Boys, School, & Reading


We have a simple checklist of morning chores for each of our big kids.  If they complete the chores without having to be reminded 50 million times, they get a check in the box.  If not, they get an X in the box.


Come dessert on Sunday night, we count up the Xs.  No Xs?  Ice cream + 3 toppings for dessert.  The toppings drop off as the Xs increase, until finally at 6+ Xs, you lose the ice cream altogether.

Last Sunday afternoon, as I watched Marie race from her last chore to check off the final box on yet another chart full of perfect rows of checks, I looked at Nathaniel and said, “Just another day in the life of a 6 year old girl!”  Meanwhile the boys were, as usual, scrambling to see if they would get any ice cream this week. You know we don’t have chore charts because of Marie, and she gets a lot of ice cream + toppings out of being the only girl in a family of distractible boys.

Sometimes I get discouraged at how difficult it seems year after year to get this passel of boys to do simple chores efficiently.  So I was pretty interested when I read in Leonard Sax’s Boys Adrift: The Five Factors Motivating the Growing Epidemic of Unmotivated Boys and Underachieving Young Men that the gender gap in shirking chores and wanting to please parents is present in other species too.

Apparently little girl chimpanzees follow their parents around all day and eagerly imitate adult methods of catching bugs to eat.  Little boy chimpanzees?  They won’t sit still, and they won’t be taught.  They spend their days wrestling with each other and figuring out their own ways to catch bugs.

Leonard Sax has a lot to say about the ways boys play, work, and learn, and how our society has become less and less organized in their favor.  From the expectation that kids learn to read in kindergarten (as opposed to 1st grade a generation ago and 2nd grade a century ago) and the elimination of competition from most P.E. programs, school particularly has become a place where many boys are being set up to fail.

At the same time, having recently had one of our boys diagnosed with dyslexia, I’ve also been reading what’s supposed to be a definitive guide to dyslexia–Overcoming Dyslexia: A New and Complete Science-Based Program for Reading Problems at any Level, by Sally Shaywitz.

Dr. Shaywitz and Dr. Sax both mention the high percentage of boys who struggle with and dislike reading, but they have pretty different ideas about how to tackle that problem.  Shaywitz seems to think that diagnosing reading problems at the earliest age possible and beginning intense phonics instruction in kindergarten or earlier if possible will remedy the problem.  She’s very firmly against the practice of “red-shirting” kindergarten-age boys, which means delaying their entry into school an extra year if they don’t seem ready to sit still and learn to read at the age of 5.  Her argument is that boys who struggle with reading at age 5 do not outgrow their difficulty and will never catch up with their peers.

This argument didn’t make a lot of sense to me.  The whole point of keeping a boy back a year is that his parents don’t expect him to catch up with his peers.  They are moving him to a younger peer group.  And anecdotal evidence says that a lot of little boys who aren’t ready for kindergarten at age 5 do just fine if they begin school at age 6.  Otherwise parents, particularly parents with the financial resources to keep their boys home, wouldn’t do this so frequently.  I know that for the gifted and talented program in our neighborhood elementary school, 5-year-old boys have a hard time getting in because there are so many red-shirters (where did that name come from?) testing into the program as 6-year-olds.

We haven’t red-shirted any of our boys because homeschool kindergarten is pretty light (Texas doesn’t even require  kindergarten), and grades don’t really matter in homeschooling until high school anyway.  William is young for his grade but had already taught himself to read by age 5, and Louis and Ben are both old for their grade.  Teddy has an August birthday, so maybe we’ll red-shirt him.  In any case, Dr. Sax is a huge fan of red-shirting and has neurological research behind his argument that most boys are not ready to learn to read as early as girls.

Anyway, there were other reasons I didn’t take to Shaywitz’s book:

While a parent should not become her child’s primary teacher, she can become her child’s biggest helper. … In most instances I strongly caution parents against setting out to teach their child all of the phonics rules or a complete reading curriculum.  Teaching reading is a complex task and one that should be left to a professional.

Now she’s talking here about parents undertaking a complete curriculum after school hours, but to not even mention homeschooling as a plausible alternative for a dyslexic student while going on and on about the need for one-on-one phonics instruction seems pretty silly to me.  And I’ll admit that teaching a dyslexic child to read is a lot harder than teaching a non-dyslexic child, but it’s still not rocket science, which she does compare it to in this book.

I also had to laugh when Shaywitz recommended a particular reading testing program used in the Texas public schools at the time the book was published (2003).  Nathaniel was teaching first grade in a Texas public school while this book was being written, and I will never forget his lamentations over the utter futility of those tests and the mountains of red-tape they required.

I much preferred The Dyslexic Advantage to Overcoming Dyslexia.  And since most dyslexics are boys, I’d recommend Boys Adrift as a big P.S. to both books and as a great resource for any and all parents and teachers.

Linking up with Jessica @ Housewifespice as usual!