nintendo or a Playstation. But God bless parental obstinacy. And if I was to recommend one book for young boys, I’d pick Watership Down, which should have made the cut for my “influential books” list.

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22 thoughts on “How Boys Learn to Read

  1. This isn’t surprising. Alas, I anticipate that there will be many calls for restrictions on the video game industry. Laws against the video game distributors and requirements levied at the television and computer manufacturers. All of this of course engineered to cater to lazy idiotic parents who would be shocked (shocked!) at the suggestion that it’s their damned job to keep junior off of the wire until he’s matured enough to do it responsibly.

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  2. I hate to question the almighty “Science” gods, but I played video games constantly when I was a kid. And I’m doing my PhD in a physical science and read and all that. Could it be that I played lots of RPGs?

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      • @Boegiboe,

        Seems likely. Granted that not all games are the same, but it seems too facile to blame video games when so many of them, especially the ones that typify the era that kids under scrutiny are likely to have experienced, feature so much text. Granted that they’re not fine literature, but if we’re just trying to instill basic reading comprehension and grammar rules, why does it matter whether the text you’re reading is in Chrono Trigger or Final Fantasy VII instead of The Lord of the Rings?

        I suppose this is less true going forward with so many modern games ditching word bubbles for voice acting, but there’s always the DS. Dragon Quest IX anyone?

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    • @Aaron W: There are some significant differences between today’s video games and those of even ten years ago. The game designers are now much more heavily into psychology, and especially controlling the timing and nature of rewards so players want to keep playing. They are literally designing them to be addictive.

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      • @Ken, “These novels aren’t like the novels when I was a kid. The authors are using all sorts of psychology and they’re introducing concepts that they *KNOW* appeal to young children and adolescents… and then they don’t finish the story but leave you with a note to buy the next book. Tolkien is not only indoctrinating our children, he’s getting them addicted and forcing them to line his pockets!!!”

        Dead Rising 2 comes out tomorrow.

        I pre-ordered, so I’m probably not going to spend a whole lot of time checking in on the evenings in the next couple of weeks or so. (Just in time for Fallout: New Vegas.)

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  3. Back in my day, video games were text based.

    I learned to type by playing Zork in the basement… because, when I got home, the sun was coming through the window and I didn’t need to turn the light on… and, when it went down, I had two choices:

    1) Learn to type
    2) Get up and turn the light on

    Thank the gods, my laziness forced me to learn to type.

    You kids today with your graphics.

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  4. “Boys with video games at home, he found, spend more time playing them than reading, and their academic performance suffers substantially. Hard to believe, isn’t it, but Science has spoken.”

    More statistics than hard science. And I’m a bit confused, did the kids who didn’t have video games at home spend that much more time reading? Such that if Johnny spends 5 hours on the xbox, Bob who is xbox-less spends 5 hours reading? Or is it that Bob still goes and finds more interesting stuff to do than read, like maybe play sports or watch tv? It’s that latter I suspect, unless someone would kindly show me where they controlled for that.

    As for me, I played 2 hours of video games a day, every day, from when I was five till I was 16ish, at which point the interest of girls and everything else caught up. I read as much then as I do now, if not more.

    In fact, I would posit that a lot of video games, getting beyond the 1st person shooters or 3rd person sand box titles, actually stimulate kids to want to go out and pick up a good fantasy or sci-fi book and read it, having given them added time to exercise their imaginative and visualization abilities.

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  5. Watership Down! My fifth grade teacher introduced me to that book; I still read it every few years. And I still get choked up in places. Thank goodness I just trusted her; I don’t think I even asked what it was about. It’s a hard book to sell, but a damn good one to read.

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  6. Imagine how much more successful you would be if you locked your kid in the basement with nothing but a chair, a light, and a bunch of books. Then they’d read Dickens like the dickens. No need to go crazy, of course. You can let them out for school and little league and stuff. Of course, when all the kids are talking about video games that he’s never played and TV shows he knows nothing about, he will be suitably insulated from the ability to make friends by virtue of the fact that he will have little to talk about except a bunch of books nobody else has read and little league. He won’t be able to talk about Major League Baseball cause he won’t be able to watch any games, but I’m sure they’ll be just as interested in the triple he hit on Tuesday night than the local pennant race.

    Now, if we’re going to be sincere about this, we also have to watch what they read. As Mr. Spence points out, if you let them read what they’re interested in you’re actually just coddling them. Better to stick to non-fiction since fiction is full of useless things that may be “riveting” and “engrossing” but we’ve already established that it’s not important that they enjoy themselves by their own standards. They’ll learn more reading books about molecular biology. Or the dictionary.

    There would be exceptions, of course. You would want them to read the classics, so that you can brag to all of your friends that your 6th grader has read Moby Dick. Unlike their peers, your peers matter.

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    • @Trumwill, well done. I often felt like an ornament as a child, for my ability to read. It eventually drove me away from reading.

