Year after year, boys continue to fall behind girls in reading skills. In this opening interview for the BSA’s Literacy Matters campaign, New York Times bestselling author of 25 books, child philosopher, and co-founder of the Gurian Insitute Michael Gurian tells why—and how—we can help reverse the trend.
Watch as Gurian discusses how to raise readers with the help of the BSA’s new Literacy Matters campaign.
SCOUTING: The Boy Scouts of America recently asked you to write a position paper for its upcoming Literacy Matters campaign on the state of literacy among young boys. Why?
MICHAEL GURIAN: The BSA recognizes that this is a really big issue. Males are a year and a half behind females in reading, writing, and language learning. Literacy touches character development; it touches emotional intelligence, social intelligence. So I think that’s why they’re saying, “Let’s figure out how Boy Scouts can help,” because the BSA has access to all these volunteers who could have a profound mentoring effect on the literacy development of kids.
SCOUTING: Just how far behind are American boys compared to their female classmates?
M.G.: We think a lot about girls being behind in science. That gap is 3 percent. But the boys’ literacy gap is 10 percent. The gap remains profound and shows up when we see dropout rates. In classes that involve reading and writing, boys are getting two-thirds of the D’s and F’s. So that’s really significant. Then if you add racial and socioeconomic subgroups, like boys of color, the gap can be as high as 20 percent.
SCOUTING: Some of this stems from neurological differences between boys and girls, right?
M.G.: Exactly. The male and female brains are formatted differently in utero. They come out this way, so girls not only have more access to centers for words, but they’re also connecting words to their feelings and their memories and senses.
SCOUTING: That’s nature. You’ve written there are three components to this child-development process. What are the other two?
M.G.: Nurture and culture. The nurturing system is what I call the “first family” (the people very close to the boy) that nurtures the nature of this child. This nurturing system should read to him a lot and have him read aloud a lot. Some boys are adept readers and writers, but if a particular boy is not, the nurturing system has to pay very close attention to developing these skills.
SCOUTING: And the culture?
M.G.: If there aren’t books around the house, if the group doesn’t think reading is cool, and this boy doesn’t go over to a friend’s house where there are a lot of books, that culture is going to have trouble nurturing this guy’s brain to read and write. So the neurology starts them out behind. Then the nurture doesn’t understand and thinks, “Oh, they’ll pick it up later,” but maybe they won’t; and the culture is saying, “Don’t read.” And when you have malnutrition, that’s a socioeconomic issue that affects brain development.
SCOUTING: OK, so how can the BSA help?
M.G.: The great thing about what the BSA is going to do is raise awareness and attention, so that volunteers, parents, and teachers will have more awareness that there is something neurological going on here. We need to be aware, and we need to read the signals.
SCOUTING: What are some of those signals?
M.G.: Let’s say you have a son who when you ask him, “OK, Johnny, do you want to read a book or a magazine,” and every time you ask him he says no. That’s a signal. Or if parents see their kid spending six or more hours a day in front of screens but only maybe 15 to 20 minutes in front of a book or a magazine or a comic book, that’s a signal.
SCOUTING: And what are the consequences of ignoring those signals?
M.G.: Boys need to be literate. They need to be able to read the pill bottle. They need to be able to read what they need to read in order to succeed in the workplace. If not, I think we are going to see an increase of what we’re seeing now. We’re going to see more dropouts. We’re going to see more males who can’t get jobs. We’re going to see more males in prison and juvie. Literacy can equal success, so that you can take care of your family and become the man you want to be. That’s why I think the BSA is smart to see literacy as a part of character development and success development.
SCOUTING: And the importance of reading starts early, right?
M.G.: Definitely. It’s a big brain-development thing. Do we put that little 1-year-old in front of a screen for two hours so that his brain connects five or six synapses, or should we read aloud to him for a half-hour? You know that’s going to connect thousands of synapses for memory, senses, and feelings. It’s not just about getting better at words. It’s also about developing the brain so that he can be a more full human being.
SCOUTING: Let’s go into the mind of a parent. Say she noticed her son isn’t enjoying reading. How soon is too soon to worry?
M.G.: That depends on that boy’s brain. Everyone’s brain develops at different times, so they ought not worry if their 4-year-old is not reading. Figure out who this boy is. If they are worried, they can talk to a professional and get an assessment.
SCOUTING: We’ve read that so much depends on finding that right book. How does a parent find something his or her son will like?
M.G.: Look for stuff that’s active and, for the younger guys, stuff that’s visual. This often means there is a quest that has a goal, and there’s a lot of activity in the quest. There will be some fighting. It may have some gore, and that’s fine. That doesn’t hurt anybody; it just keeps these guys interested. All of these types of stories will show guys performing well, guys becoming men, guys growing up, or guys winning.
SCOUTING: What happens if a boy wants to quit reading a particular book?
M.G.: Well, that depends on the situation. If this is a homework assignment, he needs to finish it. The boy has a commitment to perform well at school—character development will relate to that. But if it’s something he picked up for entertainment, or his mom or dad bought for him, I wouldn’t worry about it. We don’t want the guy to hate reading.
SCOUTING: But there’s a limit, right?
M.G.: Yes. If this boy gets to Page 30 and stops 30 or 40 times, you need to start looking at ADD or a learning disability. Otherwise, this is actually great. Being discerning is a wonderful thing.
