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Special Learners        < Previous        Next >


Building a Boy's Vocabulary


Q. If it's true that boys are falling behind girls in at least some measurements of academic success, what's the key reason, and what can be done to reverse that trend?


It's all about the words that a boy knows, can spell, and is able to use in written and oral communication. A study by the Rennie Center for Education Research & Policy in Massachusetts indicated that boys are falling far behind girls in measurements of reading success, particularly on standardized tests, because they do not have a good grasp of everyday vocabulary.


The finding is alarming, since the size of one's vocabulary is the single-most important indicator of future success in school and career.


According to the study, "Are Boys Making the Grade?" (, the problem is more severe in large, urban school districts. Sophomore girls scored significantly higher than boys on the top two statewide tests of English, with 46% of the girls and only 36% of the boys in the top two performance levels.


Educators suggest these reasons for the disparity:


n       Mostly female teachers misunderstand normal boys' behavior and treat them as "disruptive" with a punitive attitude, when in fact they are just expressing that normal boyish activity. Boys don't feel as supported and cherished as they should, and so they disengage from the classroom.


n       Mostly female teachers tend to pick stories and novels that are more geared toward the interests of girls, fearing that action-oriented stories might encourage aggressiveness by boys. But the boys, as a result of the mismatch between the reading and their interests, "check out" of reading and miss out on valuable vocabulary-building practice.


n       It's normal for boys to lag behind girls in kindergarten and first grade in terms of handwriting and reading skills, but many teachers act as if they are goof-offs or slow learners, and create anxiety and school refusal.


These problems are thought to be causing huge problems such as the fact that boys comprise two-thirds of the special-education placements, and dropout rates for boys far exceed those of girls.


Suggestions for getting boys more engaged in school, more in to reading, and with bigger and better vocabularies:


n       Limit TV and video games to one hour a day. "Screen time" with electronics is doing more than anything to sharply reduce boys' vocabularies and knowledge bases.


n       Ask your child's teacher what topics he likes to write about; you may be shocked to learn that he writes about nothing other than TV shows and video games. You must put a stop to that!


n       To build your son's vocabulary, take him on one mini field trip or learning activity per week, after school or on the weekend. For example: a museum, the zoo, ice skating, a tour of a gas station, a tour of the Courthouse, etc. etc. Even a trip to the grocery store can be educational. Before, during and after, talk about your shared experience to give him new vocabulary to work with. If this means you're doing laundry and dishes at 10 p.m. one night a week because of giving up your own time for your son, so be it.


n       Parents should work closely with a librarian and bookstore employee to keep quality children's books in your home that appeal to your son's particular interests.


n       Reading encouragement: put up a chart on your refrigerator and give your son a star for every 30 minutes he spent reading. After earning 10 stars, he gets a special treat, like a pizza dinner or having a friend sleep over -- whatever will motivate him. Set a goal of daily and weekly reading and guide him to meet that goal.


n       Work with your child's teacher to get more action-oriented reading assignments that appeal to boys in class, instead of so many descriptive or expressive reading passages, which are more girl-directed.


n       If the right books and stories aren't being assigned in class, it is imperative that a boy's love for reading be fostered with out-of-school selections. Take your son to the library once a week or once every other week, and help him check out adventure stories and other books to read for fun.


n       Parents should maintain an orderly homework space at home for their son, with an expectation of nightly study. Allow frequent breaks since boys do like to move around more than girls do.


n       Parents should not allow their sons to spend all their time out of school on sports and video games; set up your home so that your son will read for fun as well as diligently do his homework, and THEN, if academics and reading are going well, he can invest time in sports and amusements.


n       Schools should be directed to recruit more male teachers, particularly minorities, who understand what boys are into and can select assignments and manage classrooms in a manner more comfortable for boys.


n       Schools might offer all-boys and all-girls schools or classrooms for some or all school subjects. The need for preadolescent and adolescent boys to appear cool and aloof before their peers tends to dissipate in the all-boy environment. Boys feel free to embrace literature and art, while girls in an all-girl setting will get in to science and technology better.


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By Susan Darst Williams Special Learners 17 2009

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