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Young People and Reading

Sharon Grover
Youth Services Selections Specialist at the Arlington Public Library
Thursday, March 17, 2005; 11:00 AM

In Tuesday's article, "Educators Differ on Why Boys Lag in Reading," Washington Post staff writer Valerie Strauss reported that a reading gap between boys and girls stokes the debate over teaching approaches and curricula.

Sharon Grover, the youth services selections specialist at the Arlington Public Library, was online Thursday, March 17, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss how educators and parents can choose books suitable for boys and girls.

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The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


washingtonpost.com: Thank you for joining us today to talk about the different kinds of reading materials for boys and girls. In your work at the Arlington Public Library, what kinds of recommendations do you make to parents and educators for boys and girls?

Sharon Grover: It's a pleasure to talk about this. When I have questions from parents, I try to discover what interests their children. All of the librarians I know ask this question of kids and parents before recommending books. Once the interest is established, we point parents and children to books that will hook into that interest: humor, history, fantasy, adventure, or non-fiction topics. My work with educators has been mostly around creating summer reading lists. They know the theme for the reading assignments and we work together to come up with lists of books that will appeal to both boys and girls. We still look for those interest hooks: humor, history, fantasy, adventure, and so on.


Chicago, Ill.: Micheal Guiran's study states that boys learn differently from girls and I agree. I am curious as to how to incorporate some of the various types of reading they enjoy into the middle school language arts classroom.

Sharon Grover: I'm not a language arts teacher -- I just like to "hang out" with them -- but my experience in purchasing books that complement various curriculum needs shows me that there are a wide range of materials that can fit into any program of studies. For example, in Arlington, there are several themes for the different middle school grades (survival, adaptation, interaction) and we look for books across all genres that we can put on those lists. Speaking of lists, we get ideas from several different places. Here in this region, we have a group of librarians, teachers, university professors, and editors who compile an annual list called "Capitol Choices." You can view threcommendationsions by going to the Web site: www.capitolchoices.org, where you can search by age level. The Young Adult Library Services Association, a division of the American Library Association also produces great lists of books to use with teens -- and they solicit teen input. Check out their lists at www.ala.org/yalsa.


Chantilly, Va.: I couldn't agree more completely with the idea that reading can be encouraged by appealing to special interests and/or social development. As the mother of a reluctant reader and the selector of children's material for the Fairfax County Public Library, I have a double interest in finding materials for all kinds of interests to encourage reading for the full range of library (or potential) library users. Being able to read, whether one becomes proficient with Captain Underpants or the Newbery winner, is necessary for adult success and reading something sure beats reading nothing.

Sharon Grover: Absolutely! The message that reading anything is better than reading nothing can't be stressed enough. You can only become a proficient reader with practice and comics, graphic novels, and Captain Underpants are great practice material.


Alexandria, Va.: I practically grew up at the local library, but my brother couldn't stand it. Now that he's older, when he does read, he reads non-fiction, which he wasn't exposed to as a child. I don't remember there being much non-fiction in the children's section. Has that changed?

Sharon Grover: There is lots of non-fiction in our children's sections, and the quality of non-fiction for children has increased enormously in the last 5-10 years. I'm not a non-fiction reader (maybe because I'm a girl?) and I'm now often pulled into some of the wonderful material being published these days.


Greenwich, Conn.:

You are so right!! It seems that boys really have a problem with writing, because it involves revealing one's feelings, something that males loath to do. My son scores in the top fraction of a percent in standardized reading scores, but does poorly in writing. His teachers keep telling him to "elaborate."

How can teachers get boys to write when they really don't want to reveal their feelings in their prose?

Sharon Grover: I wonder if boys don't write because their small motor skills are slower to develop than girls'? Boys are much more involved in activities that promote large motor skills and less interested in crafts and puzzles. Of course, boys are very interested in computer games that take a degree of small motor skills. Maybe "writing" on a computer would encourage more elaboration from boys? Not being an educator, I don't really have the answer to this. Perhaps there's an educator reading this who can provide a better answer?


Washington, D.C.: I work for a national children's literacy nonprofit here in D.C. In reading the list of recommended books that accompanied the article, I was curious about the fact that most of the books on the "young readers" list were published several years ago (with the exception of the Mo Willems title).

Do you feel that there are fewer picture books being published now that might interest boys? What about the "David" series (by David Shannon) and "Walter the Farting Dog," to name just a couple of recently published books?

