Between Amelia Bedelia and Harry Potter, there is a considerable gap in reading skill — one that many boys have trouble bridging, according to Chautauquan, teacher and author Beth Smith.
Smith’s solution: Alien Dude!, a gross, extraterrestrial superhero, written with simple diction but engaging action. So far, she has written two books in the series, and the third one is being illustrated now.
Smith will speak at 12:15 p.m. today in the Smith Memorial Library about issues of male literacy, particularly among young boys who are too old and sophisticated for entry level reading materials but are not yet reading at their grade level.
“I had a lot of boys who were at the beginning level — even in second grade — some boys who were more at the kindergarten level reading, and I didn’t have any books that they really wanted to read,” Smith said. “When I started, all the books that were for beginner readers … they were books that parents and grandparents would go ‘That’s so cute. Let’s buy that for our beginner reader.’ So the boys were always almost embarrassed to read them, because they were all so cute.”
An increase in distractions, particularly electronic ones, coupled with young boys’ natural inclination for constant movement, is making it increasingly difficult for young boys to become readers, Smith said.
“There are too many other things that are so easy to do,” Smith said. “[Reading] doesn’t become a leisure activity, and it’s hard to get good at reading if you’re not reading for leisure. So we need things that they want to read.”
Science, with a clear end goal and plenty of hands-on learning, is a great tool for teaching this, Smith said. But so is science fiction.
Smith was inspired to write her Alien Dude! series after a lengthy search for engaging, easy literature for young boys turned up few options.
“So I thought, ‘I can do this,’ ” she said. “I can come up with something for boys at the second-grade level, with all the expectations of gross stuff and superheroes and, you know, just kind of boy things — but at a beginner [reading] level.”
Once boys begin reading something like Alien Dude! and realize that books with chapters can be easy to read, they can move on to more challenging works. And Smith is convinced they can, indeed, accept the challenge.
“Just because boys are not performing like girls does not mean they’re not learning, and it doesn’t mean that they’re not as sophisticated in their thinking,” she said. “They just express it in other ways.”
Engaging books may only be part of the solution, though. Smith also emphasized the importance of reading aloud to children and modeling how to think through a book.
“We need to model how to read to our kids,” she said. “And not just out loud, I mean thinking, predicting, reacting, getting angry … talking about it, so kids can see how reading actually goes. Then they know that’s what they’re supposed to do. And then reading becomes a more enriching activity.”