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Whose Literacy is Declining
New Frontiers for Classroom Research
Sandra Stotsky, Special to the Valley Patriot

According to the latest assessment of adult literacy in this country, just released by the National Center for Education Statistics in December 2005, the reading skills of American adults have dramatically declined from 1992 to 2003. What is striking is that the decline in literacy skills among the college graduates and those with graduate study or degrees rated “proficient” was confined to males.

The percentage of highly educated males rated “proficient” in all three kinds of literacy assessed (prose reading, document reading, and quantitative reasoning, as defined by NCES) declined. In contrast, the percentage of highly educated females rated “proficient” in the first two kinds of literacy remained the same, and in the third kind increased somewhat.

NCES did not determine whether these men and women were recent college graduates or not. So one immediate response is to find out how younger Americans did. Perhaps they showed an increase, while older Americans showed the decline. Not so. Instead, we find the opposite trend. Those in the age ranges of 18-24 and 24-39 showed on average a decline in two of the three kinds of literacy: prose and document reading.

The NCES study doesn’t show the differences in scores between men and women in these age ranges so we do not know if they declined equally or at different rates. In contrast, those in the two oldest age ranges, from age 50 up, showed increases at both the Intermediate and Proficient levels in all three kinds of literacy. Thus, according to the study, older not younger Americans showed increases in reading skills.

That the decline in reading skills may be more of a young male than a young female phenomenon can be supported by the trend data for almost the identical period of time from two other sources: a 2004 report by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the most recent assessment of high school reading achievement by the National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP). Titled Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America, the NEA report found alarming declines in voluntary literary reading for both men and women between 1992 and 2002.

But, men and women declined at different rates, considerably widening the gender gap in reading by young adults. While book reading by 18- to 24-year-old women slipped from 63 percent to 59 percent, book reading by 18- to 24-year-old men plummeted from 55 percent to 43 percent, triple the decline for women. Similarly, the 2002 NAEP Reading Assessment found the score gap between grade 12 boys and girls greater in 2002 than it was in 1992. Like the NEA results, both genders have lost ground, but males much more than females. From 1992 to 2002, among high school seniors, girls lost two points in reading scores, while boys lost six points, leaving an enormous 16-point differential in their average scores.

At least one possible source of the growing gap needs to be vigorously explored: the content and pedagogy for today’s reading and literature curriculum. It is well known that more boys than girls require remediation in reading, and the numbers have increased over time. It has also been long known that there are strong and consistent differences between boys and girls in their reading preferences and in what they like to write about. English classes are the place where one might expect extensive reading to be assigned and advanced reading skills taught. But they may not be as boy-friendly as they used to be. A “reader response” approach to literary study, the dominant approach in most English classes today, stresses an emotional response, something boys tend not to enjoy.

The growing differences between adolescent boys and girls in their reading skills have prompted the National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB) to approve, in August 2004, a special study of gender differences in reading as part of its new research agenda. This study will examine how different themes, the gender of the main character, and different types of reading material, among other factors, bear upon the relative reading performance of boys and girls. If complementary studies in the classroom can try to find out if the pedagogy that has dominated the reading and literature classroom for three decades or more has gender-related effects, we may finally be able to begin tackling an increasing social as well as educational problem.

Boys have become our most educationally vulnerable demographic group. Although some educators and parents prefer to believe otherwise, the reading problems boys have may not all be traced to neurobiological sources or cultural influences. Females’ reading skills are declining too, but at a much slower rate. If boys’ increasing reading deficits are to some extent attributable to their reading and literature curriculum, that is at least something we can change.

Sandra Stotsky served on the Steering Committee for the new NAEP Reading Framework, adopted by the National Assessment Governing Board in August 2004. She also served on the Grade 4 Advisory Committee for President Clinton’s National Voluntary Reading Test during its brief existence in 1998.
You can email Sandra Stotsky at
Sstotsky@aol.com

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The February, 2006 Edition of the Valley Patriot
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