Sharon Grover: I think it's probably just how the list shook out in terms of space. The "David" books are great and here are some others that are fun to use with younger boys:
How I Became a Pirate, by Melinda Long (illustrated by David Shannon
I Stink! and I'm Mighty! by Kate and Jim McMullan
Actual Size, by Steve Jenkins
Dig! by Andrea Zimmerman and David Clemesha (illustrated by Marc Rosenthal)

I always try to alert parents to new books for their children -- we visit preschool parent groups and talk to preschool teachers -- but it would be a shame to stop reading and enjoying some of the older books that stand the test of time. Who would want to lose Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak, which is still loved by children (boys, especially) in that preschool to kindergarten age range.


Sharon Grover: We're getting quite a few questions that need a reading teacher's perspective and expertise. Are there any reading teachers online who would be willing to help answer these questions?

To you parents who have posed these reading process-related questions -- actually to all of you out there -- I would recommend the Reading Rockets Web site, www.readingrockets.org. Reading Rockets is sponsored by WETA, Washington's public television station. It's filled with terrific information for parents and teachers on reading strategies and encouraging reading in many ways. There are also monthly lists of books to use with your kids. I subscribe to their monthly newsletter to make sure I don't miss anything.


East Falls Church, Va.: What do you think of Web resources like John Scieszka's www.guysread.org? Do they help?

Sharon Grover: Yes, yes, yes. Guys Read is a wonderful resource for parents of boys who aren't reading. Jon Scieszka really knows what he's talking about and the recommendations there are right on target.


Chicago, Ill.: I am curious about your opinion on summer reading. I work at a school that requires a certain amount of summer reading materials that correlate with the class for the next year. Do you think this helps in comprehension of the material at hand? Or is this requirement not as helpful as educators may think?

Sharon Grover: You know, there's no consensus on whether summer reading programs are effective, so I can't offer you any definitive empirical evidence. I can only tell you what I believe and have seen demonstrated over the course of my 20-year career as a youth services librarian: if you don't practice, you don't get better. So anything that encourages (or even bribes) kids to keep practicing reading over the summer is worth it.


Arlington, Va.: We love the Arlington County Libraries! I have my favorites from my childhood which are viewed as suspect by my 10-year-old son. However, he has realized that asking the librarian for recommendations has proven wonderfully successful -- Kudos to the Staff at Westover in particular.

This is especially significant in that, as part of his 5th grade homework, he has to write an analysis of a different book each week (the dreaded yet character-building Home Reading Log). Now, at least reading an appropriate and engaging book is not a chore.

Sharon Grover: Thank you for the compliment. I agree that the youth services staff (and all the staff) here in Arlington are enormously dedicated and really know what they're doing! It's so nice to hear it from a customer.


Alexandria, Va.: Dear Ms. Grover, I am a children's book writer. Do you think it matters whether the book's main character is a boy or girl? My husband thinks that if it's a girl, boys won't read it and vice versa. I think a good story stands by itself.

Sharon Grover: Generally speaking, boys seem more attracted to books about boys, and I've rarely met a boy who willingly reads a story without boys in it. On the other hand, boys as well as girls are drawn into books like Lois Lowry's Number the Stars, which proves that good story theory of yours.


Parents' habits: Don't we also need to make sure we set a good example? When kids see adults read as a part of their daily life, aren't they more likely to pick up the habit? Turn off the tube and pick up a book!

Sharon Grover: Yes. And there's lots of research to support modeling as important to developing readers.


Arlington, Va.: This may be beyond your area of expertise, but is there any way to close the reading gap in men once they are beyond the school age? I'm astounded at how many men (women too, but not nearly as many) really don't read anything outside of what's required for work. It seems a waste to while away lazy Saturdays watching bad TV instead of finding joy in a good book -- and it affects their vocabulary and grammar to boot.

Sharon Grover: This is a funny question and my husband will laugh if he's lurking out there...

I always said he thought a technical manual was a good read (not quite true, he reads some adventure and mysteries, too) until we listened to Harry Potter on audiobook. Now he's turned into a fantasy fanatic and a constant listener to audiobooks. We listen together when we're traveling and really enjoy it.


Sharon Grover: I'd like to let you all know that the Arlington Central Library will be hosting author Philip Ardaugh on Tuesday, April 5, from 3:30 to 5 p.m. Mr. Ardaugh is the author of the Eddie Dickens books and the Unlikely Exloits series. His books have great appeal to elementary school kids--boys especially. You can find out more about him at his Web site www.philipardaugh.com and you're all invited to join us for his visit. We'll be posting information about the visit on our own website. Go to www.arlingtonva.us and click on "departments" and then "libraries." We also have booklists for children and teens on our website, so be sure to check it out.


