In the culmination of Anne Patchett’s Bel Canto, there is much that peaked my interest. However, most of these things were too depressing to become the theme of my blog post this week. With that in mind, I chose to focus on a short sentence in the very beginning of the tenth chapter. This sentence describes Mr. Hosokawa’s routine, in that “he still… added ten new vocabulary words to his list every morning, but he struggled against the tide of memorization” (Patchett, p. 289). This brief remark reminded me of the arguments for a biological predisposition of females over males toward a greater memory capacity due to brain structure, which I had already seen in my research. This drove my broad research questions of the week. Can the gender gap in language arts be traced at least partially back to curriculum that disadvantages boys? Is this disadvantaging occurring because of biological predispositions or social norms? What interventions could be utilized to best help males reach their highest potential in language arts?
In previous blog posts, I discussed the existence of this female-favoring gender gap in language arts. What remains a point of interest is that while the male-favoring STEM gender gap receives so much attention, this language arts gap receives relatively little. Whether this stems from “progressive” desires to shatter the glass ceiling that has historically plagued women or from “traditional” subconscious bias toward considering historically male-dominated fields as of superior importance, it is unclear. However, there are various theories as to why this lesser known gender gap exists. Alexander R. Pagnani thoroughly maps the current scholarship surrounding this topic and discusses implications for further research within his article, “Gifted male Readers: Current Understandings and Suggestions for Future Research.”
This language arts gender gap seems to be historically present, at least since the time of John Locke, who wrote public letters detailing his concerns that males were falling behind in writing ability (Pagnani, p. 2). This would suggest a biological causation of this gender gap, since it has not lessened with a progression of technological advances and better understanding of male psychology. In addition, it has been evidenced that boys are slower to develop verbally when compared to girls (Pagnani, p. 3), also evidencing biological contribution. On the other hand, there are theories suggesting that literacy activities are viewed as intrinsically feminine in nature because it does not facilitate boys being tough and active, when this is what society expects them to be (Pagnani, p. 3). Furthermore, it has been evidenced in various research studies that males adhere to gender stereotyping than girls, and are more likely to want to conform to hegemonic masculine identity (Pagnani, p. 3). This suggests a greater societal influence on male perception of reading.
Regardless of the “why” behind this language arts gap, though it seems to be explained by a combination of biological and social factors, it is true that there is a pile of evidence suggesting that boys have lower value of reading, less self-efficacy for reading, and suffer from more writing-related anxiety (Pagnani, p. 3). In addition, males are “more likely to find school boring, and have a harder time inferring emotional meaning from text (Pagnani, p. 3). Interestingly enough, the latter may be contributed to heavily by brain structure. Michael Gurian, in Boys and Girls Learn Differently, cites the corpus callosum, which connects the right and left hemispheres of the brain, as typically denser with more neural connections in female brains. This means that females can usually process information more quickly between the two hemispheres, which better connects the emotion processing and language centers (Gurian, p. 21). In addition, when females are confronted with emotionally stimulating information, brain activity quickly moves into the upper four lobes of the brain, where more thought processing occurs (Gurian, p. 32). Contrastingly, when males are confronted with the same emotionally-stimulating information, brain activity typically moves away from the learning centers into the lower part of the brain (Gurian, p. 32).
This emotive processing difference between males and females coupled with the idea that school is perhaps less intellectually-engaging for boys, i.e. more boring, begs the question of whether traditional language arts curriculum is partly to blame. For example, it has been proposed that the types of books traditionally assigned in the American school system are emotionally-heavy, which would appeal less to boys (Pagnani, p. 3). On the other hand, males are more likely to read nonfiction and approach fictional books with a how-to lens, and these fiction novels are often more filled with action, heroes, violence, and sex, as opposed to the character-driven classics that girls tend to favor (Pagnani, p. 3). Perhaps society and the education system could better appeal to males by redefining what constitutes literature. Males, though they are less likely to complete reading as many books as their female peers, are more likely to read video gaming handbooks, online sources, and Sports Illustrated magazines than are girls. This also means that males could be under-represented by previous studies as to how much they read (Pagnani, p. 3).
Pagnani also discusses how even male gifted readers are achieving at lower levels in some respects than female gifted readers. Pagnani reports three research-based curriculum strategies to benefit gifted learners, which could perhaps be applied to the general student body as well. He suggests integrating technology into literacy learning, which has been seen to improve male written compositions over hand-written assignments (Pagnani, p. 5). In addition, he describes using bibliotherapy to better appeal to males emotionally through nonfiction heroes and journaling as a basis for encouraging attribution of more practical value to writing, which boys seem to need more of (Pagnani, p. 5).
Mary J. Franco and Kathleen Unrath describe their own successes in fostering writing proficiency and value motivation in K-5 male students through visual thinking strategies. Influenced by the work of scholar R. Fletcher, they worked within an exclusively boys writing club while integrating art teaching techniques. Boys writing clubs have previously been endorsed as “supportive physical and emotional spaces where boys’ preferred topics, kinesthetic learning styles, and unique humor might be shared, understood, and respected by peers” (Franco et al., p. 3). This particular strategy followed a transmediational chain of viewing or otherwise exposure to art of some form, open discussion of the piece, drawing, and then writing (Franco et al., p. 4). The authors, though there was no quantitative measurement following the implementation of this method, witnessed the increased enthusiasm of the boys in hand raising and waiving in response to visual thinking strategies questions (Franco et al., p. 4). While far from conclusive, this five semester long study presents a valid argument for a more kinesthetic and interdisciplinary approach to teaching language arts for boys at younger ages, and emphasizes the practicality of a safe space for boys to authentically write for their own interests.
Franco, Mary J. and Kathleen Unrath. “The Art of Engaging Young Men as Writers.” Art Education. 68.3 (May 2015): 26 – 31. ERIC. Web. 19 Nov. 2015.
Gurian, Michael and Kathy Stevens. Boys and Girls Learn Differently. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2011. Print.
Pagnani, Alexander R. “Gifted Male Readers: Current Understandings and Suggestions for Future Research.” Roeper Review. 35.1 (2013): 27 – 35. ERIC. Web. 19 Nov. 2015.