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Raising Literate Boys in the Video Game Age

"Gross-out" books like "SweetFarts" and "Zombie Butts from Uranus" that pander to base humor, do not effectively encourage literacy.

"Gross-out" books like "SweetFarts" and "Zombie Butts from Uranus" that pander to base humor, do not effectively encourage literacy.

In an article for the Wall Street Journal, Thomas Spence addresses the worrying literacy gender gap between American boys and girls and suggests some measures parents can take to help instill the value of reading in their young sons. Spence cites statistics from a recent Center on Education Policy report that shows “substantially more boys than girls score below the proficiency level on the annual National Assessment of Educational Progress reading test.” This discrepancy, which emerged in 1992, spans all ethnic and economic strata. Currently some states have recorded scores that show the reading proficiency of boys trails that of girls by more than ten percentage points. What are we to do about this problem? Well, the answer is not, according to Spence, sinking to the level of young boys and enticing them with “gross-out” stories and humor about bodily functions.

In the past few years, there has been a deluge of children’s books published that pander to base humor and the “gross-out market”, such as SweetFarts and the Butt Books series. But, Spence does not subscribe to the tenet that it doesn’t matter what kids read, as long as they are reading. “One obvious problem with the SweetFarts philosophy of education 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.”

Instead, the writer focuses on the real reason boys don’t read and points to something that is much more pervasive in the modern family home than books: video games. “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.” The distraction of video games and electronic media is the main reason for the disparity in literacy posits Spence. Denison University psychology professor Dr. Robert Weis agrees with this theory. After conducting a study on how video games affect academic performance, the professor found that boys who have access to games at home spend less time reading and achieve less academic success. So now the tough part, getting parents to severely limit, or remove, these games in the home and replace them 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…Most importantly, a boy raised on great literature is more likely to grow up to think, to speak, and to write like a civilized man.” As many of our public schools crumble and the global economy becomes increasingly competitive, any academic edge our children can achieve will greatly affect their future success. The failure raise literate children will force us to face dire consequences in America’s future.

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