Harvard Educational Review
  1. Engaging Boys in Active Literacy

    Evidence and Practice



    In improving communication skills and allowing access to information and new technology, literacy competence is the foundation of children's personal and professional flourishing as they grow into adults (Richmond, Robinson, Sachs-Israel, & Sector, 2008). In recent years, unfortunately scholars have pointed out that boys are facing a literacy "crisis": boys, especially adolescent boys of color and those from disadvantaged backgrounds, are faring significantly worse than their peers in reading (Mead, 2006). For example, in 2012 adolescent boys in the United States scored thirty-one points lower than girls on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), with boys of color from low-income families representing the lowest-performing students (Brozo & Crain, 2015; Schleicher & Ramos, 2016). How, then, can we help these boys read better?

    In Engaging Boys in Active Literacy: Evidence and Practice, William G. Brozo, a longtime educator of young boys and an avid advocate of their literacy development, presents his answer. Drawing on research findings from North America and Europe, and in particular from reports on international literacy assessments such as PIRLS (Progress in International Reading Literacy Study) and PISA, Brozo argues that the solution to this literacy crisis is fostering a "healthy reading identity" (p. 43) from an early age. Children with healthy reading identities believe in their own competence as readers and thus are motivated to read. Cultivating such an identity, Brozo argues, should be among the primary goals of reading instruction for boys if the literacy crisis is to be solved. Brozo calls on educators, parents, and researchers to move beyond traditional reading practices (e.g., reading through a curriculum designed without primary reference to students' reading preferences) in classrooms for boys. He urges readers to remember that what educators present to young male readers should be based on the "experiences, needs, and goals" (p. 141) that could foster their motivation to read and create "a context for literacy and language growth" (p. 139). He emphasizes the importance of developing high motivation in boys for reading and of "know[ing] and learn[ing] to value adolescent boys' interests and literate practices beyond the school walls" (p. 33).

    Throughout his book, Brozo calls on educators to take into account boys' individual interests and desires as well as the cultural and social contexts around them. Following the introductory chapters, which identify the nature and gravity of the literacy crisis facing young boys, chapters 3—7 discuss various factors that play a critical role in shaping adolescent boys' reading identity: an understanding of masculine identity, socioeconomic background, immigration and language status, engagement and motivation, technology, and new literacies. Brozo presents research findings that point to the role of each of these factors and describes in detail practices that he has found to be promising and useful in engaging boys in reading and developing their literacy skills. For example, he recommends using the "My Bag" strategy to get to know individual boys' interests: students are invited to place items into a bag that would "showcase their strengths, loves, hobbies, and dreams" (p.123), and by discussing items in the bag, educators can learn about the immigrant students and introduce them to reading materials that would interest them personally. He also presents a "Cross-Age Reading Buddies" program as a way to involve boys of different ages and different backgrounds to engage in meaningful reading activities by following a "learning-by-teaching model" (p. 104). Furthermore, while cautioning against excessive and uncritical use of information and communications technology, Brozo invites educators to take on a "multiple literacies perspective" (p. 160) and to validate digital texts and other technology-based literacy activities within classrooms as meaningful ways to engage boys in opportunities to learn literacy skills and think critically about the content they read.

    Educators who work with teenage boys could take the strategies and pedagogical tools presented in the book as a useful starting point for their students. Although the suggestions are presented in connection to supporting male readers, all teachers will find the programs and tools—such as increasing opportunities to engage with texts that are meaningful to youths' own lives—useful in working with readers of all genders. However, because the practices presented in the chapters seem to require extra effort on the part of the teachers (e.g., getting to know individual students' interests and tailoring reading activities to a variety of interests), teachers will need to put in the time and effort to further adapt the recommendations to make them feasible, which may be especially tricky in schools where necessary resources and support to experiment with innovative ways of teaching are not available. Further discussion of varying contexts of implementing such programs and practices, as well as teachers' reflections on such instructional approaches, would have been helpful for fellow educators in readily implementing these tools in their respective classrooms.

    Despite this concern, Engaging Boys in Active Literacy adds research-based knowledge and practice-based strategies to the toolkit for educators and researchers in the search for more effective ways of supporting boys to find meaning in reading--both in the act of reading and in the content of the reading. With continued effort and collaboration among educators and researchers to support boys' literacy development, Brozo notes that we will one day be able to ensure that all boys "receive responsive literacy texts and practices to increase their chances for academic, personal, and occupational success" (p. 25).

    So Yeon Shin


    Brozo, W. G., & Crain, S. (2015). Schooling in United States: What we know from international assessments of reading and math literacy. In H. Morgan & C. T. Barry (Eds.), The world leaders in education: Lessons from the successes and drawbacks of their methods (pp. 37--60). New York: Peter Lang.

    Mead, S. (2006). The truth about boys and girls. Washington, DC: Education Sector.

    Richmond, M., Robinson, C., Sachs-Israel, M., & Sector, E. (2008). The global literacy challenge. Paris: UNESCO.

    Schleicher, A., & Ramos, G. (2016). Global competency for an inclusive world. Paris: Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Retrieved from www.oecd.org/education/Global-competency-for-an-inclusive-world.pdf

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