Washington, D.C.: What about what kids read in school? I feel like the majority of english class curriculums were designed forty years ago and the stuff they put on them was already forty years out of date. Maybe if we allowed kids to read things that appeal to their world view, that pull them in, that speak like they do, with curses et al., and I don't mean just the Catcher in Rye, they would read more, they would see reading can have a place in their world. Just an idea.

Sharon Grover: I think we're very lucky here in Arlington. We have a strong collaboration with the school libraries and with the English/Language Arts department and work hard to create a balance of materials used for teaching. Several of our schools have Teachers as Readers programs and actively look for new material to add to the curriculum.


Oxford, Md.: Hello! At what age do children stop enjoying picture books? It seems to me that children are in some ways more mature today but that their reading levels are not. As a book buyer (I'm an aunt and future parent) I see so many books that I loved as a child but the kids today, with TV, etc., do not. The little girls seem to want stories about Barbie, not Babar. Any suggestions without me selling out?

Sharon Grover: A picture book with a good story and wonderful art can appeal to all ages. Also, there is an increasing body of picture books that are aimed at older readers. I know several Barbie-loving girls who can also be enticed with a wonderful, new picture book. Check out some of the websites that have been recommended or, better yet, go ask your local children's librarian for some suggestions.


Chicago, Ill.: I find that boys do comprehend analytic information better than being able to use inference. Are there any techniques that can be used in the classroom, or stressed to use at home, to help develop boys' love of reading?

Sharon Grover: Thanks for the question. Is there a reading teacher in the audience who can answer this?


Purcellville, Va.: Isn't it possible that more and more boys are struggling with reading because schools no longer place much emphasis on teaching phonics? Boys seem to do well when they have rules and reasons for how things work. Math, for instance, is a definite science. There are rules for how numbers work in math and once you grasp those rules you will do well in math. Reading, however, if taught with no rules, appears to boys as nothing more than a guessing game so that each sentence is approached with great anxiety.

Sharon Grover: Here's another great question that ought to be answered by a reading specialist. Anyone out there?


Dunn Loring, Va.: We have an interesting situation in our family -- our oldest son, not quite four, is a precocious reader. We realized he knew many words by sight before his 3rd birthday, and now he is beginning to master phonics. This appears to be a natural ability for him (in other words, we are not "hothousing" him with drills and flash cards), picked up while watching Sesame Street and educational videos.

However, even though he can read a large percentage of the words found in the average preschooler-level book, he generally chooses not to. It's just so much easier to have Mom read the story to him! He'll read me the first couple of pages, then say "Nooooo, YOU say it!" I want to encourage him to further develop his natural ability, but also don't want to "push" him until reading becomes an unpleasant chore. My husband and I are both readers and hope our sons both become lovers of books -- but don't know where the line is between encouraging our son when he feels "lazy" and pushing him too far when he genuinely doesn't feel like reading. What would you suggest?

Sharon Grover: I think you should keep reading to him. Reading aloud to a child isn't just a literary experience. It's time with mom or dad or another grown-up. There's so much more involved than just the reading. Don't stop reading to him until he tells you he'd rather read it himself.


Springfield, Va.: My almost 5-year-old son loves being read to (even chapter books), but he becomes frustrated and silly when I encourage the reading basics (e.g, C-A-T is "Cat" so what is P-A-T?). He is a leftie and also has trouble writing, but has improved since I offer a small reward for each page worked in his workbook. Still I worry about his readiness for Kindergarten. How so you teach boys to read?

Sharon Grover: Try contacting someone at your school system and voice your concerns. They should be able to connect you with the proper resources.


Clinton, Md.: It has been my experience that professional organizations such as the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) have tended to focus more on the gender gaps in math and science and have basically ignored the gaps in reading and writing. Do you think this has contributed to a belief among teachers -- even language arts teachers -- that reading and writing are somehow less important than math and science?

Sharon Grover: I can only answer this from the perspective of an interested onlooker. It seems to me that the gender gap in reading is just being researched and recognized. I think we'll be hearing much more about it the near future.


Sharon Grover: This has been a wonderful discussion. Thanks to the Washington Post for providing this opportunity and thanks to all of you who have participated. Don't forget that your local public library is a fabulous resource for books and information about reading and kids, and take advantage of all the other community resources available through the public schools. Your child's school librarian and reading teacher are people you should know!


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