      I think we should consider that the boys who don’t read…don’t read this blog, and will never read anything like it. They are playing Grand Theft Auto, or shooting each other with real guns, or getting the (dwindlingly few) girls who will allow it pregnant.

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  7. Balance in all things. We had video games but we had time restraints on how much we could play, how much TV we could watch, etc. And I actually really loved to read so it was never much of an issue. I think the point we should take from this is that parents have a responsibility to ensure they’re kids have balanced experiences – that they do spend time reading, getting outside, etc. Not that we should all be electronic puritans.

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  8. The Southern Agrarians hated the fact that the Kids These Days listened to jazz.

    Before them, the curmudgeons could not BELIEVE that the kids were reading novels instead of epic poems.

    At one stage, I can only assume that some old dude was sitting around complaining that the kids were listening to that Homer guy instead of _________.

    Methinks the kids are alright.

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  9. I don’t really get the “oh, kids today” comments, since the writer isn’t really griping about young people at all- he’s griping about the parents and teachers who adopt a pandering style of education and parenting that flatters young people instead of educating them. Trust me- I’ve had administrators tell me that I shouldn’t be assigning reading in my college-level history courses (!) because “their generation is not into reading” and “the key to learning any subject is having fun. That should be your goal: making sure they have fun.” So, I sympathize with the editorial.

    Look, clearly it’s easier to indulge kids with whatever makes them happy, but an important part of parenting/teaching is actual guidance, as opposed to bribery. The kids will love you if you feed them ice cream and cake every day. But they’ll also be fat and inert. It’s the same with culture. Kids already know that they like video games and Captain Underpants, and that’s fine. When I was a kid, I thought Rambo was the greatest motion picture ever made. But adults who tell children that video games and Captain Underpants are the finest works that culture has to offer, in hopes of seeming “cool” in their eyes are depriving them of some truly meaningful experiences, not the least of which is the experience of trying something new and different and stepping outside of one’s comfort zone. Say what you want about “the 60s” and its cultural values; I’d still like to see the concept of “mind expansion” return to our discussion (although in reference to more than drugs).

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    • @Rufus, And I know that people in the 60s who talked about expanding their minds were not just referring to drugs- it’s just that seems to be what’s been handed down about expanding one’s mind- it’s taken as a euphemism for taking LSD and listening to LPs. At it’s best though it’s a term referring to the rewards of intellectual curiosity. You should look up the reading list for the poetry course that Ginsberg taught in the early 70s- it’s like a crash course in the best of western and eastern literature. That desire to grow intellectually and spiritually is due for a revival I believe.

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    • @Rufus, I think what got to me was not the notion that you should push kids harder or that you should limit video game time or set-aside time for reading quality material. As Plinko and EDK point out, there is a balance to be struck here. Spence isn’t interested in a balance, though. He is interested in depriving kids of want they want to do (including books they might enjoy) so they are forced to read out what you think they should read of boredom. Because doing anything else with this newfangled technology (hence some of the comments) is wasted time and brain cells, apparently.

      I think it’s pretty ridiculous that people are suggesting that you don’t assign reading material because people don’t like to read. And I am supportive of efforts to get boys to read more (I wish more had been done on my behalf when I was growing up and plan to do more with any kids I have). But as with so many things, there is a balance. I admire the Mormon tradition of Family Night and think it’s the sort of thing all sorts of families do, but that’s different from saying “Family Night is good so every night should be Family Night” and keeping everybody chained to the dinner table for the next round of Mexican Train.

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  10. So, I’m supposed to be impressed by an Op-Ed from a book publisher about how society’s problems are caused by a combination of things people do instead of consume our company’s products and the lousy products put out by our competitors?
    Consider me unmoved.
    I am quite certain there are a number of thougtful discussions to have about how to strike the right balances in education and parenting, but this ain’t it. It’s claptrap.
    A randomized controlled trial of children apparently based on who does and does not have video games at home? I thought we were to be skeptical when we read in a newspaper someone writing about what they read about someone else’s work, or is that only when it makes an argument we’re inclined to disagree with?

    I spent my life in video games as a child; I don’t think it hampered me from obtaining a degree in English Literature.

    Of course, disinterested parents will follow the path of least resistance and shortchange the moral and cultural education of their children in the process. I don’t see what shaking fists about video games or gross-out books will do to change that.

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  11. “The appearance of the boy-girl literacy gap happens to coincide with the proliferation of video games and other electronic forms of entertainment over the last decade or two.”

    I’d love to see a citation or two on that. I grew up well before video games, and while I was a boy who read a lot, it was acknowledged back then that girls read a lot more than boys and had higher SAT verbal scores to prove it. (The ETS rejiggered the SATs to eliminate this gap, but not the math gap. I have an ETS paper offline which discusses how they did this.) Of course, the tell is that this is a Wall Street Journal editorial. For crying out loud. How can anyone give any credence to any “fact” stated on the page? Every time I take a peek I see something about the problem of our nation’s dams threatened by water running uphill and sentient marmots collecting undeserved welfare checks.

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