SCOUTING: We’ve talked a lot about parents and teachers so far. Where does the Scout volunteer come in as part of a mentor or role model for reading?
M.G.: I think Scouting is perfect for this because it’s set up with these rankings that promote literacy and brain development. When the BSA first called me, I was excited to hear the plan to make this a training and awareness piece for volunteers. You’ve got to get volunteers to understand that they have a profound mentoring role.
SCOUTING: What comes after awareness and training?
M.G.: Then, the volunteers need to model it. They may want to have guys around a campfire bring a book or pass a book around and read. Just make reading more a part of what they are doing—of course with topics the kids like.
SCOUTING: What are some practical ways to get reading into pack and troop meetings or outdoor events?
M.G.: Fifteen minutes around a campfire is a good start. It’s got to become part of the mentoring culture. It has to become ritualized to some extent. If it’s just sporadic it may not feel as important to the kids. We adults love to sit on the back porch or by a river and read a book. Why not bring that joy to these young guys when they’re out in nature?
SCOUTING: But we’ll have a wide range of reading levels within an individual unit. A Boy Scout troop might have 12-year-olds and 17-year-olds sitting side by side. What then?
M.G.: That’s actually great. Human beings are pack animals, and we mentor one another multigenerationally. So it’s fine to have an 11-year-old and a 7-year-old. The 11-year-old will become a reading buddy to a 7-year-old, and that will organically happen.
SCOUTING: Organically, meaning no adult intervention?
M.G.: A lot of this is based on these volunteers getting some kind of training so that they know how to do it. But if they know how to do it, it will organically happen. If not, the leader is trained to do some directing. If he sees a lonely 12-year-old who feels he’s bad at reading, he has to help that guy attach to this 16-year-old or 17-year-old. Let the older ones take over.
SCOUTING: How can Boys’ Life magazine serve as a tool to pique boys’ interest in reading?
M.G.: Boys’ Life, at so many levels, is just perfect for this. One, the magazine’s integrated into Scouting, so it’s set up around the advancement system. The challenge is getting the volunteers to encourage the kids and their families to subscribe and see the benefits. (On this special BoysLife.org page, you can find a list of features and fictional narratives published in previous issues of Boys’ Life—perfect to bookmark and use when reading with your Scouts.)
SCOUTING: What will they see?
M.G.: They’ll see that the visuals in it are really good. That there are stories about rafting trips and things that are active. They’ll see heroes, and that’s what these boys want as they try to become men. Boys’ Life has comics. It has jokes. It’s perfectly set up for the diverse interests of a diverse group of boys.
SCOUTING: Are there some specific strategies for how leaders can make reading the magazine a priority?
M.G.: Use Boys’ Life as the thing the boy is going to need to read for 20 minutes. Let’s say we have a reluctant reader, and he’s 7. He’s going for TV and video games, but he’s not reading. That worries us, and it should. We need a tool. We could go get him Harry Potter, but that might be too complex for him. So why don’t we just give him Boys’ Life? He can read one of the articles aloud with his parent, trading off paragraphs. The parent can also use it for a discussion about something active. Take an article on a baseball player who made a tough choice. At dinner, you talk to your son and say, “Did he do the right thing, or did he not do the right thing?” That’s active use of the magazine as a mechanism. So you’re using Boys’ Life for critical thinking.
SCOUTING: Could those kinds of discussions happen at troop meetings, as well?
M.G.: Absolutely. And with troops, they can act it out. Give them a Boys’ Life story and give them a half-hour to act it out. Kids just love this in schools, and there is no reason that volunteers can’t do it.
SCOUTING: So reading doesn’t have to be sedentary?
M.G.: No. A boy can carry the book with him while he paces, or, if someone’s reading to him, he can walk around or roll on the floor. Any place where he could integrate the book to physical movement is great. His nature is to run around at age 7, and reading feels to him like not running around. We need to integrate it with movement.
SCOUTING: Where do tablets and e-readers fit in?
M.G.: That depends on the kid. If you have a boy who’s already a good reader, and he’s doing well socially, emotionally, etc., he’ll most likely figure things out himself. It’s the reluctant reader that I am more interested in talking with parents about boundaries, such as how long is he actually reading? Is he really reading that Harry Potter on there, or is he doing something else? If he’s reading, then the tablet is having the same effect as a book. When we say screen time, generally we’re worried about passive activities like games.
Bryan Wendell is Scouting magazine’s Senior Editor. And John R. Clark is Scouting magazine’s Managing Editor.
Michael Gurian’s books have dug deep into the minds of children and young adults, but what about those in the second half of life?
In his latest book (right), The Wonder of Aging: A New Approach to Embracing Life After Fifty, Gurian offers an in-depth look at the complexities of aging. He uses scientific research and real-world anecdotes to depict life after 50 as an enormously fruitful, exciting, and fulfilling time.
The book divides our later years into three stages: The Age of Transformation, from late 40s to 60; the Age of Distinction, from 60 to 75; and the Age of Completion, from 75 on. If you find yourself celebrating your 50th birthday and searching for what’s next in life, The Wonder of Aging will help you make the most of the years ahead.
Find The Wonder of Aging ($29.99, Atria Books) online or in stores this June.